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Overheated: The Battle Over Gas Stoves
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Overheated: The Battle Over Gas Stoves

The real issue is making sure our energy networks can provide affordable and reliable power.

Eggs cook in a cast iron pan on a gas-burning stove. (Photo Illustration by Scott Olson/Getty Images.)

On Monday, Richard Trumka Jr., a commissioner at the Consumer Product Safety Commission, told Bloomberg that gas stoves were a “hidden hazard” and that “products that can’t be made safe can be banned.”

His statement was seen as an indication that the CPSC was considering a ban on gas stoves, perhaps because Trumka also said, “Any option is on the table.” But in a tweet on Wednesday, CSPC Chair Alex Hoehn-Saric walked that back, saying “I am not looking to ban gas stoves” and added that the commission “has no proceeding to do so.” Even more remarkable: A few hours later, the White House issued a statement saying that President Joe Biden doesn’t support a ban on gas stoves. 

The pilot light for the ban on stoves appears to be out for now, but there is no doubt that some of America’s biggest climate-focused NGOs are working actively at the local, state, and federal levels to prohibit the use of gas appliances in the name of climate change. More on that in a moment. 

First, the claims about health risks from gas stoves should be taken with a commercial-kitchen-sized grain of sea salt. Although some media outlets are claiming the science about health risks is definitive, a closer look at the literature shows that’s not the case. 

Perhaps the most definitive analysis of the issue was a 2013 study published in The Lancet Respiratory Medicine that “investigated the association between asthma and the use of a range of cooking fuels around the world.” Using data collected between 1999 and 2004, the study analyzed more than 500,000 schoolchildren in 47 countries. Predictably, the study, which looked at children ages 6 to 7 and 13 to 14, found high rates of asthma in children where open fires were used for cooking. But it also concluded, “In both age groups, we detected no evidence of an association between the use of gas as a cooking fuel and either asthma symptoms or asthma diagnosis.” (Emphasis added.)

Compare that with two recent studies that claim a connection between gas stoves and poor indoor air quality. One of the studies looked at indoor air quality in “53 homes in 7 California counties between January 2020 and May 2021.” The authors of that 2022 study measured air quality in kitchens with gas stoves, but in doing so they used “clear plastic sheets” that were “sealed along the ceiling, walls, and floor” to prevent air from the rest of the house from circulating with the air in the kitchen. After the kitchen was sealed off, they turned on the gas burners and took air-quality measurements. This is hardly a representative example of how consumers cook in their kitchens. 

Another study, which the Washington Post said “adds fuel to a burgeoning debate over the potential threats that gas stoves pose to the planet and public healthby claiming the stoves are “responsible for roughly 12.7 percent of childhood asthma cases nationwide” didn’t do any population samples. Instead, it was a literature review: Its authors extrapolated the findings from several other studies to reach their conclusion. 

The effort to ban gas stoves is part of the broader “electrify everything” effort that several NGOs have been pushing for several years. Back in 2020, the Sierra Club claimed that gas stoves are “linked to respiratory illnesses, and children who live in homes with gas stoves are 42% more likely to have asthma.” The source for that claim was a paper by RMI, the Colorado-based non-profit founded by energy-efficiency and renewable-energy advocate Amory Lovins. The RMI connection is important: One of the authors of the recent study claiming 12.7 percent of childhood asthmas are due to gas stoves, Talor Gruenwald, works at RMI. Gruenwald is also a research associate at Rewiring America, a San Francisco-based outfit that calls itself the “leading electrification nonprofit, focused on electrifying our homes, businesses, and communities.” On Thursday, Axios quoted Gruenwald as saying “Gas stove emissions are significant contributors to the climate crisis.” 

Last August, the Sierra Club petitioned the Environmental Protection Agency to implement a federal ban on all natural gas appliances, following up on its success in getting bans adopted in California. According to its website, 69 communities in the state have now “adopted gas-free buildings commitments or electrification building codes.” 

In September, the California Air Resources Board voted to ban the sale of all space heaters and water-heating appliances powered by natural gas in the state by 2030. In addition, New York City and Seattle have banned the use of gas in new construction. Massachusetts is also rolling out a new measure that will allow up to 10 communities to ban gas. 

But banning gas appliances would have negative effects. About 47 million American homes use gas stoves. In addition, gas is also the cheapest form of in-home energy. Banning natural gas for heating will inevitably mean higher costs for consumers. It will also result in huge increases in electricity demand during the coldest days of winter. In fact, over the Christmas holiday we saw that our electric grid is already cracking under existing demand.

Yesterday, the Washington Post ran an article under the headline “how the humble gas stove became the latest flash point in the culture war.” While it’s convenient to claim the battle over gas stoves is part of a “culture war,” the real issue is how we are going to make sure our energy networks can continue providing affordable and reliable power. The fight over gas stoves represents only a small part of that bigger, and more important, discussion. 

Robert Bryce is the host of the Power Hungry Podcast, executive producer of the documentary Juice: How Electricity Explains the World, and author of A Question of Power: Electricity and the Wealth of Nations.