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Page added on February 11, 2021

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How the Fossil Fuel Industry Convinced Americans to Love Gas Stoves

Consumption

In early 2020, Wilson Truong posted on the NextDoor social media platform—where users can send messages to a group in their neighborhood—in a Culver City, California, community. Writing as if he were a resident of the Fox Hills neighborhood, Truong warned the group members that their city leaders were considering stronger building codes that would discourage natural gas lines in newly built homes and businesses. In a message with the subject line “Culver City banning gas stoves?” Truong wrote: “First time I heard about it I thought it was bogus, but I received a newsletter from the city about public hearings to discuss it…Will it pass???!!! I used an electric stove but it never cooked as well as a gas stove so I ended up switching back.”

Truong’s post ignited a debate. One neighbor, Chris, defended electric induction stoves. “Easy to clean,” he wrote about the glass stovetop, which uses a magnetic field to heat pans. Another user, Laura, was nearly incoherent in her outrage. “No way,” she wrote, “I am staying with gas. I hope you can too.”

What these commenters didn’t know was that Truong wasn’t their neighbor at all. He was writing in his role as account manager for the public relations firm Imprenta Communications Group. Imprenta’s client was Californians for Balanced Energy Solutions (C4BES), a front group for SoCalGas, the nation’s largest gas utility, working to fend off state initiatives to limit the future use of gas in buildings. C4BES had tasked Imprenta with exploring how social media platforms, including NextDoor, could be used to foment community opposition to electrification. Though Imprenta assured me this NextDoor post was an isolated incident, the C4BES website displays Truong’s comment next to two other anonymous NextDoor comments as evidence of their advocacy work in action.

The NextDoor incident is just one of many examples of the newest front in the gas industry’s war to garner public support for their fuel. As more municipalities have moved to phase gas lines out of new buildings to cut down on methane emissions, gas utilities have gone on the defensive, launching anti-electrification campaigns across the country. To ward off a municipal vote in San Luis Obispo, California, during the pandemic, a union representing gas utility workers threatened to bus in “hundreds” of protesters with “no social distancing in place.” In Santa Barbara, California, residents have received robotexts warning a gas ban would dramatically increase their bills. The Pacific Northwest group Partnership for Energy Progress, funded in part by Washington state’s largest natural gas utility, Puget Sound Energy, has spent at least $1 million opposing heating electrification in Bellingham and Seattle, including $91,000 on bus ads showing a happy family cooking with gas next to the slogan: “Reliable. Affordable. Natural Gas. Here for You.” In Oklahoma, Arizona, Louisiana, and Tennessee, where electrification campaigns have not yet taken off, the industry has worked aggressively with state legislatures to pass laws—up to a dozen are in the works—that would prevent cities from passing cleaner building codes.

The industry group American Gas Association has a website dedicated to promoting cooking with gas.

There’s a good reason for these Herculean efforts: Suddenly, the industry finds itself defending against electrification initiatives nationwide. And the behind-the-scenes lobbying is only one part of its massive anti-electrification crusade: Gas companies have launched an unusually effective stealth campaign of direct-to-consumer marketing to capture the loyalty and the imaginations of the public. Surveys have found that most people would just as soon switch their water heaters and furnaces from gas to electric versions. So, gas companies have found a different appliance to focus on: gas stoves. Thanks in large part to gas company advertising, gas stoves—like granite countertops, farm sinks, and stainless-steel refrigerators—have become a coveted kitchen symbol of wealth, discernment, and status, not to mention a selling point for builders and realtors.

Until now, the stove strategy has been remarkably successful. But as electrification initiatives gain momentum, gas companies’ job is getting harder. Now that the industry is getting desperate, parts of its public relations infrastructure have begun cooling on this once-hot client.

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Gas connections in American houses are at an all-time high. The share of gas stoves in newly constructed single-family homes climbed from below 30 percent in the 1970s to around 50 percent in 2019 (the data obviously excludes apartment buildings). Today, gas usage for heating, water, and cooking is uneven across the country. Data shows 35 percent of Americans use a gas stove, though in some of the most populous cities—particularly those in New York, Illinois, and California—well over 70 percent of the population relies on gas for cooking. Residences also make up the lion’s share of the gas utility profits, making gas appliances a pivotal source for the future of industry growth.

Yet the popularity of gas may soon begin to wane. Americans are waking up to the fact that natural gas is a powerful contributor to climate change and source of air pollution—and that’s not even counting gas pipelines’ tendency to leak and explode. Climate emissions from gas and oil-powered buildings make up a full 12 percent of US greenhouse gas emissions. Just a couple of decades ago, electricity wasn’t the obviously cleaner choice. Now it’s the main strategy for cleaning up stubborn sources of pollution. If homes are fully electric, they’re bound to rely increasingly on renewable energy sources like solar and wind, but every new home that connects to the gas grid today will still be using fossil fuels in 15 years, no matter how much we clean up the electricity sector.

Already at least 42 municipalities across the United States have strengthened building codes to discourage expanding gas hookups in new construction, and the pace is picking up. New York City may soon join that number, while Seattle has settled for a compromise that bans gas appliances in commercial and multifamily homes without technically banning the stove in new construction. In 2021, Washington state will proposed that bans gas furnaces and heating after 2030. California regulators have faced pressure to pass the most aggressive standards in the nation to make all newly constructed buildings electric by 2023. Biden’s campaign promised to implement new appliance and building-efficiency standards. Even with all the gas industry lobbying on the state level, more stringent federal rules could motivate builders to ditch the gas hookups for good in new construction.

The dangers of gas stoves go beyond just heating the planet—they can also cause serious health problems. Gas stoves emit a host of dangerous pollutants, including particulate matter, formaldehyde, carbon monoxide, and nitrogen dioxide. Carbon monoxide poisoning is a known killer, which homeowners assume can be prevented with detectors. But new research shows that the standard sensor doesn’t always pick up potentially dangerous carbon monoxide emissions—if a home even has working sensor at all. Nitrogen dioxide, which is not regulated indoors, has been linked to an increased risk of heart attacks, asthma, and other respiratory disease. In May, a literature review by the think tank RMI highlighted EPA research that found homes with gas stoves have anywhere between 50 and 400 percent higher concentrations of nitrogen dioxide than homes without. Children are especially at risk, according to a study by UCLA Fielding School of Public Health commissioned by Sierra Club: Epidemiological research suggests that kids in homes with gas stoves are 42 percent more likely to have asthma than children in homes with electric stoves. Running a stove and oven for just 45 minutes can produce pollution levels that would be illegal outdoors. One 2014 simulation by the Berkeley National Laboratory found that cooking with gas greatly increase carbon monoxide pollution by adding up to 3,000 parts per billion of carbon monoxide into the air after an hour—raising indoor carbon monoxide concentrations up to one-third for the average home.

Shelly Miller, a University of Colorado, Boulder, environmental engineer who has studied indoor air quality for decades, explains that household gas combustion is essentially the same as in a car. “Cooking,” she adds, “is the number one way you’re polluting your home. It is causing respiratory and cardiovascular health problems; it can exacerbate flu and asthma and COPD [chronic obstructive pulmonary disease] in children.” Without ventilation, “you’re basically living in this toxic soup.”

Over the last century, the gas industry has worked wonders to convince Americans that cooking with a gas flame is superior to using electric heat. Gas companies have urged us not to think too hard—if at all—about what it means to combust a fossil fuel in our homes.

The gas and electric industries have been in a tug-of-war for dominance in buildings for well over a century. In the early 1900s, gas utilities looked “to other uses for their product; hence the intensive campaign in favor of cooking with gas,” a 1953 newspaper story from the Indiana Terre Haute Tribune reported. The story explains that “gas salesmen knocked on many doors before housewives would turn to gas for cooking fuel.” The industry embraced the term “natural gas,” which gave the impression that its product was cleaner than any other fossil fuel: A 1934 ad bragged, “The discovery of Natural Gas brought to man the greater and most efficient heating fuel which the world has ever known. Justly is it called—nature’s perfect fuel.”

 

In the 1930s, the industry invented the catch phrase “cooking with gas,” and by the 1950s it was targeting housewives with star-studded commercials of matinee idols scheming how to get their husbands to renovate their kitchens. In a newspaper advertisement by the Pennsylvania People’s Natural Gas Company in 1964, the star Marlene Dietrich vouched, “Every recipe I give is closely related to cooking with gas. If forced, I can cook on an electric stove but it is not a happy union.” (That was around the same time General Electric waged an advertising campaign starring the future president Ronald Reagan that showed an all-electric house as the Jetson-like future for a modern home.) In 1988 the industry produced a cringeworthy rap about stoves. “I cook with gas cause the cost is much less/ Than ‘lectricity, do you want to take a guess?” and “I cook with gas cause broiling’s so clean/ The flame consumes the smoke and grease.”

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Beginning in the 1990s, the gas industry faced an extra challenge: the mounting evidence that gas in our homes causes serious health problems. Its main strategy has been to exploit the lack of regulation and the uncertainties of science to help lull the public into indifference. Environmentalists say the strategy harkens back to how the tobacco industry fought evidence of the dangers of smoking.

The industry claims that there are no documented risks to one’s health from gas stoves, citing the lack of regulation from the US Consumer Product Safety Commission and the EPA as evidence of why the public shouldn’t be concerned. (To be clear, the EPA has not said gas stoves are safe. Indeed, its 2016 Integrated Science Assessment was the first time the agency linked short-term and long-term exposure to nitrogen dioxide to health problems like asthma. UCLA public health researchers found that indoor nitrogen dioxide emissions from running a stove and oven can rival that from outdoor levels the EPA would consider illegal. Indeed, UCLA data shows California’s biggest source of NO2 emissions comes not from power plants, but from gas appliances.)

The industry also claims that proper ventilation mitigates some of the risks of cooking with gas. That’s true, but mostly impractical: Many American families can’t afford to install an exhaust hood, a chimney-like vent that sucks up the emissions and releases them outside, and there’s certainly no regulation requiring it. Instead, most homes just have fans above the stove that recirculate the polluted air inside the home, or nothing at all. Because of dated building codes and the unregulated market, low-income Americans have to put up with gas filling their homes with invisible pollutants in cramped spaces.

In the last couple of years, the industry has encountered increasing resistance to its claims that natural gas is perfectly safe. Last June, I published a piece that exposed how gas groups representing utilities hired social media influencers to convince millennials and Gen Xers that gas stoves are the superior way to cook. The two main campaigns are the work of the gas trade groups the American Public Gas Association, a collection of public and municipal utilities, and the American Gas Association, which is comprised of privately owned utilities. These groups have hired prominent public relations firms to seek out influencers who emphasize—and whose presence embodies—the cool factor of gas cooking while mentioning none of the risks. In fact, in the posts I reviewed, none of the influencers appeared to have a hood over their stoves, or even to mention ventilation. I knew I had caught the industry’s attention with the story when many of the Instagram posts embedded in the piece were soon deleted, and I started receiving long, mostly unsolicited emails from the industry’s various consultants.

I didn’t know how they had reacted to the negative press until I read a trove of emails obtained through a public records request by the fossil fuel watchdog Climate Investigations Center. According to the emails, representatives from the public relations firm Porter Novelli reached out to their client American Public Gas Association, which then asked gas execs at several utilities, if its campaign should be paused in light of the backlash. The answer was a definitive no. “They should not stop for even 1 hour,” one utility executive, industry veteran Sue Kristjansson, replied in an email. “And….if they are saying that we are paying influencers to gush over gas stoves so be it. Of course we are and maybe we should pay them to gush more?”

The emails show gas executives debating their next move: Some thought they should tell the influencers to emphasize guidance around proper ventilation for gas stoves; others, including Kristjansson, wanted to downplay the risks posed by gas stoves altogether. Kristjansson worried that giving even an inch to the critics would be the same as admitting defeat. “If we wait to promote natural gas stoves until we have scientific data that they are not causing any air quality issues we’ll be done,” Kristjansson wrote.

(Since she sent those emails, Kristjansson has moved on to become the president of Berkshire Gas in Massachusetts. When I reached her for comment about her dismissal of the science, the utility sent me a statement on her behalf, repeating familiar claims: “The science around the safe use of natural gas for cooking is clear: there are no documented risks to respiratory health from natural gas stoves from the regulatory and advisory agencies and organizations responsible for protecting residential consumer health and safety.”)

Yet Kristjannson’s hard-liner approach of downplaying the health risks of natural gas seems to be losing favor. Take the example of Kate Arends, the founder of Wit and Delight, a polished lifestyle website for “designing a life well-lived,” and an Instagram account with more than 300,000 followers. Arends’ brand fits perfectly into the affluent female demographic that the gas industry wants to target—and indeed, at least one of Arends’ posts is sponsored by APGA.

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10 Comments on "How the Fossil Fuel Industry Convinced Americans to Love Gas Stoves"

  1. Anonymouse on Thu, 11th Feb 2021 5:11 pm 

    This should come as no surprise to anyone. The use of fake industry financed and controlled front groups, PR firms, fake messages placed in op-ed sections of newspapers, and more recently, on the internet, whose only purpose is to shield the uS oligarch class from their own toxic business models is not a ‘bug’ in amerikas demockracy, but a feature. And a prominent feature at that.

    It hardly matters what the industry is in he uS. Whether its trying to force the industry to add even minimum safety features like, say, SEATBELTS to cars. Or if your in the highly concentrated ‘food’ processing industry and dont people to see what really goes on your factories or farms. Or maybe you need the health risks of tobacco down-played. Or maybe your need to eliminate public mass transit in almost all regions and convince the population to have a love affair with leaky, oil-burning cars and sprawl. You get the idea. (I hope).

    It doesnt matter the topic or industry involved. The uS oligarch class has a playbook they use, and its always the same. Bought ‘scientists’ with industry-friendly ‘research’ to share with the public. Front-groups, fake, or dodgy ‘science’. PR campaigns, and best legislators money can buy. Couple that with some of lowest education standards (anywhere) and a very pliable media that broadcasts mis-information to the entire populace as it core business and you are set.

    Did I mention the uS has the best legislators money can buy? They really do.

    https://www.truthdig.com/articles/the-united-states-is-the-most-corrupt-country-in-the-world/

  2. Outcast_Searcher on Thu, 11th Feb 2021 5:14 pm 

    In the real world, practicality matters. When the electricity goes out, if one is careful to avoid a blue flame, one can use gas burners and keep one’s kitchen fairly warm with gas, even without any electricity.

    Though I have a whole house backup generator which generally works great, occasionally those can fail. Short of vastly overpriced batteries which can run out of energy fairly quickly, a gas stove or fireplace is a simple solution from disaster if the electricity goes out in winter (as it did in last night’s KY ice storm for MANY last night — and when that happens it can take several days for the power to come back on).

    You can lecture me with all your far left news all you want. Since I’m a taxpayer who pays far more government bills than I’ll ever collect, I’ll go with what my doctor, nutrition, and exercise says, re my health, thankyouverymuch. But I know, your ilk just loves to HATE on the taxpayers who actually pay MUCH of the countries’ bills re income tax.

  3. makati1 on Thu, 11th Feb 2021 5:22 pm 

    “…the uS has the best legislators money can buy…”

    YEP! Lifetime government whores living off of the taxpayer and doing the oligarch’s bidding. Multi-millionaires all.

    Amerika has been a 3rd world, Banana Republic, Fascist, Police State for many years, but it is just now being exposed for the world, and the dumbed down Amerikan serfs, to see.

  4. makati1 on Thu, 11th Feb 2021 5:31 pm 

    Outcast, that was once true, but now the government pays its bills with printed money and digits on the internet. The bill will never come due to pay back all that paper, but it WILL crash the economy and it will NEVER recover because the USD will be worse than any other fiat currency when it loses it’s world prominence. No-one will want to hold it or use it in commerce. Wait and see.

    https://usdebtclock.org/

    TOTAL US DEBT as of now: 130.89% and growing! When will the world dump the dollar? Soon, I would bet. Before 2030. Maybe next year? Tomorrow? Are you prepared? I am.

  5. OutcastPhilosopher on Fri, 12th Feb 2021 9:25 am 

    Makati you might as well talk to the fucking wall instead of searcher. dude is a double ended dildo

  6. Zeke Putnam on Fri, 12th Feb 2021 11:05 am 

    I figure the oil companies/government is responsible for the flat tire I had last week. Just for the helluva it, lets consider some of us, at least, have a brain we use. I found electric a pain in the ass to cook with as did my wife. My personal read is we ALL joyfully jumped on the band wagon and loved it. My advice is quit bitching/blaming and accept responsibility. I’m 79 and saw this general situation coming 40 yrs ago. I tried talking about it but was met with ridicule. So I just shut up and rode the ride.

  7. makati1 on Fri, 12th Feb 2021 3:31 pm 

    I realized long ago that most people here are brain dead. I still post in the event that something may sink in and spark real thought. I guess it is hopeless, in most cases. Sigh!

    The world is going to hell and Amerika is leading the parade, followed closely by the UK and Australia. The UK cannot even feed itself but still believes it rules the world thru Amerikan Jews, another failed country. Australia desperately wants to be one of the big boys, but is driving away their biggest trade partner and income, China. Is there some stupidity drug in Western water?

    Oh well. Saturday morning here. Another day to enjoy the nice weather and browse the news. Pass the popcorn.

  8. Biden's hairplug on Fri, 12th Feb 2021 3:47 pm 

    “Australia desperately wants to be one of the big boys, but is driving away their biggest trade partner and income, China. Is there some stupidity drug in Western water?”

    You are misreading the situation. China has no interest in good relations with Australia. China is preparing its own population for an invasion of Australia on the very moment major civil unrest breaks out in the US. If the US and China clash in the SCS, Beijing will use the opportunity to grab Taiwan, Australia and New Zealand in one big sweep and throw the US out of East-Asia.

    https://au.news.yahoo.com/china-hits-out-australia-politicising-foreign-investments-085933839.html

    “‘A mistake’: China’s warning to Australia as relations fail to improve”

    Don’t take it from me, take it from Australia’s most senior politician Malcolm Fraser (RIP):

    https://parisberlinmoscow.wordpress.com/2015/01/02/america-australias-dangerous-ally/

    “America: Australia’s Dangerous Ally”

    But as you seem to suggest, Anglosphere is toast. The only left-over will be the English lingua franca, just like Latin persisted 1000 years after the demise of the Roman empire.

  9. makati1 on Fri, 12th Feb 2021 4:44 pm 

    Australia has need of China. It does not need the dying US.

    China has no need to “invade” anyone, especially Australia. It already has more power there than the US has. Money talks better than guns. Amerika has not learned that lesson..yet, but then, the USD is just toilet paper anyway and the world is flushing it.

    You are taking some powerful drugs and they are giving you delusions, BHP. China can take out Australia by cutting off the cash flow anytime it decides to. The US cannot replace it even close.

    As for your comment about throwing the US military out of Asia, I am all for that. Tomorrow would be OK with me. It has no business anywhere except in the 50 US states. Send them ALL home.

  10. Davy on Fri, 12th Feb 2021 8:02 pm 

    ‘Bidens Hair Plug’, is just another one of Cloggo’s FRAUD identities.

    Gawd are you ever dumb makatoo

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