A number of cities are reviewing legislation to limit the use of natural gas amid evidence that leaking unburned gas may harm the climate more than carbon dioxide
By Valerie Volcovici and Nichola Groom
WASHINGTON / LOS ANGELES September 9 (Reuters) – Dozens of cities in liberal-inclined states such as California, Washington and Massachusetts are studying proposals to ban or restrict the use of natural gas in commercial and residential buildings. The movement opens a new front in the fight against climate change that can affect everything from heating systems in skyscrapers to stoves in suburban homes. Berkeley, California, became the first U.S. city to pass an ordinance banning gas systems in new buildings in July, and it can soon be followed by many others, according to interviews with local officials, activists and industry groups. Los Angeles and Seattle are among those considering laws that could drastically reduce natural gas consumption.
"Berkeley is the opening ointment," said Bruce Nilles, CEO of the Think Tank Rocky Mountain Institute for Building Electrification Program.
Local officials and environmentalists cite evidence that unburned gas leaking from pipes and compressor stations harms the climate more than carbon dioxide, the by-product of burned fossil fuels.
Many environmentalists until recently regarded natural gas as "bridge fuel" for a future with renewable energy because gas burns cleaner than oil or coal. Now, local officials are entering what they call a federal regulatory vacuum under the administration of President Donald Trump, who argues that fossil fuels unnecessarily harm the economy.
They want buildings to be switched to electrical power from a grid that is increasingly powered by renewable energy. US utilities currently derive about 35% of their gas power, but have also nearly doubled their use of renewable fuel over the past decade, from 9% to 1
Residential and commercial buildings account for about 12% of US greenhouse gas emissions, according to the Environmental Protection Agency. They are also crucial to natural gas sales: Direct gas consumption amounted to about 8.45 trillion cubic feet in 2018, which is equivalent to 10.63 tcf of utilities used to power the grid, according to the US Energy Information Administration (EIA).
If gas bans in buildings become widespread, they could boost the business models of some of the world's largest energy companies, investing billions of dollars to produce and send more natural gas in the belief that fuel will play a key role in the transition to a cleaner energy economy. Major gas producers including Exxon Mobil https://corporate.exxonmobil.com/en/Energy-and-en Environment / Energy-resources / Natural-gas, Shell https://www.shell.com/energy-and-innovation/natural gas / providing-more-and-cleaner-energy.html, and BP https://www.bp.com/en/global/corporate/sustainability/climate-change/natural-gas.html, argues that gas improves environment by replacing dirty fuel like coal.
Natural gas companies frightened by the trend are pushing back with advertising campaigns and research promoting gas as a superior cooking fuel and a reasonable alternative in a country that has become the world's top gas producer.  "We're trying to get ahead of it," said Stuart Saulters, director of government affairs at the American Public Gas Association. "We think there's a chance this could dominate."
The American Petroleum Institute, which represents the US oil and gas industry, rejects claims that natural gas is bad for the environment, and claims that its increased use has helped cut US carbon emissions. Spokesman Reid Porter said the industry also limits methane emissions with improved leakage prevention technology, citing data https://www.epa.gov/ghgreporting/ghgrp-petroleum-and-natural-gas-systems#2017-subsector from the Environmental Protection Agency shows a decline in recent years.
LOS ANGELES, SEATTLE, MINNEAPOLIS RETHINK NATURAL GAS
Nilles, of the Rocky Mountain Institute, said that about 50 municipalities in California are studying new natural gas boundaries in buildings, including Silicon Cities in the valley area such as Palo Alto, Sunnyvale and San Jose, the country's 10th most populous city. Los Angeles set a goal in April to operate all buildings with renewable energy by 2050, starting with new buildings by 2030.
Last week, San Luis Obispo became the second city, after Berkeley, to pass a law restricting gas installations in new buildings. Kate Harrison, the Berkeley council member who led the city's gas ban, said she has been contacted by dozens of cities studying similar measures in states including Massachusetts and Minnesota.
Officials in the Boston suburb of Brookline, for example, will vote in November on a measure to ban gas connections in new buildings. In Minnesota, three-quarters of the state's home heating – largely gas-powered – would have to convert to electricity to meet the state's 80% reduction in carbon emissions by 2050, according to a report by the McKnight Foundation, a philanthropic organization.
New York City in April also passed a bill requiring buildings of more than 25,000 square feet to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 40% by 2030 – a standard that is expected to reduce natural gas use.
Seattle City Council Member Mike O. & Brien is working on legislation to prohibit gas connection in new buildings. The fuel, he said, "is odorless and invisible, but has a huge impact on the climate."
HOT SHOWERS AND CRACKLING FIRES
The American Public Gas Association's ad campaign targets 25- to 44-year-old homeowners with revenues in excess of $ 75,000, according to a slide show about it seen by Reuters. It has Facebook and Instagram ads showing people enjoying hot showers, cooking on gas stoves and relaxing by a fireplace. Campaign Director Saulters said it was one of the group's most expensive promotional work to date, without specifying the cost.
In July, a group called Californians for Balanced Energy Solutions – formed by Sempra Energy unit SoCal Gas – held a press conference with Restaurant Owners in Southern California favoring gas stoves.
"We need immediate, really strong fire," said Charles Lu, the owner of a Chinese restaurant chain who participated in the event. "Otherwise, I think it will kill the business."
Wealthier homeowners can also resist the electrification of kitchens and fireplaces, according to Nic Dunfee of environmental consultancy TRC Companies Inc, which oversees an incentive program to rebuild homes in the wildfire. Sonoma County. Developers are pushing back the proposed electric oven mandates, he said at a recent meeting with California energy regulators.
"They do not feel that they are able to sell a home that does not have natural gas cooking," he said.
(Additional reporting by Scott Disavino in New York Editing by Richard Valdmanis and Brian Thevenot)
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