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Ivy Main: Why Virginia’s “an important next target” For the Natural Gas Industry

"This legislation hands a cudgel to the gas industry and developers to override a legitimate local land use decision."

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By Ivy Main; cross-posted from Power for the People VA

Gas stoves have been in the headlines a lot recently. On the heels of a study quantifying their contribution to childhood asthma, Consumer Product Safety Commission member Rich Trumka, Jr. issued a tweet suggesting the agency might take them off the market, a comment he later walked back.

Too late: cue the outrage from the right. “If the maniacs in the White House come for my stove, they can pry it from my cold dead hands,” tweeted Rep. Ronny Jackson, R-Texas. A number of people tweeted back that they were eager to see this happen, but then it turned out no one in the White House actually wants to ban gas stoves, anyway.

What kind of stove you use might seem an odd contender for a culture war issue, but the outrage beast needs constant feeding. The ranting leaves no time for anyone to point out that electricity powers the great majority of U.S. stoves, methane gas isn’t even an option in much of the country, and — eh — we Americans don’t really cook that much, anyway. If we were arguing over microwave ovens, more of us would have a dog in this fight.

But the mere fact that you never gave your stove much thought before does not excuse you from taking sides now. If you are a Democrat, you must drool over induction stoves, even if you aren’t sure what they are or how they work. If you are a Republican, you must support burning fossil fuels in the kitchen and weep for the plight of Michelin-starred chefs whose restaurants you can’t afford to go to (and indeed, many of whom have been won over by induction, the ingrates).

One of the difficulties the gas industry faces in politicizing stoves is that it wins over the wrong people. An Energy Information Agency map shows the percentage of households that cook with gas is highest in a bunch of blue states like California and New York, and lowest in the deep-red South and the Dakotas.

The reasons are pragmatic, not political. Gas utilities in rural states like North Dakota are much less likely to have invested in the expensive network of distribution pipelines needed to bring service to far-flung communities. The rural geography problem affects much of the South as well, but weather is a factor, too. Since furnaces, not cookstoves, are the big fuel users, the relatively warm winters of the South make it a less lucrative market than the colder North. Thus, electricity dominates heating as well cooking in southern states.

If gas companies have chosen not to serve areas where they would make less money, who can blame them? On the other hand, with gas furnaces increasingly unable to compete with more efficient heat pumps, they now risk losing their northern customers to electric alternatives. Either they sit and stare into the abyss of an all-electric future in which they are obsolete, or they have to do what they can to slow their inevitable decline.

And so they set out to convince state legislatures to prevent local governments from barring new gas hookups in their communities, as many left-leaning cities have been doing in the interests of climate and health. Gas stove diehards are the industry’s unwitting (and sometimes witting) poster children.

On the face of it, the gas industry has been successful: at least 20 states controlled by Republican legislatures have enacted gas ban preemption laws. Sadly for the gas utilities, the wins have occurred in those southern and rural states where they don’t have as much business to protect anyway.

That’s what makes Virginia an important next target. Almost one-third of Virginia households are customers of natural gas utilities, and only a handful of rural Virginia counties have no gas service at all. There is certainly room for growth. Yet a number of urban and suburban localities have adopted climate goals that call on their governments to lower greenhouse gas emissions. The gas industry fears these localities may decide banning new gas hookups could be one step towards the goal.

The risk seems slight. Virginia is a Dillon Rule state, meaning local governments have only the authority delegated to them by the General Assembly. Given the difficulty Virginia localities have had even getting authority to ban single-use plastic bags (they still can only tax them, not pry them from your cold, dead hands), it seems unlikely they would seek, or get, authority to ban new gas hookups any time soon.

Indeed, when the General Assembly first considered legislation to preempt gas bans last year, the focus was on the City of Richmond and the incompatibility of the city’s 2050 carbon-neutrality pledge with its continued operation of its own gas utility. The city itself didn’t seem to be thinking that far ahead, and climate activists have since complained that Richmond is more intent on upgrading its gas infrastructure than in phasing it out. Still, the gas industry had a target to point to.

The House was willing to adopt the full gas preemption ban, but a Senate committee reworked the legislation to focus on the problem at hand. The law that passed imposed a requirement that any municipality with a gas utility notify its customers and put the utility up for sale before exiting the business. All parties pronounced themselves satisfied, declared victory and went home.

This year the gas industry has no threat to point to but is nonetheless again trying to get the preemption bill passed. The bill language includes a kind of culture war code term, a declaration that “energy justice” means you have the right to buy gas if you can afford it and the gas company has the right not to supply you if you can’t, or if serving you isn’t profitable for the company.

The better description for this, surely, is the free market, which is quite distinct from justice. So, is it justice or merely irony that even if it were to pass, many Republicans who voted for the bill still wouldn’t get gas service for their constituents because serving rural areas is not in the interests of the industry?

As it did last year, the Republican-led House has passed the industry’s bill along party lines. In the Democratic-controlled Senate, though, matters get interesting. This year the gas industry secured a Senate patron, Democrat Joe Morrissey. Though Morrissey is hardly popular in the party, he is still at least one Democratic vote for the bill in a closely divided chamber.

It seems obvious enough that the preemption ban is on the wrong side of history, at a time when our burning of fossil fuels is already causing climate chaos. It’s also not going to stave off the inevitable for long. Building electrification will continue. Over time, more consumers will choose heat pumps and induction stoves over methane gas, not for political reasons but for health reasons and because the technology is better.

But if we agree the gas industry will lose out in the end, is it really a big deal if Virginia localities are barred from doing something they don’t seem to have authority to do anyway?

Well, actually, yes. Even if Virginia localities can’t make a blanket prohibition on new gas connections, it’s not hard to imagine that a locality might choose to reject a particular gas connection to a particular construction project or subdivision where the gas line would cross parkland or wetland, or be problematic for some other very specific, very local and very legitimate reason.

Virginia’s balance of power has always recognized that land-use decisions should be made at the local level. This legislation hands a cudgel to the gas industry and developers to override a legitimate local land use decision.

For that, legislators should have a better reason than taking sides in a culture war.

 

This article was originally published by the Virginia Mercury on February 7, 2023.

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