The Gas Utility Industry is Gaslighting Us

by

During my first decade in Washington, D.C., my windows were caked with soot from the diesel buses that ran up and down my street. So when I found a place to live just a few blocks away on a street without buses, it was a relief. What I didn’t know is that my health was still at risk—from indoor pollution.

Thanks to a recent test conducted by my local Sierra Club chapter, I learned that the nitrogen dioxide (NO2) emissions from the hoodless gas stove I’ve been cooking on for the last 30 years in my poorly ventilated galley kitchen exceed the Environmental Protection Agency’s maximum safe level of 100 parts per billion (ppb) for a one-hour exposure outdoors. (There is no EPA standard for indoor air.)

The highest level the Sierra Club’s air quality monitor detected when my oven and two burners were on was 103 ppb, but even at low concentrations, NO2 irritates the upper respiratory tract and lungs, and longtime exposures have been associated with chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) and childhood asthma.

Fortunately, I don’t have COPD and I didn’t contract asthma when I was young, perhaps partly because I grew up in a home with an electric range. But other Washingtonians may not be as lucky. While less than 40 percent of households nationwide cook on a gas stove, 62 percent of households in Washington do. Perhaps not coincidentally, a higher percentage of adults in the District suffer from asthma than in all of the 50 states, and the prevalence of asthma among children under 18 in the nation’s capital is second only to that of kids in Mississippi. 

Certainly, gas stoves are just one source of air pollution in the District. But a study published in the December 2022 issue of the International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health calculated that gas stoves are responsible for 12.7 percent of childhood asthma cases in the United States, comparable to the risk posed to children by secondhand smoke. The situation is even worse in some states. According to the study, gas stoves trigger more than 20 percent of childhood asthma cases in California and Illinois, and nearly 19 percent in New York. The study concluded that these childhood asthma cases could have theoretically been prevented by using electric appliances.

I was not fully aware of this issue until roughly a year ago, when I wrote a column about it, and I’ve been working for environmental organizations for 25 years. No doubt, the fact that gas stoves are hazardous to our health was also news to most Americans. What accounts for that?

Fifty Years of Disinformation

It’s no longer a secret that the US oil industry was well aware as early as 1957 that its products threaten the climate. As we now know, fossil fuel companies lied about it for decades to protect their profits. Thanks to exemplary spade work by news organizations and advocacy groups (including my organization, the Union of Concerned Scientists), we have known about the industry’s duplicity for at least 20 years.

Less known is the fact that the gas utility industry has been engaged in the same kind of deceit. According to an October 2023 report by the Climate Investigations Center (CIC), a nonprofit watchdog organization, the industry has been gaslighting us by promoting the idea that “cooking with gas” is a good thing, despite knowing as far back as 1970 that gas stoves pose a threat to public health and the environment.

Now that there is a desperate need to slash global warming emissions worldwide to avoid the worst consequences of climate change, it is critical to rapidly phase out the use of all fossil fuels. That would of course include fossil gas, which consists of 85 to 90 percent methane, a significantly more potent heat-trapping gas than carbon dioxide.

A 2022 study found that gas stoves leak methane, and more than three-quarters of the emissions occurred when the stoves were off. Meanwhile, a 2023 study in Environmental Research Letters concluded that as little as 0.2 percent of gas leaking from the gas production and delivery system would make gas as bad as coal for the climate—and it turns out the leaks are worse than that. The EPA estimates that about 6.5 million metric tons of methane leak from the oil and gas supply chain each year—approximately 1 percent of total gas production—five times more than the 0.2 percent threshold.

In my town, gas accounts for 23 percent of global warming emissions, according to the District’s Department of Energy and the Environment. But gas emissions are likely much higher when accounting for leaks, which are widespread in the Washington metro area system.

Public health also hangs in the balance. Gas stoves, which are in 38 percent of US households, not only emit methane, but also toxic pollutants besides NO2 that are associated with respiratory ailments and cancer. A 2022 study in Environmental Science and Technology detected more than 20 volatile organic compounds, including hexane, toluene and benzene, in unburned stove gas.

In spite of all of the data, the American Gas Association (AGA), the industry’s leading trade group that represents more than 200 investor-owned gas utility companies and their suppliers, contends there is no problem. It maintains that gas stoves are a “minor source” of NO2 and dismisses the mounting evidence that gas stove emissions contribute to asthma and other respiratory illnesses.

Following the Disinformation Playbook

The gas utility industry, which won over the public with its cooking with gas campaign in the 1930s, found itself at a crossroads in the late 1960s when sales of electric ranges outpaced gas stove sales for the first time. In 1969, AGA launched a million-dollar advertising campaign (worth $8.45 million in today’s dollars) in response to recapture the market, which was especially critical given gas stoves function as a “gateway” appliance. If a new home has a gas stove installed, homeowners are more likely to buy other big-ticket gas appliances—a furnace, a water heater, a clothes dryer—which use a lot more gas than a stove.

Just a year later, however, the industry encountered a potentially major obstacle: A study conducted by the government’s National Air Pollution Control Administration found a link between outdoor NO2 exposure and childhood respiratory problems. The lead author of that study, Dr. Carl Shy—who spoke with NPR last fall for an article based on the CIC report—recalled that when he met with gas industry representatives after publishing the study, they conceded that gas stoves emit NO2 and that hood vents were not strong enough to remove it.

Shy’s study provided a shining example of the threat posed by industrial pollution that galvanized public attention in the late 1960s and led to the first Earth Day in April 1970. Given that heightened awareness, a Commerce Department advisory committee of electric and gas utility executives acknowledged at a meeting in the fall of 1970 that their industry needed “to show what they are doing about pollution [and] suggested that the gas industry take a look at the NOx [nitrogen oxides] problem.”

Since then, however, the gas industry—much like the oil industry—has cribbed heavily from the tobacco industry’s playbook to block government regulation by manufacturing doubt about the reality and seriousness of its “NOx problem.” Its main tactics include funding studies that magnify uncertainties in health research to create confusion about the science, running deceptive public relations campaigns, and creating front groups that spread disinformation to protect—and expand—the industry’s market share.

Attacking Credible Science

Since the 1970s, the gas industry has been commissioning epidemiological studies—whose authors often failed to disclose their funding source—that find no association between gas stove emissions and respiratory illness. As the CIC report describes in painstaking detail, these studies were designed to call into question the results of a growing number of studies that have discovered such a link. Many of the private labs and scientists the industry has commissioned, including Battelle Laboratories in the 1970s and the Arthur D. Little consulting firm in the 1980s, had previously done contract work for the tobacco industry for the very same purpose—to poke holes in studies that found that its products are hazardous by insisting that those findings were “inconclusive” or “invalid” and that more research was needed.

This gas industry tactic continues today. Just last year, AGA contracted with Gradient Corporation—a scientific consulting firm with a history of downplaying the health threat posed by toxic substances on behalf of its industry clients—to examine past studies that investigated the link between gas stoves and respiratory problems. Predictably, Gradient’s review, published last December in Global Epidemiology, concluded that the evidence presented in previous studies was insufficient.

Running Misleading PR Campaigns

Funding its own research is just one of the PR tactics the gas industry borrowed from the tobacco industry, the CIC report pointed out. Other tried-and-true tactics it appropriated include publicizing any information showing it in a positive light and disseminating the results of its research to legislators, regulators, journalists, health professionals, and other opinion leaders.

Where did the gas industry pick up the finer points of PR disinformation? From the very same firm that orchestrated Big Tobacco’s campaign in the 1950s and 1960s to sow doubt about the link between smoking and cancer: Hill & Knowlton.

Successful PR campaigns also require advertising, and the gas industry has spent generously. Its 1969 million-dollar ad campaign, for instance—called the “most ambitious advertising and marketing program [it has] ever undertaken”—featured commercials on the three television networks and ads in the top mass-circulation magazines of the day, including Life, Reader’s Digest and Better Homes & Gardens

In recent years, the gas utility industry has embraced social media to make its pitch. Working with Porter Novelli and other PR firms, AGA and its sister trade group, the American Public Gas Association (APGA), which represents municipally owned gas utilities, have been paying social media influencers hundreds of thousands of dollars to tout the benefits of gas stoves and other appliances in their posts.

Since May 2018, AGA also has spent more than $113,000 on 440 Facebook and Instagram ads. The Consumer Energy Alliance, whose 350 members include AGA and 78 other fossil fuel producers, suppliers and trade associations, has spent considerably more. Disingenuously calling itself the “voice of the energy consumer,” the group paid more than $700,000 for some 2,300 Facebook and Instagram ads over the same time period. Last August and September, the group posted a series of ads warning that EPA efforts to rein in methane emissions may mean “higher costs for your household” and “unintended consequences for every American family.”

Gas utilities have likewise launched their own social media campaigns. Southwest Gas, for example, sponsors influencers on Facebook, Instagram and TikTok to reach potential customers in Arizona, California and Nevada, according to the Energy and Policy Institute, a watchdog group that monitors the oil, gas and utility industries. One Southwest Gas-funded TikTok spot featured an influencer in her kitchen parroting gas industry talking points while frying eggs on a gas stovetop. She then went on to rave about her gas clothes dryer and fireplace. The spot did not disclose who paid for it, but the influencer’s Instagram profile included a link to the Southwest Gas website.

Hiding Behind Front Groups

Some local governments across the country have responded to the climate crisis by changing their building codes to ban gas hookups in new homes and buildings. In 2019, Berkeley, California, became the first city to initiate such a ban, but a federal appeals court in San Francisco overturned a lower court decision in a case brought by the California Restaurant Association, ruling that federal energy efficiency standards preempt the ordinance.

Although Berkeley agreed to repeal its ban last month, nearly 100 cities and counties have passed similar ordinances, and another 35 cities and counties now require “electric readiness” so newly constructed buildings can easily switch to all-electric appliances. How the appeals court ruling will affect those initiatives is not clear.  

Not surprisingly, AGA applauded the court decision, calling it a “huge step” toward helping the nation “continue on a path to achieving our energy and environmental goals.”

Besides getting a favorable ruling in what may prove to be a pivotal case, gas utilities have succeeded in lobbying legislators in at least 24 states to pass laws blocking cities and counties from banning or restricting new gas hookups. Likewise, they have been busy shoring up their markets. In addition to paying social media influencers to hawk gas appliances, gas utilities operating in 17 states have been offering builders cash and free vacations to install gas appliances in new homes, according to a December 2023 Guardian investigation.

At least partly in response to the Berkeley gas ban, gas utilities in more than a dozen states also have set up front groups to promote gas as “clean, reliable and affordable,” denigrate renewable energy, and oppose gas bans and other climate solutions, the Energy and Policy Institute has reported. Southern California Gas Company, for instance, surreptitiously launched a phony grassroots group called Californians for Balanced Energy Solutions in 2019. New Jersey Gas, New Jersey Natural Gas, and the Newark-based Public Service Enterprise Group joined forces with local business associations to create Affordable Energy for New Jersey in 2020. And in 2022, Atmos Energy, Black Hills Energy, Summit Utilities, and Xcel Energy were among the founders of Coloradans for Energy Access.

Since May 2018, 15 of these state and regional front groups spent $3.6 million on more than 14,000 Facebook and Instagram ads. The top spender, Natural Allies for a Clean Energy Future, paid more than $1 million for some 2,000 ads. Founded in 2020 with a war chest of more than $10 million, its members include the Interstate Natural Gas Association of America; gas pipeline companies Kinder Morgan, TC Energy, and Williams Companies; liquefied natural gas exporter Cheniere Energy; and Southern Company, owner of gas utilities in Georgia, Illinois, Tennessee and Virginia.

The result of all this activity? Notwithstanding initiatives to ban new gas hookups, the industry’s 50-year disinformation campaign has thus far paid off. The federal government has yet to set a stringent standard for toxic gas stove emissions, and the percentage of new single-family homes across the country with an installed gas stove has jumped from less than 30 percent in the 1970s to nearly 50 percent in 2021.

Federal Agencies Fail to Protect the Public

The federal government has been aware of gas stove pollution issues for decades. Remember, that 1970 study identifying a link between outdoor NO2 exposure and respiratory problems in schoolchildren that so alarmed the gas industry was conducted by the National Air Pollution Control Administration, which predated the EPA. Throughout the following decades, epidemiologists worldwide continued to find an association between gas stove emissions and respiratory illnesses, as documented by the CIC report. In addition, some clinical trials examining the impact of NO2 on human volunteers under controlled conditions found pronounced increases in “airway resistance” even at low levels of NO2 exposure. Regardless, industry-funded studies have generated enough controversy over the conclusions of government and independent studies to hold regulators at bay. The EPA finally introduced a much-delayed 1-hour exposure limit for outdoor NO2 in 2010, but there is still no comparable standard for indoor exposure.

The most recent attempt to address toxic gas stove emissions at the federal level came in January 2023, when Richard Trumka Jr., one of five members of the US Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSC), touched off a firestorm of protest. He said his agency, which regulates dangerous household products, should consider banning new gas stoves, calling them “a hidden hazard.”

The blowback, mainly from Republicans on Capitol Hill, was immediate. “Democrats are coming for your kitchen appliances,” warned Arkansas Sen. Tom Cotton. “I’ll NEVER give up my gas stove,” exclaimed Texas Rep. Ronny Jackson, a former White House physician. “If the maniacs in the White House come for my stove, they can pry it from my cold dead hands.”

Two days later, CPSC Chair Alexander Hoehn-Saric issued a statement clarifying the agency’s position, explaining that the agency is not planning a ban but is investigating ways to curb toxic stove-related emissions. In March 2023, Trumka followed through, issuing a “request for information” (RIF) on gas stove emissions and possible solutions, a potential first step in regulating the appliances. In the RIF announcement, he pointed out that it was “not the first time CPSC has considered the health effects of chronic exposure to emissions from home appliances, particularly nitrogen dioxide.” He listed five examples, from 1982 to 2017, when the agency took up the topic, but each time it refrained from issuing a gas stove regulation.

Supporters of CPSC taking action often cited the December 2022 International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health (IJERPH) study that found that 12.7 percent of childhood asthma cases in the United States “is attributable to gas stove use.” In rebuttal, AGA and APGA cited a 2013 Lancet study investigating the association between different cooking fuels and childhood asthma in 47 countries. The study found that open fire cooking increased the prevalence of asthma, but failed to find an asthma link with gas.

However, according to a co-author of that Lancet study, environmental epidemiologist Bert Brunekreef, the study is an outlier. “You can always find a study that doesn’t find an effect,” he told E&E News in January 2023, “but you have to look at the combined effect of all the studies to reach a conclusion.” The way AGA cited it, he added, is “not a good use of our study.” 

Brunekreef also pointed out that the December 2022 IJERPH study linking asthma to gas stoves is “entirely based on” a 2013 meta-analysis he co-authored that reviewed more than 40 research papers. It found that, in “children, gas cooking increases the risk of asthma and indoor NO2 increases the risk of current wheeze.”  

Regardless, AGA sent CPSC a 97-page comment that dismissed Brunkreef’s 2013 meta-analysis and cited his anomalous 2013 Lancet study to bolster its argument.

By the time CPSC closed its comment period on gas stoves in May of last year, it had received more than 9,000 comments. About 30 percent of them were apparently generated by a template letter AGA promoted in ads on Facebook, according to the Energy and Policy Institute. The sample letter, the group said, cited Brunekreef ‘s 2013 Lancet study.

There is no way to gauge how much influence AGA’s campaign has had, but since last May, there has been no word from the agency. When contacted recently, a CPSC spokesperson said that “no regulatory action is planned, and any such action would require a vote by the full commission, which has not expressed support for any regulation.”

A federal agency did issue a new regulation for gas stoves recently, but it was the Department of Energy—not the CPSC—and it focused on reducing energy use, not toxic emissions.

In late January, the DOE—which is required by law to periodically update appliance efficiency standards—announced a relatively modest new energy-efficiency regulation for new gas and electric stoves. The standards, which will go into effect in 2028, will affect only 3 percent of gas stoves because 97 percent already meet them today. The standards will have a bigger impact on electric stoves. Nearly a quarter of them currently on the market would not be in compliance.

DOE projects that the standards will save Americans approximately $1.6 billion on their utility bills and reduce carbon dioxide emissions by nearly 4 million metric tons over 30 years, roughly equivalent to the combined annual emissions associated with 500,000 US households’ combined energy consumption. But will the new standards appreciably reduce gas stove emissions of NO2, methane or volatile organic compounds? No.

The new standards for both gas and electric stoves will only cut an estimated 7,610 tons of NOx and 34,700 tons of methane over a 30-year period, according to a DOE spokesperson. Those estimates, he said, not only include “end use” emissions from cooking on a gas stove, but also emissions from the entire fuel cycle, from extracting fuel to generating electricity. The agency, he added, did not specifically calculate emission reductions for NO2 or volatile organic compounds.

So, it is still up to the CPSC, which has been investigating the threat posed by indoor NO2 emissions for more than 40 years, to follow the science and do something to ensure new gas stoves are safe. But what about the 47 million US households (including mine) cooking with gas today? We can lower our health risk by opening our windows while cooking, using exhaust fans and air purifiers, and switching to electric kettles, pressure cookers, toaster ovens and microwaves. Or, better yet, we can take advantage of government incentives and replace our gas stoves—and other gas appliances—with electric ones, which would protect our health and the climate at the same time.

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