Environmentalists Sue and Petition to Get Rid of Natural Gas Heaters

August 24, 2022 by Tom Ramstack
Environmentalists Sue and Petition to Get Rid of Natural Gas Heaters

WASHINGTON — Environmentalists are pressing their case that natural gas is not clean energy with a lawsuit in Washington, D.C., and a petition to the Biden administration.

In one example, Washington Gas Light Co. is defending itself against a first-of-its-kind lawsuit that accuses it of violating consumer protection laws by making customers believe natural gas is environmentally safe.

The truth, according to the lawsuit, is that natural gas emits methane into the air, adding to global warming.

In another example, environmentalist groups submitted a petition to the Environmental Protection Agency on Tuesday asking the agency to ban home and commercial heating appliances that use natural gas.

“To protect public health while achieving the added benefit of advancing the Biden administration’s carbon reduction goals, EPA must set zero-emission standards for such appliances by 2030,” says the petition from 26 groups that include the Sierra Club, Environment America, Physicians for Social Responsibility and U.S. PIRG.

U.S. PIRG also joined in the lawsuit filed against Washington Gas Light Co. in District of Columbia Superior Court. Other nonprofit plaintiffs in the lawsuit include ClientEarth and the Environment America Research and Policy Center.

Methane is the second most abundant greenhouse gas after carbon dioxide, accounting for about 20% of global emissions, according to the EPA. Methane is about 25 times more potent than carbon dioxide in trapping atmospheric heat.

Washington Gas delivers natural gas — a fossil fuel — to more than 1 million residential, commercial and industrial customers.

“Washington Gas consistently refers to fossil gas in customer-facing materials as clean and sustainable, and even includes on its bills a colorful picture of flowers, with text describing gas as a ‘smart choice for the environment’ compared to electrification,” ClientEarth says on its website. “However, the reality is that fossil gas is anything but ‘clean, efficient and reliable.’”

The nonprofits are invoking authority for their lawsuit under Washington’s Consumer Protection Procedures Act. It authorizes legal action against businesses that “engage in an unfair or deceptive trade practice, whether or not any consumer is in fact misled, deceived or damaged.”

The nonprofits’ lawsuit seeks to compel Washington Gas to cease promoting natural gas as a “low carbon” fuel that is clean and sustainable.

“Low-carbon gas is not what Washington Gas has to offer, nor do they have a plan to offer it in the near future,” the lawsuit says.

Although the Washington Gas lawsuit is a first for what environmentalists call “greenwashing,” the plaintiffs implied in a statement it won’t be the last.

Washington Gas “is not alone in greenwashing the environmental impacts of methane gas,” the groups said. Similar practices are being done by utilities in California, Illinois, Massachusetts, New Jersey, Pennsylvania and Texas, they said.

The petition to the EPA focuses heavily on health problems linked to natural gas. It says the agency should use its authority under the Clean Air Act to ban heating systems that emit the kind of nitrogen oxides found in natural gas.

The EPA has identified nitrogen oxides as a contributor to smog.

The EPA found “evidence suggesting a causal relationship between [nitrogen dioxide] exposure and cardiovascular effects, diabetes, adverse birth outcomes, cancer, and total mortality,” the petition says.

The nonprofits ask for nitrogen oxide restrictions on new appliances, not existing ones. They also want the EPA to prohibit new oil-powered heaters.

Nearly half, or 47% of households use natural gas, according to the U.S. Energy Information Administration.

The American Gas Association implied in a statement that the petition is unrealistic.

“This proposal would impose undue burdens on consumers at every step of the process, including our most vulnerable communities,” the American Gas Association said.

On a lesser scale, the Biden administration appears to be siding mostly with the environmentalists.

The Inflation Reduction Act that President Joe Biden signed into law last week contains incentives for homeowners and businesses to switch to heat pumps, which do not emit nitrogen oxides. They extract heat from outdoor air and transfer it indoors.

The act would grant tax credits of as much as 30% of the cost of a new heat pump. It would give rebates as high as $8,000 for heat pumps for households earning less than 80% of their state’s median household income.

The EPA has not commented on the environmentalists’ petition other than to say the agency is reviewing it.

The lawsuit is ClientEarth et al. v. Washington Gas Light Co. in Superior Court of the District of Columbia.

Tom can be reached at [email protected] and @TomRamstack

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