San Francisco Fire fighters work to extinguish a gas line-related fire in the Richmond District on Wednesday, Feb. 6, 2019. (Ellie Doyen/Special to S.F. Examiner)

There’s nothing natural about natural gas

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Two weeks ago, contractors working at the corner of Geary Boulevard and Parker Avenue hit a gas line. The incident caused an explosion and a fire that burned for hours. People ran for their lives. Hundreds lost heat during a cold snap. Homes and businesses were lost.

Less than three miles away, the director of the San Francisco Department of Environment and I watched the black smoke rise from her office window.

“There is nothing natural about natural gas,” Deborah Raphael told me. “It’s a super pollutant called methane, and it has significant health, safety and environmental impacts.”

San Francisco is currently working to curb our continued reliance on gas. Not only does it cause explosions, such as the event in San Bruno that took eight lives, but it also emits harmful pollutants in our homes and is a powerful contributor to climate change. Methane traps 84 times more heat in the atmosphere than carbon dioxide over 20 years.

Gas regularly escapes from pipelines and storage tanks. Sometimes these leaks cause community-wide illnesses, such as the Aliso Canyon leak in Southern California. Others, simply pose a threat. According to reports submitted to the state by Pacific Gas & Electric, the utility repaired approximately 1,000 potentially hazardous leaks in San Francisco in 2015. Many non-hazardous leaks went unrepaired, and others went undetected.

Once inside our homes, methane continues to cause concerns. A 2014 study led by Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory found residences using gas burners without venting hoods experience concentrations of carbon monoxide and nitrogen dioxide that exceed federal health-based standards. This means many of the approximately 12 million Californians in homes with gas stoves are regularly exposed to dangerous pollutants that cause asthma attacks and a host of other lung ailments.

“Burning a fossil fuel in your home is kind of crazy,” Bruce Nilles, a senior fellow with the Rocky Mountain Institute, told me. The nonprofit, which works to accelerate the shift away from fossil fuels, is presenting the impacts associated with natural gas use at the Commonwealth Club today.

“When you burn it in a power plant there are usually modern pollution controls. There were no modern pollution controls on my stove, water heater, furnace and dryer and that was the biggest motivator for me to replace them with clean and efficient electric alternatives.”

While homes in the Bay Area have relied on gas appliances since 1930, California began encouraging gas use in the 1970s. At the time, the country was struggling with oil embargoes, sky-high fuel prices and an electric grid powered by fossil fuels, such as coal. Gas presented a viable alternative to state legislators.

“Natural gas facilities … don’t present the same magnitude of land use, air quality, water quality and supply, and public safety problems presented by electrical power,” stated a 1974 state legislative analysis.

Today, this statement is laughable. In 2017, electric generation from coal and oil made up less than 4.5 percent of California’s power mix. Renewable energy continues to grow as the state works to meet its goal of 100 percent clean energy by 2045.

To reach this goal, California must phase out natural gas, which now presents significantly more safety, health and environmental problems than electric power. In 2016, energy use from California’s buildings was responsible for more than 26 percent of greenhouse gas emissions, according to a recent publication by the nonprofit Building Decarbonization Coalition. About 42 percent of these emissions result primarily from space and water heating.

“There is no reality where we’re meeting our climate goals and still burning gas in our homes,” Panama Bartholomy, the Coalition’s director, told me.

Cities can reduce emissions, promote safety and grow the market for efficient, electric appliances through adoption of zero-emission building codes. Resolutions declaring a state of climate emergency could also spark bolder targets and further enable agencies to use their permitting authority.

Clear state policies, such as the California Public Utilities Commission’s current work to develop building decarbonization programs, would also help municipal efforts.

Of course, growing support for local and state action requires challenging a decades-long narrative that gas is necessary. Check out “Green Space” next week, as I look at the costs and other considerations confronting businesses and governments while phasing-out gas.

Robyn Purchia is an environmental attorney, environmental blogger and environmental activist who hikes, gardens and tree hugs in her spare time. She is a guest columnist. Check her out at robynpurchia.com

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