Matt Taibbi used Unimportant Flying Objects as a point of departure for his must-read Government by Panic. We will shortly argue that the sudden and obviously non-organic emergence of the gas stove as a public menace that must be metered way down hews to that pattern.
Now take a hypothetical. Say you’re a member of the American political establishment after the 2016 election of Donald Trump. You’re staring at four years as part of a government-in-exile and need a new message to solve your belief problem. What’s your answer?
My hypothesis is such people never bothered to find one. Instead, they declared a state of emergency.
What emergency? Doesn’t matter. Russian interference was a good startup disaster, but you can keep changing them. The important thing is the pattern. One, declare a crisis. Two, spread panic. Three, take emergency measures. If you do this over and over, you end up with permanent crisis, permanent panic, permanent emergency rule. So long as new crises keep evoking unconscious fear and anxiety, the legitimacy of the political establishment is continuously justified.
Now even though something as pedestrian as kitchen devices hardly seems to merit ad emergency response, the way this issue has been moved to the front burner suggests it too is getting the panic treatment….and like the Chinese balloon intruder, with an underwhelming news hook.
The plan to Do Something about gas stoves apparently got traction via an October 2022 memo by Richard Trumka, a Biden appointee to the Consumer Product Safety Commission. Word of the initiative broke on January 9. Per Bloomberg:
A federal agency says a ban on gas stoves is on the table amid rising concern about harmful indoor air pollutants emitted by the appliances.
The US Consumer Product Safety Commission plans to take action to address the pollution, which can cause health and respiratory problems.
“This is a hidden hazard,” Richard Trumka Jr., an agency commissioner, said in an interview. “Any option is on the table. Products that can’t be made safe can be banned.”
Natural gas stoves, which are used in about 40% of homes in the US, emit air pollutants such as nitrogen dioxide, carbon monoxide and fine particulate matter at levels the EPA and World Health Organization have said are unsafe and linked to respiratory illness, cardiovascular problems, cancer, and other health conditions, according to reports by groups such as the Institute for Policy Integrity and the American Chemical Society. Consumer Reports, in October, urged consumers planning to buy a new range to consider going electric after tests conducted by the group found high levels of nitrogen oxide gases from gas stoves.
New peer-reviewed research published last month in the International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health found that more than 12% of current childhood asthma cases in the US can be attributed to gas stove use.
The study was published December 21 and picked up by the Washington Post on January 6. It no doubt was in circulation prior to publication.
Due to being jet-lagged, yours truly has not read the article in full. However, it was a meta-study, meaning the general drift of its findings was not novel, as demonstrated by initiatives by 42 cities to end gas stove use as of 2021. Note the analysis is based on population-level correlations.1 That means there is no consideration whether gas stove “indoor pollution” can be adequately mitigated by better ventilation.
The Trumka gas stove ban threat generated strong opposition, which led to a retreat. From Bloomberg two days after the interview, on January 11:
The head of the US Consumer Product Safety Commission said the agency has no plans to ban gas stoves, days after one of his colleagues said a ban was one option under consideration in comments that ignited a political firestorm.
“I am not looking to ban gas stoves and the CPSC has no proceeding to do so,” Alexander Hoehn-Saric said in a statement Wednesday. He added that the four-person commission is researching emissions from the appliances and looking for ways to reduce related indoor air-quality hazards.
Hoehn-Saric’s comments follow remarks made by Richard Trumka Jr., an agency commissioner, who told Bloomberg that the CPSC would consider a ban as part of efforts to address hazards posed by gas ranges. His words ignited criticism from the gas industry and from lawmakers ranging from House Energy and Commerce Committee Chair Representative Cathy McMorris Rodgers to Senator Joe Manchin.
“I can tell you the last thing that would ever leave my house is the gas stove that we cook on,” the West Virginia Democrat said in a statement Tuesday. “If this is the greatest concern that the Consumer Product Safety Commission has for American consumers, I think we need to reevaluate the commission.”
Per Rodgers remark, how many card-carrying members of the PMC have restaurant-sized stoves with gas burners as status statements?
Fox got access to the Trumka memo and discussed it on February 2. a cursory search didn’t turn up the full text. But the Fox account, with supporting excerpts, argues that the Biden Administration most assuredly had been pursuing a ban.
But back to elite kitchen fetish objects class issues cut the other way too. The reason gas stoves are so common in urban apartments is that they are cheap to operate. And the Trumka memo argued that the CPSC had a duty to ban consumer products that generate hazardous substances under the Federal Hazardous Substances Act: “There is sufficient information available for CPSC to issue an NPR [Notice of Proposed Rulemaking] in FY 2023 proposing to ban gas stoves in homes…The additional work needed to complete an NPR is primarily economic…”
One has to assume that the proposed Department of Energy rules restricting both gas and energy stoves to energy-efficient, which generally means lower-power, units, quietly launched at the end of the month, were meant primarily to provide the CPSC’s economic case. Note the DoE, contrary to the typical practice of Federal agencies, has not posted the proposed rule on its site; you have to go rummaging about to find it in the Federal Register or Regulations.gov.
The proposed standards, which focus on energy consumption, would require that both gas and electric stoves meet certain efficiency thresholds. The proposal also suggests new standards for gas and electric ovens.
“As required by Congress, the Department of Energy is proposing efficiency standards for gas and electric cooktops — we are not proposing bans on either,” a department spokesperson said in a statement. “The proposed standards would not go into effect until 2027 and cumulatively save the nation up to $1.7 billion. Every major manufacturer has products that meet or exceed the requirements proposed today.”
The article does acknowledge the new rules are for countertops and ovens….when most Americans buy ranges. So how does that work?
In addition, by law, energy efficiency rules are not warranted unless they are technologically feasible, economically justified, and result in significant energy conservation (see 42 U.S.C. section 6295(o)(2)(A), (o)(3)(B)). That is questionable here.
“This approach by DOE could effectively ban gas appliances,” said Jill Notini, a vice president with the Association of Home Appliance Manufacturers, a Washington-based trade group. “We are concerned this approach could eliminate fully featured gas products.”
Lobbyists are wont to say that sort of thing. But more telling, the economic case, which recall is required by statute, is weak. “Up to $1.7 billion cumulatively” as over the usual CBO 10 year scoring period of ten years, across all US households, is close to rounding error.2 Note that cooking accounts for 4% to 5% of home energy use. Water heaters, washers and driers, and lights each amount to more than twice as much.
The details of the very long regulatory discussion are over my pay grade. However, it makes clear consumers will have to pay more for appliances: “The effect of new or amended energy conservation standards on individual consumers usually involves a reduction in operating cost and an increase in purchase cost.” This again hurts lower income consumers. And confirming the marginal nature of the savings, in most cases the payback period is 14 years or more.3
In addition, I do not see the analysis allowing for the cost of changing gas to electrical connections, as in sealing the gas piping and running new 220v to the stove/range/oven location, since in most cases, the outcome would be to replace gas appliances with electric. That will add to upfront costs, and those have a disproportionate impact in NPV terms.
Finally, it appears that the DoE didn’t consider the impact of extra demand for electrical power on creaky grids. Even if there are efficiency gains, they are likely to be more than offset by shifting gas demand over to electricity. Grids are already projected to be unable to handle the demands of more electric vehicles. But this sort of mandating changes without considering downstream effect is typical for our PowerPoint dwelling leaders.
Finally, don’t kid yourself that our lovers of tricked-out kitchens will be denied the sort of equipment that elite rental chefs will need to perform well. Is this sort of product is outside the contemplated regulations? It seems to be in a novel category:
Ok, I’m so ignorant.
China already has electric fire stoves for years, and I haven’t heard of it.
While Americans are arguing if they should ban gas stoves… and use induction. pic.twitter.com/G6zyK4qNG2
— ❌️ (@InfernoXhell) February 12, 2023
Mind you, as much as I liked using a gas stove in New York City, I do not feel deprived by no longer having one. The reason for taking interest in the anti-gas stove push is that its sudden emergence as a Biden priority suggests a big money interest must be behind it. But if so, it’s remained well hidden so far.
And finally, amusingly, the Administration appeared to have thought it had a trump card in the spectacle of children’s health. After the lack of uproar over Covid deaths and likely long-term harm, Team Biden should have recognized from their experience that despite all the sentimentality, children are disposables in an neoliberal economy.
1 Note the paper appears to have gotten an expedited review. It was submitted November 4 and accepted December 14. The abstract:
Indoor gas stove use for cooking is associated with an increased risk of current asthma among children and is prevalent in 35% of households in the United States (US). The population-level implications of gas cooking are largely unrecognized. We quantified the population attributable fraction (PAF) for gas stove use and current childhood asthma in the US. Effect sizes previously reported by meta-analyses for current asthma (Odds Ratio = 1.34, 95% Confidence Interval (CI) = 1.12–1.57) were utilized in the PAF estimations. The proportion of children (
Note the paper prominently flags that amelioration strategies have not been investigated.
2 From the proposed regulation:
Using a 7-percent discount rate for consumer benefits and costs and NO X and SO 2 reduction benefits, and a 3-percent discount rate case for GHG social costs, the estimated cost of the proposed standards for consumer conventional cooking products is $32.5 million per year in increased product costs, while the estimated annual benefits are $100.8 million in reduced product operating costs, $67.0 million in climate benefits and $64.9 million in health benefits. The net monetized benefit amounts to $200.3 million per year.
3 Since I do not know the industry, it is possible that some of the categories with short payback periods are disproportionate in terms of industry sales.