A few days ago, a friend reached out to show me a strange, unsolicited text message: It warned that the Santa Barbara City Council would soon be voting to ban gas hookups in new buildings. This policy has already been adopted in 40 cities across California. Yet, the text claimed the consequences for our community would be dire: dramatic energy costs, electrical grid dangers, oh my!
The message directed its recipients to go to the Californians for Balanced Energy Solutions (C4BES) website, where they could write to the Santa Barbara City Council to oppose the measure. I immediately had a hunch who was behind these text messages: SoCalGas.
With the help of PR consultants, SoCalGas created and funded C4BES. It is, in effect, a front group that aims to hide its motives and funders, in this case SoCal Gas’s interest in keeping California dependent on fossil fuels. They have used our utility payments, which we have to make month after month as ratepayers, to do it. It’s important to remember that SoCalGas is a monopoly. In our region, if you buy gas to heat your home or cook your food, you have to pay them money. There is no other choice. And they are using some of the money you pay to delay and weaken climate action. As many have pointed out, this is wrong.
C4BES has opposed electrification at the California Public Utilities Commission and is trying to block local governments like ours from moving away from fossil gas. In San Luis Obispo, they used particularly repugnant tactics to try to block the change, like threatening to bus in protesters potentially infected with COVID. Currently, SoCalGas is suing the state for its climate efforts. These are the kinds of things the utility and its front group spend money on.
When my friend sent me the text, I wondered, how did they get her number? Given the ties between this pro-gas front group and the gas utility, a savvy person might ask: Did it perhaps come from SoCalGas’s customer database?
The talking points that C4BES is advancing are false. Planning new developments to run on electricity will not change our energy prices or “endanger our grid.” Indeed, Southern California Edison, our local electric utility, supported a similar proposal that recently passed in Ojai.
Here’s what is dangerous: continuing to use fossil gas. In California, energy use in buildings is about a quarter of our carbon emissions. To cut these emissions, we need to get off gas. The vast majority of SoCalGas’s supply is imported from other states like New Mexico and Texas, where it is usually harvested through fracking. It is also a potent greenhouse gas — methane — which escapes as it is moved around, through issues like leaky pipes. All this methane leakage greatly exacerbates climate change.
Back in 2015, SoCalGas’s largest storage facility located in Porter Ranch, just 80 miles east of Santa Barbara, began to leak. The leak went on for almost four months. More than 10,000 people had to evacuate their homes. The incident had a bigger greenhouse gas footprint than the BP Deepwater Horizon spill. Locally, we have our own SoCalGas storage facility at La Goleta.
In your own home, it’s becoming increasingly clear that using gas is a hazard to you and your family’s health. Research shows that children living in homes with gas stoves are at 42 percent higher risk of experiencing asthma. Since burning gas in your home increases your exposure to pollutants like nitrogen dioxide (NO2), it also increases your risk of dying from COVID.
And health impacts aren’t the only thing to worry about. Gas leaks happen, and sometimes they blow up homes entirely. During a recent fire in Goleta, one friend told me that the fire department couldn’t go down her street to defend her home because they were worried about an explosion from a gas leak.
For our health, for our safety and for our planet, we need to stop using gas.
If anything, Santa Barbara is late to the party. Similar policies have already passed in Ojai and San Luis Obispo. Ventura is also currently considering adopting this approach.
This is a good plan for our city and for the planet. Research shows that we cannot build any new fossil fuel infrastructure and keep warming to below 1.5°C. Given that Santa Barbara is extremely vulnerable to climate impacts — as the recent fires, heatwaves, and mudslides have shown — we should be doing everything we can as a community to get off fossil fuels as fast as possible.
It’s also a smart approach in terms of cost savings. If local developers build new buildings without gas in the first place, we won’t have to retrofit them to reach our climate goals. No wonder the approach has such strong support: from the American Institute for Architects, the Community Environmental Council, and our local Sierra Club.
Or take it one step further, and electrify your home this year. Induction stoves are superior for cooking and are getting cheaper every year. Heat pumps not only warm your house at a low cost, they can also cool it — a useful feature given our region has already warmed by 2°C because of climate change.
With just a few changes, you’ll kick the gas habit. Your health and our planet will thank you. And as an added bonus, you’ll also get to stop paying for SoCalGas’s attacks on climate policy.
Leah C. Stokes, an assistant professor of environmental politics at the University of California, Santa Barbara, is the author of “Short Circuiting Policy,” a contributor to the essay collection “All We Can Save,” and co-host of the podcast “A Matter of Degrees.” Follow her on Twitter @leahstokes.