How the Fossil Fuel Industry Convinced Americans to Love Gas Stoves
Let our journalists help you make sense of the noise: Subscribe to the Mother Jones Daily newsletter and get a recap of news that matters.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. Washington state’s largest natural gas utility, Puget Sound Energy, has spent $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.
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 consider a bill 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 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.”