On Sept. 11, the 26th consecutive day of the local Spare the Air alerts, I emailed photos of that week's orange sky to my sister in New Jersey. She wrote back, wryly, "Breathe only when you have to." Gov. Gavin Newsom made the news that day, standing in a burnt-out forest saying, "This is a climate emergency. ... The data is self-evident. ... we're going to have to step up our game."
Isn't it time we started paying more attention to what's going on — and making some serious changes? Why are we seemingly so incapable of shifting direction when it's so clear we must stop burning fossil fuels? The story of the City of Palo Alto Utilities (CPAU) and an industry trade association presents a telling example that illustrates this challenge.
Earth Justice, the environmental law group, recently asked CPAU to quit its membership in the American Public Gas Association (APGA). It seems the APGA staff has been speaking at cities and states throughout the country, arguing against plans for electrification.
Those of us concerned about climate change have come to see that electrification — switching to the clean, renewable electricity that CPAU now provides us — is one of the best strategies for reducing the greenhouse gases that cause global warming. "Natural" gas, which is how methane was branded decades ago by the fossil fuel industry in an attempt to sell us a "cleaner" product than heating oil or coal, traps up to 80 times more of the sun's heat within the atmosphere than does carbon dioxide. But with the boom in fracking, fossil gas now contributes one-third of California's total greenhouse gas emissions. So it's a major threat to climate stability.
In addition, fossil gas creates two other problems: pollution and a threat to safety.
While burning gas doesn't make visible smoke or a telltale odor, chemists know it's a dirty fuel. Harmful by-products like formaldehyde, nitric oxide, acetaldehyde and carbon monoxide are among the indoor air pollutants caused by burning gas. People with asthma are especially vulnerable to the emissions from cooking with gas. A 2013 study found that children raised in a home with a gas stove are 42% more likely to develop asthma than those who don't.
Sept. 9 — the infamous day of orange skies — was precisely the 10-year anniversary of the San Bruno gas explosion that killed eight people and destroyed 38 homes. San Bruno was not an accident — it was an accident waiting to happen. Aging gas lines run under all the neighborhoods in California — and in Palo Alto, many of these pipes are more than 70 years ago. We also live in earthquake country, and the mini-quakes that happen regularly can shake loose those leaky old pipes. Within the past month, gas lines have leaked and caused a fire in both Los Altos and Campbell. CPAU spends an estimated $18 million on keeping Palo Alto's gas system safe — but shouldn't we stop wasting money on this disintegrating infrastructure and put the resources into improving our electrical grid instead?
Recognizing these problems, the Palo Alto City Council voted last year to ban gas appliances in new home construction, a so-called "Reach Code" that reaches beyond the minimum state energy requirements. Some 32 jurisdictions in California have now passed such Reach Codes. But here's the problem with the APGA trade association: Since Palo Alto has adopted cleaner alternatives through electrification, why is our city utility still paying $20,000 each year to belong to an organization that is actively fighting against our goals?
Our CPAU staff say they benefit from APGA's industry-level reports on safety and best practices — the typical information a trade association creates. That makes sense, but why won't CPAU push APGA to stop lobbying against electrification? Well, APGA as an organization was created to support the use of "natural" gas — so of course they are going to fight against banning it. Why would they want to put themselves out of business?
But let's return to those images of the orange sky. Isn't it time that we all — even an agency created to support the use of fossil gas — think about the big picture? Isn't the goal of CPAU — and APGA — to provide for the health and safety (and economic well-being) of the communities they purport to serve?
What we have here is a deeper problem. It's a local microcosm of the existential challenge we are facing. CPAU is dealing with a schizophrenic set of goals. On one hand, there's the goal of reducing greenhouse gasses via electrification — and on the other hand is the goal of providing an essential energy service — and that also means jobs. It's hard to tell the gas association — and some of the employees who work for CPAU — that their work is destroying the Earth's climate. They don't want to hear that —and our leaders are uncomfortable saying it.
What we need to do instead is reframe the situation. We need to be clear in our priorities. CPAU can continue to provide energy services — and employment to our gas workers — but we are going to have to shift over to all electric. And Palo Alto's utilities should tell APGA: "You work for us, and we work for the public. The health of our communities requires shutting off the gas lines. Just as some of our CPAU workers will have to re-train, so APGA will have to change. You can start by helping public gas agencies make plans for electrification, rather than fighting it."
Perhaps there is also a lesson in this for all of us who are financially comfortable homeowners. When do we start making plans to shift away from fossil gas? This fire season — or the next?
Debbie Mytels is a Midtown resident who retired last year from a long career at Acterra, but she's still volunteering with environmental groups to protect Earth's climate. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.