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Keepers of the flame vs. climate change reduction: Gas bans worry cooks – The Christian Science Monitor

Natural gas emissions contributing to the problem of global warming are small compared with emissions from the largest polluters –  transportation and electricity production. But dozens of cities from New York to San Francisco are banning gas hookups in new construction in an effort to get to zero emissions from future buildings. 

Some of the noisiest reactions seem to be from those passionate about cooking with gas. Their culinary angst – along with reaction from advocates of fuel choice – has sparked a blowback of bans on the bans. Some localities and 19 states have passed laws to prevent restrictions on new natural gas connections.

Why We Wrote This

Cities nationwide are banning new natural gas hookups in favor of clean energy sources, creating culinary angst for those who love gas cooking. It’s one reason many locales are banning the gas bans.

“With all the progress that we’ve made over the last 10 years or so in terms of changes to the electrical grid with the shift away from coal, it’s now becoming the case that the next sector that should be the obvious target of policies to reduce emissions” is natural gas, says Jonathan Buonocore, research scientist at Harvard University’s T.H. Chan School of Public Health.

Nora Singley, a professional food stylist, downplays the concern. Even though she prefers the control of heat that gas gives her in the kitchen, “it would just be a period of acclimating,” because there are good gas-free electric ranges.

Washington

Humans have been cooking with fire for millennia. But, with concerns over greenhouse gas emissions rising, some cities are banning natural gas in the kitchens of the future, and creating a policy dilemma: Can we slow global warming and still eat well?

Dozens of jurisdictions from Brookline, Massachusetts, to San Francisco have moved to ban new gas hookups for heating and cooking, and New York City last month brought its heft to the trend, setting restrictions on fossil fuel usage in new buildings by phasing in emissions limits beginning next year.

Culinary angst over the bans among those who find flame cooking superior has sparked a blowback of bans on the bans. Some localities and at least 19 states have passed laws to prevent municipalities from restricting new natural gas connections. Also behind these actions: gas-industry lobbying for “energy choice” and broader legislative tussling along party lines.

Why We Wrote This

Cities nationwide are banning new natural gas hookups in favor of clean energy sources, creating culinary angst for those who love gas cooking. It’s one reason many locales are banning the gas bans.

“With all the progress that we’ve made over the last 10 years or so in terms of changes to the electrical grid with the shift away from coal, it’s now becoming the case that the next sector that should be the obvious target of policies to reduce emissions has changed,” says Jonathan Buonocore, research scientist at Harvard University’s T.H. Chan School of Public Health. Natural gas is now a key target, he says.

Pollution and safety concerns

Methane, released from natural gas systems, accounts for about 3% of all U.S. greenhouse gas emissions, a pollutant that contributes to climate change, according to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. Concerns also exist about natural gas as an indoor air pollution source.

A clean energy advocacy group, RMI, estimates that by 2040, the New York City bill could eliminate the equivalent amount of a year’s worth of emissions from 450,000 cars.  

While the natural gas contribution to the emissions problem may seem small compared with emissions for transportation (the largest contributor), those places instituting gas hookup bans are only banning use of gas in new construction. In California, for example, 26 jurisdictions have passed laws to require “all-electric” construction, including Berkeley, Oakland, and San Francisco, though some exceptions to “all-electric” exist for commercial cooking.

“You build a new building and it’s there for 50, maybe 100 years,” says Mark Specht, a senior energy analyst at the Union of Concerned Scientists. The idea behind the NYC ban and similar bans in California is simple, he adds. “If you put in the infrastructure for gas hookups, then you run the risk of locking in continued gas use for decades and decades down the road.”

Restaurant chefs mount some of the strongest objections to the gas bans, even though they will still be able to use gas in buildings where hookups already exist.

“If you want to start a restaurant that uses natural gas sources for cooking, there are lots and lots of buildings in New York City that can accommodate,” says Amy Turner, senior fellow at the Sabin Center for Climate Change Law at Columbia Law School, “just not brand new buildings.”

Still, the model from the nation’s largest city could be “hugely influential” for other cities and states looking to enact similar legislation to slash emissions, Ms. Turner says. (And New York Gov. Kathy Hochul this month announced her support for a statewide gas ban.)

SOURCE: S&P Global Market Intelligence

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Jacob Turcotte/Staff

“You just couldn’t have the menu that we have [without gas],” says Tony Palermo, co-owner of Tony P’s Dockside Grill in Marina Del Rey, California. A chef for more than 50 years, he likes the way the gas burners can sear a steak, cook it evenly, and provide reliable heat.

U.S. census data suggests that gas fuel for cooking is used in about 40% of American homes, and those most vocal about it suggest how powerfully a cultural tradition like cooking can come to bear on public policy. Many may see the larger picture of environmental responsibility of reducing emissions from natural gas used to heat buildings or to power electrical production, but some objections at the grassroots level boil down to the attachment to cooking over fire.  

The taste for flame-kissed food is ancient

“Our tastes have been shaped through the generations by food cooked by direct flames,” Willow Mullins, professor of folklore and ethnology at the University of Edinburgh in Scotland, explained in an email interview. “As a result, there’s a cultural distrust towards other ways of cooking in which we can’t see the fire, even if we know they work.”

One of those other ways, powered by electricity, is the precise but pricey induction range.

Ms. Mullins adds that even when those other forms of cooking are used, “we still go looking for signs of the kiss of flame, the char on meat, the crunch of bacon, the Maillard reaction. It’s so ingrained, that sous vide cooks will add it later with a kitchen torch.”

“It would just be a period of acclimating” for gas cooking aficionados because there are good gas-free electric ranges, suggests Nora Singley, a professional food stylist who splits her time between California and New York and prefers the controlled heat gas cooking offers.  

For some amateur chefs, like Beth Beeman, a San Clemente, California, resident who doesn’t have a gas hookup, cooking on a gas stove is appealing. “Don’t get me wrong, I’m very supportive of environmentally sensitive and friendly actions,” she says. “From a cooking perspective, I would give my right arm to have a gas stove.”  

“There’s certainly a lot of allure to gas stoves,” says Stephen Pantano, chief research officer at CLASP, a nongovernmental organization focused on the climate benefits of efficient appliances and an amateur chef himself, who cooks on electric. But, even beside the new laws, individuals, too, have a role to play.   

“It needs to be more in the forefront of people’s awareness because it’s something much like the car where people have personal decisions to make that can really make a big difference over time,” he says.

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