The various layers of government around here sure don’t have their talking points straight on this suddenly hot natural gas issue.
At a hearing Friday at the Seattle City Council, natural gas was cast as the new coal. Rounds of speakers decried the energy source, once considered a green alternative, as just as filthy as oil or coal and a major poison not just to the atmosphere, but inside our homes.
“It’s hard for me to believe I exposed my family to that,” City Councilmember Mike O’Brien said, citing his two sons breathing exhaust from his kitchen stove for the past 20 years. “I don’t want any other families exposed to that going forward.”
O’Brien has proposed banning natural gas hookups in new buildings starting next year, in a move to fight climate change. He signaled the ban should eventually apply to more than just new buildings.
“If we’re going to eliminate all fossil fuels in our city in the next 10 years, everyone will need to make that transition,” he said.
But meanwhile the various agencies that govern air pollution in our region continue to not only gush green praise about natural gas, but are actively paying people to convert polluting wood stoves and fireplaces to gas.
“Wood stoves, fireplaces, and other wood burning devices put out hundreds of times more air pollution than other sources of heat, such as natural gas …” says the state Department of Ecology in its promotional material designed to urge people to convert their wood fireplaces to something cleaner.
The Puget Sound Clean Air Agency, which oversees air quality across a four-county region that includes Seattle, notes that gas fireplaces are 1,500 times cleaner than burning wood, and 162 times cleaner than even hyper-efficient pellet stoves. As a result, the agency is right now offering $1,500 if you convert an old wood stove or free-standing fireplace to natural gas (currently this rebate program is only available in Snohomish County).
“All the romance of a wood fire — without the smoke,” the agency enthuses about natural gas fireplaces on its website.
I know Seattle likes to be way out front on this stuff. But it doesn’t seem like the environmental regulators — the agencies actually responsible for clean air — have gotten the memo that gas is now evil.
At the least it doesn’t make sense to have one layer of government banning something that other layers of government in the same place are actively promoting — even paying folks to adopt.
Seattle’s goal of moving away from natural gas in new construction isn’t crazy. It’s already happening with home heating. Two-thirds of the homes built in Seattle last year were electric, whereas 10 years ago more than 80 percent of them were built with natural gas furnaces, according to data cited at the council hearing. So a move to cleaner electric heating is already here.
But if the city also bars natural gas for any new fireplaces — which is what they’re proposing — then how will people respond? They’ll probably burn wood instead. That would undermine a decades-long campaign by environmental regulators to scrub the region’s air of highly hazardous wood smoke.
Each year there are about 20 to 30 wintertime bad air days in Puget Sound, in which the region violates air-quality standards for soot. That may sound poor, but in the 2000s there were routinely twice as many wintertime bad air days. Our winter air is now substantially cleaner in part due to aggressive efforts to get people to burn less wood.
It would be nuts to backslide on that now. It would be dirtying the air in the name of fighting climate change.
What they could do is amend this natural gas ban to exempt fireplaces. That would be a green middle ground. Otherwise, if they pass this as proposed, it would ban only the gas fireplaces, even though they’re among the cleanest ones. Then, when wood burning increases, one can imagine our regulation-enthralled City Council jumping to the next logical step, which would be to ban all fireplaces, period. So then you couldn’t burn anything, fossil fuel or wood.
Sorry, I didn’t mean to give them any ideas.