Does the state want to take away your natural gas? Valley leaders push for alternatives

Plans by the state of California to explore ways to reduce greenhouse gas emissions from homes and buildings are being decried by a coalition of natural-gas customers as a recipe for requiring all structures in the state to ultimately convert to using only electricity.

That coalition is being backed by a major gas utility company and some local politicians.

County supervisors from Fresno, Kings and Tulare counties were joined Thursday at a briefing in Fresno by a Southern California Gas spokeswoman, Californians for Balanced Energy Solutions and the Central Valley Business Federation to urge the California Public Utility Commission to include a wide range of resources, including what they call “renewable natural gas,” in long-range plans to reduce carbon pollution from energy use.

Earlier this year, the CPUC announced its intention to study potential pilot programs for what it refers to as “building decarbonization.”

“Most of the people that I speak with are incredulous that the state could possibly outlaw natural gas (and) natural gas appliances, especially with no public debate,” said Tara Lynn Gray, a member of the business federation and CEO of the Fresno Metro Black Chamber of Commerce.

“Most people I’ve spoken with are in favor of reducing greenhouse gas emissions, they really don’t want to give up natural gas.”

The CPUC’s documents make no specific mention of requiring all-electric homes and buildings or to “outlaw natural gas”; environmental advocacy groups have indicated all-electric buildings could be a way to accomplish the goal of reducing fossil fuel emissions.

The CPUC’s process calls for establishing a proposed approach for building decarbonization next month and possibly making a decision by the end of 2019.

The local politicians characterized the debate as one of energy choice and local control to avoid possible hardship for businesses and residents, particularly if the CPUC ultimately determines that all-electric rules be imposed.

“There are many low income families, many senior citizens, who own their own homes, and they would be burdened with the tax and the impact of having to convert their air conditioning and heating systems to only electric,” said Nathan Magsig, chairman of the Fresno County Board of Supervisors.

Magsig and others said the CPUC should consider the growing number of digesters and other installations to capture methane gas emissions from dairies, sewage treatment plants and landfills.

“That methane can be recycled and used in a very positive way as opposed to it being vented into the atmosphere or burned off with a flare. … It can be reinjected into a pipeline somewhere and then used downstream” by homes and businesses.

Sharon Thompkins, vice president of strategy and engagement for Southern California Gas, said her company has committed to replace 20 percent of the natural gas it currently supplies to customers in its service area with renewable natural gas.

In the Tulare County community of Pixley, a dairy recently became the first in SoCal Gas’ service territory to begin injecting recycled methane into the utility’s gas distribution system, said Tulare County Board of Supervisors Chairman Kuyler Crocker. “This is a positive thing. We’re making use of every resource available,” Crocker said.

Crocker, Magsig and others pointed to the potential costs and effects of all-electric building rules on low-income and disadvantaged communities as one of their arguments.

An advocate for disadvantaged communities, however, said she believes those officials are using low-income residents as a convenient – and perhaps misleading – talking point.

“Assuming that electrification is very expensive for communities is a little false,” said Leslie Martinez, a policy advocate specializing on energy issues for Leadership Counsel for Justice and Accountability.

“We’ve worked in rulemaking with the CPUC to ensure there are things like the Disadvantaged Community Green Tariff, where if your house is electric you get a discount. There’s a lot of other options for folks who are low income to get discounts for all-electric households.”

Lifelong Valley resident Tim Sheehan has worked in the Valley as a reporter and editor since 1986, and has been at The Fresno Bee since 1998. He is currently The Bee’s data reporter and covers California’s high-speed rail project and other transportation issues. He grew up in Madera, has a journalism degree from Fresno State and a master’s degree in leadership studies from Fresno Pacific University.