Natural gas has long been touted as a "climate-friendly" and "clean" fossil fuel. Many call it the "bridge" between dirtier sources (i.e., coal and oil) and renewable energy. On the one hand, natural gas produces less carbon dioxide when burned, but with the climate situation, it is imperative to reduce carbon emissions as much as possible. In addition, there are other combustion byproducts, like nitrous oxide and particulate matter, that pose serious health risks.
Then, there is a bigger picture of natural gas combustion: It is only one step in the natural gas use cycle, and carbon dioxide is only one pollutant. Natural gas is primarily methane, a greenhouse gas that has more than 28 times the warming potential of carbon dioxide over 100 years. Between extraction, compression, pipeline transport, and storage, there are ample opportunities for methane leakage. With so many truly clean, renewable energy options out there - and many that are increasingly more economical than natural gas - building fossil fuel infrastructure may equate to throwing money away. For example, the Atlantic Coast Pipeline was canceled in early 2021 in part because of the extensive construction and pending litigation costs.
Natural gas opponents and proponents have hurled arguments at each other over the past year as electrification policies moved front and center. Furnaces, boilers, and other gas-powered cooking appliances in buildings significantly impact public health and climate pollution. In May 2021, the International Energy Agency recommended that global policymakers ban fossil fuel furnace sales by 2025 and phase out natural gas use in buildings. This spurred a flurry of mixed policy across the United States. By mid-2021, local governments in California and Washington State adopted gas bans and new building electrification codes, with others in development in the Northeast. By December, cities across the Pacific Northwest, as well as Washington State, proposed phasing out natural gas furnaces, water heaters, and new gas construction.
New York City recently became the largest city in the country to pass a bill banning gas hookups in buildings. As of early January, that bill is set for approval. The State of New York also has a ban on the table. The resolution sets a 2027 target for all new buildings to have zero-emissions heat sources - i.e., electrifying buildings, rather than using direct fossil-fuel hookups. This would be a big step toward meeting the state's carbon-free electricity by 2040 and net-zero by 2050 targets.
Even with these promising developments, 20 states (accounting for around one-third of U.S. gas consumption) passed laws prohibiting local gas bans, and others are in the works. Utility companies urged legislators to block efforts to reduce or eliminate natural gas, claiming that the outcome will raise costs. Others say that banning natural gas hookups will simply result in more fossil-fueled generation from power plants, harming climate efforts.
All of these arguments, however, ignore the fact that renewables can and should provide power for newly electrified buildings, and ultimately will economically outperform natural gas. New natural gas construction will only lose money once inevitably tighter environmental goals require its reform or early retirement.
On the whole, clean energy deployment in 2022 is expected to be about 65 percent greater from 2021-2026 than it was from 2015-2020. The economic competitiveness of clean energy is one factor, as well as supportive national and international policies and federal tax credits. As natural gas bans gain more traction, clean energy deployment will continue to grow.