Why the government will have to come for your gas stove someday

OPINION: Berkeley, California, has restricted the connection of some new homes to natural-gas lines. It’s the kind of policy that governments need to start thinking about — so why is Ontario going the other way?
By John Michael McGrath - Published on Jul 30, 2019
Natural gas burner turned on
Natural gas is the cleanest of the fossil fuels, but it’s still a hydrocarbon, and burning it releases carbon dioxide into the atmosphere. (iStock/adisa)

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Infrastructure outlives us all. Roads built by Roman armies in Britannia form the backbone of the United Kingdom’s highway network several empires later. Modern cities depend on infrastructure choices made decades or even generations ago. In Toronto, every aspiring urban planner knows the story of the Prince Edward Viaduct, which was built with a rail deck underneath it well before the Bloor-Danforth subway had been proposed or funded; that deck (constructed in the 1910s, forgotten, then pressed into service for trains in the 1960s) shaped the city for decades.

It’s one thing to look back at these examples and marvel at the wisdom of the ancients. But the same principle can guide our decisions now — and that’s where the city of Berkeley, California, comes in.

Earlier this month, it became the first city in the United States to ban the connection of new commercial and residential buildings to natural-gas lines. (The ban is currently partial and will work in concert with other state regulations that are being developed.) Natural gas is the cleanest of the fossil fuels, but it’s still a hydrocarbon, and burning it releases carbon dioxide into the atmosphere. It also leaks (the inevitable result of thousands of kilometres of pipes), creating more greenhouse-gas pollution — a new study published in the journal Science says that U.S. cities are leaking twice as much methane as previously believed.

Add to all of that the fact that the current abundance and affordability of natural gas is due largely to the shale-fracking boom in the U.S. — which produces its own environmental issues — and you’ll find serious reasons to discuss ending the construction of new natural-gas-burning homes and businesses, or at least limiting them.

Instead, Ontario is going in the other direction: the Tories under Doug Ford and the Liberals under Kathleen Wynne agreed on almost nothing, but both are enthusiastic supporters of expanding natural-gas service to rural areas of Ontario. The Liberals supported expansion through tax dollars; the Tories make urban gas consumers subsidize their rural cousins. But neither questioned the basic idea.

Ontario is not California, and there are reasons that this northern province is not going to abandon a cheap form of heating fuel any time soon — if they’re not obvious now, they will be in January. But there was a specific reason that natural gas became politically popular here: under 15 years of Liberal rule, the price of electricity went up and up (and up). Homes and businesses forced to rely only on electricity (most of them in rural areas) were paying more to stay warm in the winter than people who had natural gas (most of them in large urban areas).

The Liberals couldn’t undo more than a decade of electricity-cost increases, so they backed natural-gas expansion in an attempt to offset some of the harm high hydro prices had caused — even though doing so undermined their own climate-change policies. The Tories don’t particularly care about Liberal climate-change policies, but they care a great deal about rolling out better infrastructure — including natural-gas hookups — to rural areas. Who says parties can’t find common ground?

In this case, the fact that infrastructure outlives us all is a problem. Every consumer added to the natural-gas network tomorrow could end up being a carbon-dioxide emitter for decades to come. Which is why the decision in Berkeley is so important and why other governments will undoubtedly follow suit. The rule of holes is that when you’re in one, stop digging — and when it comes to climate policy, “stop digging” means that, at some point, we have to stop building new homes and offices that pollute in all the same ways the old ones do.

The peculiarities of Ontario politics make this a difficult proposition for now. There are clear regional haves and have-nots, and it’s easy for people (like me) who have relatively cheap winter heating to talk about the need to wean society off fossil fuels while others wear multiple layers instead of turning on their baseboard heaters. Maybe we can set up an arrangement whereby urbane foodies give up their gas stoves so that folks in rural areas can heat their homes.

But climate change doesn’t care about Ontario’s intra-provincial political divides: it’s coming for us all anyway. The good news is that, every year, it gets easier and easier to build homes without natural gas. The “all-electric home” is a growing share of the market in the U.S. (because everything old is new again). At some point, some level of government is going to have to start restricting the sale of new gas-fired homes and appliances. It would all be easier if Ontario’s low-GHG electricity were cheaper, but as things stand, refusing to take climate action because our hydro bills are too high amounts to holding a gun to our own heads and demanding that someone else pay a ransom.

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