Commentary

Michael Shank: Getting off fossil gas

Editor’s note: This commentary is by Michael Shank, of Brandon, who is communications director for the Carbon Neutral Cities Alliance and adjunct faculty at New York University’s Center for Global Affairs.

This month witnessed the launch of the first-ever “Gas Index,” which ranks American metropolitan areas on the leakiness of the gas supply chains that service their cities. This new index – in which Burlington ranks in the middle – takes into account methane leakage across the full life cycle of fossil gas, from oil and gas production areas, to gas transmission pipelines and distribution within cities. 

This is a critical contribution to the climate action agenda. Any serious effort to cool the planet requires getting off fossil gas, about 95% of which is methane. Not only is methane responsible for air pollution that causes premature deaths and significant respiratory problems, it’s much more powerful than carbon dioxide in its global warming effects. After methane leaks, it’s over 80 times more potent than carbon dioxide in its ability to warm the planet. 

That’s why the timing of the Gas Index is important. As President-elect Joe Biden’s administration plans to reenter the United States into the Paris Climate Agreement, this index will help Biden’s administration identify where to start in tackling the growing methane problem in America, reducing greenhouse gas emissions, and saving lives. 

So, which American metropolitan areas are the leakiest? 

Based on data available for leakage rates for residential and commercial use, measured across the whole life cycle, it’s the following: The urban areas of Indianapolis, Los Angeles, Phoenix, Miami and Oklahoma City rank the highest in terms of the rate of methane leakage, while New York, Philadelphia, Pittsburgh, and New Haven and Hartford, Connecticut, rank the lowest in leakage rates.

Keep in mind that while cities are named in the ranking, it’s the industries and utilities controlling the infrastructure — the production areas, transmission, distribution, gas meters, and buildings — that are ultimately responsible for the leaks. While many of these leaks can and should be fixed in the short term, the real fix is in getting off gas entirely, electrifying our buildings, and powering that electricity with clean energy – which is what Carbon Neutral Cities Alliance members are now prioritizing. 

The health benefits of doing so are significant.

When gas is extracted from the ground, burned in power plants, or burned directly in buildings, human health is compromised. People who live close to gas wells, as one example, experience an “increased incidence of childhood leukemia, asthma attacks, congenital heart defects, low birth weight, and preterm birth.” But we also know that emissions from commercial and residential heating and cooking are responsible for some of the 200,000 premature air-pollution-related deaths each year in the U.S. 

Additionally, gas-burning stoves and ovens create indoor air pollution, with nitrogen dioxide — a toxic gas — rising to dangerous levels, three times what the Environmental Protection Agency has approved for outdoor air. And as Rocky Mountain Institute researchers documented, indoor air pollution from gas stoves is particularly detrimental to children, leading to learning deficits, increased risk of asthma, aggravated respiratory systems, increased susceptibility to lung infections and allergens, and cardiovascular effects.

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By electrifying our heating and cooking, then, and powering it instead with clean energy, not only would we see a sizable reduction in greenhouse emissions, we’d be able to save American lives. And in Vermont, electrifying all households would lead to $973 million in savings per year, or $3,603 per household, according to a new report by Rewiring America. For all of these reasons — including the security risk of exploding gas pipelines — cities across the U.S. are taking bold action to get off fossil gas. 

San Francisco announced last month, for example, that they’re banning gas in new buildings starting next year, following in the footsteps of other California cities, such as Berkeley, San Jose, Mountain View, Santa Rosa and Brisbane. As the gas industry responds by ratcheting up its fight against such life-saving efforts by municipalities, lawmakers across U.S. cities are considering similar bans.

Going forward, it’s imperative that we prioritize Americans’ health over industry interests and the Gas Index shows where that work is needed most. No amount of industry angling – claiming that fossil gas is “natural” and a bridge that’s somehow better than other fossil fuels – can cover up the fact that methane is hurting our health and our efforts to keep global warming in check. Electrifying buildings, so that heating and cooking is cleaner and healthier, is the answer. That’s the only bridge to a cleaner future and cooler planet.


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