Clash of the kitchens: California leads the way in a new climate battleground

BERKELEY —

The most luxurious gas stoves and ovens a home chef could desire fill the cavernous Snyder Diamond showroom in Van Nuys, but the cooking appliance the owner seems most excited about doesn’t use gas at all — or look like an appliance.

“You don’t even see it,” Russ Diamond said of a stealthy induction range soon to arrive in his showroom. Because it is the countertop, it doesn’t interfere with a stone countertop or porcelain countertop.

The range detects when a pan is placed on it and emits an electromagnetic field to heat the metal. Diamond claims that chefs can cook meats, vegetables, and boil water in record time. The counter cools immediately when you lift the pan.

The promotional buzz at this high-end showroom marks an early salvo in a multimillion-dollar battle over the way Americans cook, one that pits the fossil fuel industry against a California-led movement aimed at turning off the natural gas spigots to slow climate change.

More than 50 California cities have restricted or banned natural gas hookups in homes and businesses to combat climate change. Researchers have linked gas stoves to an increased risk of asthma. Evan Halper, L.A. Times reporter, explores how electric cooking options such as induction stoves could benefit our environment and health. Are cooks ready to give up the fire-pit?

Impatient with the pace of climate action, more than 50 California cities have passed rules that restrict — and in many cases ban — natural gas hookups in new homes and businesses. The movement has quickly spilled far beyond the state’s borders. Its success depends on convincing home cooks they don’t require a gas range.

“We know the climate can’t afford us to continue using natural gas for the next 50 or 100 years,” said Billi Romain, manager of the Office of Energy and Sustainable Development in Berkeley, the city that started this all with the nation’s first gas ban in 2019. “But if you build a building using natural gas, you are making a 50-, 100-year investment…. We really need to stop that investment pipeline into gas infrastructure.”

The International Energy Agency recommended in May that governments worldwide ban fossil fuel furnace sales by 2025 and move urgently to phase out the use of natural gas in buildings. In California, it accounts for about 10% of the state’s greenhouse gas pollution.

Berkeley is now among cities drafting blueprints to cap off the gas lines even on existing homes and businesses. Ithaca, N.Y., last month passed just such an ordinance. Inspired by the grass-roots push in California, cities throughout the Northwest and Northeast are moving forward on bans for new construction and remodels. The mayor is expected to sign a ban on Wednesday that was passed by New York City’s City Council. New York City accounts for 5% national gas consumption. Twenty cities in Massachusetts are pursuing bans.

A gas industry counteroffensive, meanwhile, has pushed 19 fossil-fuel-friendly states to prohibit any local bans. Champions of those state laws often invoke California as the progressive boogeyman.

“Don’t California My Florida,” warns a pamphlet from an organization called Power Florida Forward, one of many industry-backed groups formed around the country to keep the gas lines flowing. The pamphlet claims that California’s ban on gas hookups has caused rolling blackouts. However, there is no evidence to support this claim. The fossil-fuel-friendly Texas Public Policy Foundation cheered that state’s prohibition on cities restricting gas use by branding “California-style bans on natural gas utilities” as “arbitrary constraints on Texans’ freedom.”

A flame burns blue on a gas stove burner.

A gas stove is lit by Stanford researchers to monitor the air quality in a Mountain View townhome’s kitchen.

(Josh Edelson / For The Times)

It is an argument the gas industry is eager to move into the kitchen. Most people don’t consider it a significant sacrifice to swap a gas dryer, water heater, or furnace for one that is electric. Even the most forward-thinking West Coasters are uncomfortable with the idea of giving up cooking on a fire. Many home chefs have had bad experiences with electric stoves in the past. Gas companies can only hope to keep customers hooked by the affinity Americans have for gas stoves.

“The gas industry likes to say they add a new customer every minute, and no state is adding more of those customers than California,” said Brady Seals, manager of the Carbon-Free Buildings program at the Rocky Mountain Institute. It becomes a death spiral. It becomes a death spiral.”

The strategy for taking those customers away is built on persuading home cooks that their gas stove is not just bad for the planet, but also for their health. Scientific studies in recent years have raised concerns about potentially high amounts of indoor pollution from gas appliances, so much so that the Rocky Mountain Institute warns that children in homes with a gas stove have a 24% to 42% increased risk of asthma. A UCLA study funded by the Sierra Club raised similar alarms, finding unnervingly elevated rates of nitrogen dioxide — a driver of asthma — in homes where gas stoves and ovens were in use without an exhaust fan running.

The gas and restaurant industries are pushing back hard against these findings. The American Gas Assn. argues that “there are no documented respiratory health risks from natural gas stoves from regulatory and advisory agencies and organisations responsible for protecting residential consumers health and safety.” In fact, federal investigators have not done much in this area.

Sometimes, that has been by design.

In October, Trump appointees thwarted plans by the Consumer Product Safety Commission to include gas appliances in a study on carbon monoxide poisoning, and also exempted the appliances from a related new safety rule.

The many questions around the safety of gas stoves are moving independent scientists to lug trunks of monitoring equipment to kitchens around the country as they try to sort out what toxins are seeping out of the appliances and how dangerous they are.

Rob Jackson steps out of a testing area protected by plastic sheeting.

Stanford professor Rob Jackson walks out of the kitchen of a monitoring station at a Mountain View townhome.

(Josh Edelson / For The Times)

A bag is filled with gas to test for pollution.

Stanford researcher Colin Finnegan uses ethane gas in a bag to test for air pollution.

(Josh Edelson / For The Times)

That was the scene playing out recently at a vacant townhouse in Mountain View. Rob Jackson, a Stanford University professor in Earth system science, instructed his team to set up a tent around the kitchen and attach tubes to the gas range and oven. Jackson watched the range silently inhale invisible gases into his kitchen and monitored the equipment from the other side of the plastic barrier for high levels of toxic gasses. He collected data to fill the research gap.

“Surprisingly, there are almost no measurements of how much natural gas leaks into the air from inside homes and buildings,” Jackson said. “It’s probably the part of natural gas usage we understand the least about.”

Jackson says he is coming at the investigation with an open mind. He says it is possible that more climate-friendly “renewable” natural gas made from organic waste could leave a place for gas appliances in the future, even as a study commissioned by the California Energy Commission found turning off the gas spigots altogether is a more economically viable way to decarbonize homes. But he’s seen enough to switch on his exhaust fan every time he uses gas in the kitchen — something he didn’t do before — and to wonder why anyone would want to buy gas right now.

“We’re finding pollutants entering the air from using the stoves,” Jackson said. Jackson stated that he doesn’t want to inhale NOx [nitrogen oxides], carbon monoxide, formaldehyde, and other gases even though he isn’t sure if they pose a threat to his health. … Why not just try to eliminate the risk entirely?”

A syringe of gas is released into a vacant kitchen.

Stanford researcher Metta Nickelson releases a syringe containing ethane gas in the air from the kitchen of a vacant home.

(Josh Edelson / For The Times)

The Stanford team brought a small, portable induction unit to the Mountain View exercise to use as a kind of control — to confirm the pollutants were not coming out of what was being heated on top of the gas stove, but the stove itself. But these plug-in induction hobs are also popping up all over the state, as activists and local governments lend them out as part of an aggressive campaign to wean home chefs from their gas addiction.

“The demystification of electrification is here,” said Bridget Bueche, a Newport Beach chef and appliance advisor who is among a growing group of evangelists for this form of cooking that uses magnets to rapidly heat the pan, instead of the entire burner.

“We are able to do everything on this,” Bueche stated as she cooked a steak, caramelized Brussels sprouts, and melted chocolate on the induction stove located inside the Snyder Diamond showroom.

“Most people spend a lot of time waiting for water to boil,” Bueche said as liquid she placed in a pan a minute earlier started to bubble. “We are already at a boil.”

Americans are still getting acquainted with this type of cooking, which caught hold in Europe a while ago. Induction cooktops account for just 5% of stove sales in the U.S. A Morning Consult poll in February found that while more Americans support gas bans than oppose them, induction stoves still aren’t on the radar of most consumers.

A chef holds her hand on a cooking range next to a hot skillet.

Bridget Bueche puts her hand on an Induction Cooktop, right next to a hot skillet.

(Al Seib / Los Angeles Times)

It’s a lot for consumers to wrap their heads around, said Bueche, who compared gas range aficionados to rotary dial telephone loyalists who’ve never held an iPhone.

Electrification enthusiasts are going into people’s homes to train them in the use of the cooktops, and holding well-attended online demonstrations to dispel myths about what you can and cannot do on an induction stove.

After the California Restaurant Assn. unsuccessfully sued to block Berkeley’s ban, arguing it would prevent chefs in Chinese restaurants from using popular high-heat wok cooking methods, celebrity chef and electrification enthusiast Martin Yan went on camera to show off his wok work on an induction stove. Lauren Weston, executive Director of Acterra, a Bay Area pro-electrification non-profit, said that Yan’s demonstration was able to change the emotional connection people have to cooking.

The allure of cooking with fire is proving tough competition, built on a foundation of decades of gas industry marketing and a history of electric models that performed poorly.

At Tony P’s Dockside Grill in Marina del Rey, a focal point of the kitchen is the 5-foot charcoal grill, and owner Tony Palermo is hard-pressed to envision how that could be replaced with an electric unit. He said, “The fat drips down onto flames, giving your steak that nice sear.” Electric does not achieve this effect. How do you cook steaks with an electric? How would you cook pork chops?”

A cook holds a pan as flames rise from a gas stove

Israel Dominguez prepares lunch at Tony P’s Dockside Grill, Marina del Rey.

(Genaro Molina / Los Angeles Times)

Such concerns have moved several cities to exempt restaurant kitchens from their gas hookup bans — for now. Palermo cites several other problems that induction could cause. Palermo mentions that his pans, which are used in professional kitchens, get so bent and distorted that they won’t work on an induction stovetop.

Some gas industry players have seized on that skepticism with a messaging campaign that leverages their relationships with professional chefs and the myriad nonprofits to which they donate.

As the gas bans began to spread in the spring of 2020, the American Gas. Assn. (or AGA) outlined its strategy to counter them in a leadership conference, which was recorded by the Energy and Policy Institute. The Times confirmed its authenticity.

“We’re trying to beat counties and localities from passing bans that then force the hand of governors and state legislators to pass something nascent nationwide,” said Susan Forrester, the AGA’s vice president of advocacy and outreach, during the call. She talked about rallying the AARP, restaurants, builders, laborers and farmers to industry’s side, as well as local mayors, legislators and African American groups “so that we have more friends on our side willing to talk about how great natural gas is.”

Cities moving ahead with gas bans, AGA President and CEO Karen Harbert said in a statement, “have not properly studied the burden it will place on families or the negligible greenhouse gas reduction potential.”

The stakes are so high in this campaign that both sides are using tactics that have become a story in themselves.

A group called Californians for Balanced Energy Solutions was created to promote the independent grass-roots advocacy organization. However, it became a legal and public relations nightmare for Southern California Gas Co. after it was revealed that the ratepayer funds were used to fund the group.

No state has had a bigger impact on the direction of the United States than California, a prolific incubator and exporter of outside-the-box policies and ideas. This series will examine what this has meant for the country and California, as well as how Washington is willing and able to help spread California’s agenda while the state’s struggles threaten its status as the nation’s think-tank.

A state Public Advocates Office investigation found numerous pro-gas campaigns were “conceived, designed, and led by SoCalGas often using surrogates to obscure the fact that SoCalGas was responsible.”

The utility inappropriately concealed its role in lobbying campaigns — including those to undermine climate action — made ratepayers shoulder the cost and misled state regulators about all of it, the advocates office said, and it urged the Public Utilities Commission to fine SoCalGas $255 million. Although the commission acknowledged that SoCalGas had acted in an inappropriate manner, it has not issued any fines. The utility says that state investigators are violating its 1st Amendment rights and that natural gas is essential to decarbonizing the economy without further destabilizing the power grid. Not all power companies are panicked by gas hookup bans. Some that provide both electricity and gas, including Pacific Gas and Electric Co. in the Bay Area and Con Edison in New York, support the measures in their areas.

But gas companies have rallied influential allies to their side. On the AGA’s “Cooking With Gas” website, there are testimonials from one chef after another — including some in Southern California — speaking from their kitchens about the virtues of cooking with fire. Many recall horror stories from times in their career when electric cooktops were not available. Celebrity chefs and Instagram food influencers are sponsored by the industry to share recipes that use a flame to cook.

But, the scene at Snyder Diamond showroom suggests that the coolness of cooking over fire might be in decline. Russ Diamond said that high-end customers, who have been flame-cooking faithfuls for decades, are now gravitating towards high-tech induction models.

“People are looking for it now,” he said.

It brings back memories of the early days when electric cars were first introduced. Early adopters could afford Mercedes or Porsche, but their embrace of Tesla vehicles sparked a change in consumer opinions. It could be that the success of the California-driven effort to shut down natural gas spigots will hinge on how the same shift plays in the kitchen.

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