Encinitas weighs ban on natural gas hookups for new construction

In this file photo, crews from San Diego Gas & Electric inspect and upgrade natural gas pipelines.
In this file photo, crews from San Diego Gas & Electric inspect and upgrade natural gas pipelines.
(John Gibbons

Proposal would not impact existing homes or businesses


First came the plastic bag and polystyrene container bans. Now Encinitas may be exploring whether to limit natural gas use.

City Environmental Commissioner James Wang, who was instrumental in the city’s polystyrene and plastic bag ban campaigns, is asking his fellow commissioners to seek City Council approval for an ordinance prohibiting the installation of natural gas infrastructure in new buildings.

The most energy-efficient, environmentally-friendly options for home heating and cooking are electric-powered these days, not gas, Wang told his fellow commissioners as he unveiled his proposal last week.

He recommended that they check out the energy-efficiency statistics for electric water heaters with heat-pump systems and look into induction stoves, which directly heat people’s cookware. These systems are “not as expensive as people might think,” he added, saying that 20 years ago they might have been costly, “but that’s not the case now.”

His proposed natural gas ban met with a mixed reaction at Thursday’s commission meeting Nov. 14. Three of his fellow commissioners said they wanted more information about the new heating and cooking equipment options before they would consider backing the proposed ban, and the nine public speakers on the item were roughly evenly divided. Ultimately, the commission decided to collect more information and revisit the proposal at its Dec. 12 meeting.

The Building Industry Association of San Diego is expecting to send a representative to that Dec. 12 meeting, BIA policy advisor Angeli Calinog said Monday, Nov. 18. The association, which represents 750 member companies, informed the city in a letter late last week that it opposes the proposed ban, saying natural gas is a cheaper power source and eliminating people’s right to chose it will increase the already high cost of housing in California.

“The cost of living in California is among the highest in the nation,” the letter from Mike McSweeney, the BIA’s senior public policy advisor, states. “Eliminating natural gas from homes and businesses will more than double the energy bill for everyone, further compounding that financial burden and will limit economic development opportunities in the city.”

Wang told his fellow commissioners that he thinks natural gas use will eventually be phased out, even though people have previously described it as a “clean” burning fossil fuel and promoted its use over other options like coal or oil.

That view of natural gas doesn’t take into account the environmental harm that occurs when natural gas is extracted from the ground using “fracking” techniques, nor does it acknowledge that leaks occur when natural gas is piped from one spot to another, he said. And, he added, there’s also indoor air quality concerns with burning natural gas and there’s the potential for household fires.

When all those issues are considered, natural gas doesn’t look like such a great choice, Wang said. The trouble, he said, is that once natural gas pipe systems have been installed in people’s homes, they’re likely to remain in use for decades to come. That’s why he’s now proposing to ban their installation in new construction.

“First of all, this proposal only applies to new buildings,” he stressed. “It’s not like we’re going to go to your house and rip out your gas stove ... or anything like that.”

Four public speakers, including several San Diego Gas & Electric Co. employees, told commissioners that they didn’t agree with Wang’s views about the use of natural gas or the figures he included in his presentation. A gas technician and an electrical lineman, as well as the company’s public affairs manager for the Encinitas area, all said the proposal was irresponsible and would harm the community.

Katelin Scanlan, the public affairs manager, said she applauded the city for being concerned about greenhouse gas emissions and climate change issues, but said this proposal would eliminate people’s right to chose what energy they used. Many people like having natural gas as a reliable backup power source, so they can have hot showers or cook a meal when the electricity goes out, she said.

“We’re opposed to taking that safety net away from them,” Scanlan said.

Five people urged the commission to back Wang’s proposal, saying anything that helps reduce greenhouse gas emissions is a huge benefit given the ever-growing concerns about global warming and rising sea levels.

The speakers, who included a representative for the San Diego chapter of Surfrider Foundation, said the world is running out of time to halt global warming and needs to do all it can as fast as possible.

Wang has been in the forefront of city campaigns to ban other substances on environmental grounds, including the polystyrene cup and takeout container ban that took effect in 2017 as well as the single-use plastic bag ban in 2015.

Last week, he told his fellow environmental commissioners that proposals to restrict natural gas use are gaining momentum in California. More than 20 California cities are considering encouraging people to only use electricity, including Los Angeles and San Francisco. In recent months, city councils in Berkeley and San Jose both have approved bans on the installation of natural gas lines in new construction projects and those bans will take effect next year.

Cities aren’t the only ones re-thinking their use of natural gas, Wang wrote in a report he produced for last week’s meeting. In 2018, the University of California system began prohibiting the use of natural gas in new buildings and began banning its use in renovated buildings earlier this year, he wrote.

— Barbara Henry is a freelance reporter for The San Diego Union-Tribune