Brian Lehrer: Brian Lehrer on WNYC. Now our climate story of the week which we're doing every Tuesday all this year on the show. Yes. Even during pledge drive. Earlier this year, gas stoves touched off what might have been an unlikely culture war front between Republicans and Democrats. We've talked about this a little bit before. Back on January 9th, Richard Trumka Jr a commissioner in the US Consumer Product Safety Commission, suggested to Bloomberg News that the government might consider stricter regulation of new gas stoves in response to health concerns about indoor air quality and climate change.
The response from many Republicans was swift, "Gods, guns, gas stoves," wrote US representative, guess who? Yes, Jim Jordan on what was then Twitter. Governor Ron DeSantis issued aprons, the don't tread on me yellow flag with the snake. Those aprons, except for a snake, there was a gas stove. These comments came after Trumka clarified that the agency "isn't coming for anyone's gas stoves." With the US' goal of reaching net zero emissions by 2050, the future of the gas utilities industry which emits methane into the air, is looking bleak. There are laws now popping up in New York and other places that new buildings that get constructed have to be electrified in that respect.
This may all sound like the latest front of the culture war but the campaign to get more gas stoves into people's kitchens goes all the way back to the late 1960s. Even back then, researchers began to find links between indoor pollution, the old-fashioned kind of pollution, not climate pollution, indoor pollution that affects our lungs caused by gas stoves, and respiratory illnesses in families who had them. The natural gas industry following a roadmap similar to the tobacco industry, if this sounds familiar, funded its own research and managed to evade responsibility and fend off regulations for decades. That's according to a new NPR investigation.
Joining us now to discuss his latest reporting on this and what it's all got to do with climate change is Jeff Brady Climate and Energy correspondent on NPR's Climate Desk. Hey, Jeff. Thanks so much for coming on. Welcome to WNYC today.
Jeff Brady: Yes, thank you for inviting me.
Brian Lehrer: You're right. In the late 1960s, natural gas utilities launched Operation Attack, of all things to name it. What was Operation Attack?
Jeff Brady: Well, around that time in the '60s when there was concern about indoor air quality and pollution from gas stoves and other unvented appliances, the gas industry also was concerned that gas stove sales were declining. There had actually gone below 50% at one point. They were very worried about that. They launched this Operation Attack. I wish I could find the person who came up with that name because I'd like to know why they chose it. They were attacking the problem, I guess.
They started this big I think at the time it was a million-and-a-half dollar campaign to get more gas stoves into more kitchens around the United States. It has been a long campaign to try to make the gas stove the popular way to cook and to equate the idea that if you are a good cook, you have a gas stove in your kitchen.
Brian Lehrer: What were they competing with at that time?
Jeff Brady: Electric stoves. Almost exclusive, the old electric coil kind of stoves that I think most of us know. Back then those were seen as the technology to use, I guess. People were switching to those. That was a concern for the gas industry because the gas stove it's special among appliances for the gas industry. Some people call it a gateway appliance, and that's because it's the one that people care about.
You talk to people-- I've talked to a lot of people over the last couple of years about gas stoves and even people who are passionate about air pollution and climate change will say, "Oh, I love my gas stove. You're not taking it away from me." I don't remember exactly where I was going there, but-- [chuckles] Oh, the gateway appliance.
Brian Lehrer: Go ahead.
Jeff Brady: People care about gas stoves. Home builders and real estate agents, they'll tell you, people will actually have that on their list of things they want in a house. What happens is if you have the gas stove there, then you've got to have gas service to the house. If you have gas service to the house, then it's more likely that homeowners will choose to hook up other things to gas like they use a lot more natural gas like the furnace or the clothes dryer or the water heater. Then you got a whole natural gas utility business going.
Brian Lehrer: Interesting. The emotional connection was with the stove and so it became a gateway appliance, as you call it. Your investigation showed that natural gas utilities and their powerful trade group, the American Gas Association, focused on convincing consumers and regulators that cooking with gas is as risk-free as cooking with electricity in health terms. What did research at that time reveal about nitrogen dioxide and respiratory illnesses, especially among children?
Jeff Brady: Nitrogen dioxide generally, there's no controversy there. We regulate it outdoors. The EPA does. If you're exposed to a lot of nitrogen dioxide, it's going to cause breathing problems and long-term exposure can create asthma in people. Indoors, there's no regulation for indoor air quality. The government doesn't come in and regulate the air quality in your home. Because of that, there's a lot of uncertainty because no one's really done the research to decide what the regulations would need to be to make indoor air quality safe.
There were a few studies emerging saying that there were connections indoors to having a gas stove and respiratory illnesses, anything from colds to actually triggering asthma in some people. The gas industry was looking at that very worried about it and started funding its own research. There's this thing in science, there's always uncertainty and scientists are always looking to challenge existing conclusions.
What the industry did is really latch on to that uncertainty and fund researchers who were very scientifically conservative and were more likely to reach uncertain conclusions and then highlight that uncertainty both to the public and to regulators. It makes it very difficult to pass a regulation if the science looks uncertain. After a period of time, especially in the '70s and the '80s, the gas industry-funded research, some of it, the funding wasn't disclosed, started becoming a counterbalance to that early research showing problems.
Brian Lehrer: It sounds so tobacco industry-like which is part of the point of your investigation, or at least one of the conclusions of your investigation when you talk about latching onto uncertainty. Well, there's that whole corporate model of manufacturing doubt or using a tiny little bit of doubt that's real to manufacture large amounts of doubt that will paralyze people from taking action.
Jeff Brady: Exactly. You can take things that are knowable facts and really highlight that uncertainty and make them look less certain and less knowable. Why are you going to regulate something that's not knowable yet? We need more research. That's the thing you'll hear a lot is need more research to nail this down. It's really hard to nail this one down because you think about a home and a gas stove and different kinds of foods that are being cooked. There's all kinds of variables to measure, and how are you going to do that in a way that actually says black and white, yes or no, there's a problem or there's not here?
Brian Lehrer: NPR's climate correspondent Jeff Brady with us, if you're just joining us on our climate story of the week here on The Brian Lehrer Show, which we do every Tuesday all this year, talking about his investigation into how the gas stove industry and the natural gas industry generally took the tobacco industry playbook in part to try to stave off regulation that would have helped prevent indoor air pollution-related health problems, and now climate pollution. You're right, as an example, this effort did actually help staff efforts to more stringently regulate gas stoves in at least one particular instance under the Reagan administration. Can you tell us about that?
Jeff Brady: Sure. The Consumer Product Safety Commission was relatively new, but it was occupied by folks who considered themselves deregulators. There were a lot of folks in the Reagan administration who proudly wore that label. The Consumer Product Safety Commission took up the issue of indoor air quality and gas stoves, asked a committee with the Environmental Protection Agency to review the science for them. Of course, at this point, you have that counterbalance of the industry-funded research highlighting that uncertainty. That review of the science reaches the deregulators, the Consumer Product Safety Commission at the time.
There was a welcome thing probably because although I talked to the person who was the chair of the Consumer Product Safety Commission then, he's in his 80s now, and he didn't remember this, but he did talk a lot about being proud of being a deregulator or at least not regulator. That uncertainty would have been welcomed there at the Consumer Product Safety Commission at the time but of course, as you've already said, the commission is once again, taking a look at this issue.
Brian Lehrer: Now, one argument we've seen crop up in this debate from the pro-gas stove side is that well, depending on where you live, your electricity might come from coal or fossil fuels anyway so you don't actually help the climate that much by switching to electric stoves. Is that scientifically based?
Jeff Brady: Yes, there is definitely a climate nexus here. That's one issue of whether you have the gas or electric stove. One of the things about the grid that's important to know is that grid is changing pretty dramatically. Coal used to be the dominant source of fuel to generate electricity. Now it's natural gas and we're quickly moving to cleaner sources or at least more climate-friendly sources of electricity.
There's also another climate connection here to think about because natural gas, that's what it's called but really, it's mostly methane. Methane is a super potent greenhouse gas, even more powerful than carbon dioxide at warming the climate. That methane that you're burning on your stove-- when you burn it on your stove, it doesn't release much climate pollution into your house, but it's connected to a pipeline that goes outside of your house, it goes to your meter and then outside of your house, then it goes into compressor stations and all the way back to the wellhead.
Methane just wants to leak out of those pipelines, and it does at a lot of different places. Since that is such a super potent greenhouse gas, that's a real problem for this industry. In fact, it's becoming an existential problem for the gas utility industry. They're working really hard to try to fix those leaks now.
Brian Lehrer: The US has set a goal of reaching net zero emissions across the economy by 2050. Under the Biden administration, and as you write across the United States, towns are passing laws to limit new construction of natural gas pipelines to homes and buildings, and in places like Ithaca, New York tearing out gas systems completely. I mentioned earlier that in New York City there's a law that would require new construction, nobody's coming for your gas stoves, but new construction to have electric stoves. What does the regulation landscape look like?
Jeff Brady: Right now, on the federal level, not much going on, except for that review at the Consumer Product Safety Commission. There are some efficiency regulations at the Department of Energy underway that could affect the industry but most of the activity is happening at state and local governments, like you were talking about in New York. There's some work out in Oregon, even some small towns in Oregon are thinking about not allowing new gas hookups to homes. It all goes back to they have these climate plans.
They have their own emissions reduction goals and they don't see a way to keep providing natural gas or methane to homes and still achieve those climate plans so they're starting to pass regulations. The state of California is the leader here. One of the things that the entire state did I think it was last year or the year before last, they started requiring that gas stoves that are installed in homes have more powerful vent hoods over the stove. They're acknowledging that there's a problem with the gas and indoor air quality there. We see a lot of regulatory movement around the country.
Brian Lehrer: Listeners are weighing in. They're writing in and calling in, and we can see just from our board, our text messages, and our caller board, that there is a real debate out in the public. It's not just a political debate between Democrats and Republicans and fossil fuel companies and environmentalists. One listener says, "Recently bought an air filter and realized that whenever we cook with the gas stove the filter kicks in, which is an interesting revelation."
Somebody else writes on the other side, "Gas is much cheaper than electricity, especially for a gas dryer." Someone else, 'Having moved to an apartment with an electric stove this year, it's not a myth, electric stoves are terrible to cook on." Maybe that apartment has one of the old-style ones, I don't know. There you go. There's a real public conversation taking place, not just a political one.
Jeff Brady: Sure. That air filter thing can trip people up. I experimented with this myself because I have one of those air filters and it was coming on when I would turn the stove on. It turned out that that was being triggered by the actual emissions from the food cooking if I was doing stir fry or something like that. It's unlikely that nitrogen dioxide which is the key pollutant that is of concern here for gas stoves is going to be triggering an air purifier.
That's one of the things that allowed the industry to highlight that uncertainty because one of their arguments has been that this isn't so much about nitrogen dioxide from burning natural gas. This is about the food you're cooking, and all of those fumes from the food getting into your house. That's where the real problem is the industry says. It's true, there are issues with those emissions as well but we're really focused on what's specific to gas stoves because those cooking fumes come from electric and gas stoves.
Brian Lehrer: To wrap it up, it sounds like some of what people are saying without even realizing it is language that's been planted in the public discourse by the gas utilities.
Jeff Brady: Certainly, we all know the cooking with gas campaign, right? [chuckles] It's part of our American culture. That idea that if you are a good cook, you cook with gas. That's really deep in our consciousness. Folks who are very concerned about climate change, very concerned about all of this methane leaking into the atmosphere, that's one of the reasons they're focusing on gas stoves right now.
Brian Lehrer: We leave it there for our climate story of the week. My guest has been Jeff Brady, climate and energy correspondent on NPR's climate desk. Actually, let me ask you one little addendum question, Jeff. There's so much climate nerds since we started doing our climate story of the week on the premise that the climate doesn't change as quickly as the news cycle. Climate stories will fall by the wayside as the climate heats up slowly while other things in the news change so fast we feel like we have to latch on to them. Now that we've been doing this, we realize there is so much climate news happening all the time. How do you decide? How does your editor decide what you cover?
Jeff Brady: My gosh, it's really difficult. I was in that mindset too. I was like, "Oh, climate change, okay, call me when the water gets to my doorstep." There's so much to do here and so much happening. Just the energy system itself which is what I tend to focus on, the changes occurring right now are extraordinary. This is just a fundamental difference in how we live our lives and it's happening now. I'm super excited to be working on just this one topic because there's more stories than I can tell in a lifetime.
Brian Lehrer: Jeff Brady, climate and energy correspondent on NPR's Climate Desk. Thanks again.
Jeff Brady: Thank you.
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