News Analysis: what does the transition away from natural gas look like?

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By Veronica Backer-Peral

Protestors oppose construction related to the restoration project at the SoCalGas natural gas storage facility at the Ballona Wetlands in Los Angeles. Photo from Maddie Cindrich.

Demanding that the state of California close the Playa Vista natural gas facility less than two miles from the Loyola Marymount University campus is just the start. The more challenging step is determining what comes next. 

Natural gas was the most used energy source across California in 2018, amounting to a total of more than 2,000 trillion British Thermal Units (BTU) consumed every year. That’s the same amount of energy that 200 million burritos has. One of the natural gas storage facilities that provides energy to Californians was that of Aliso Canyon in northern Los Angeles, which was closed following a massive leak in 2015 that released 109,000 metric tons of methane into the atmosphere. After it was shut down, Southern California experienced increased risk of energy shortages. Fears of natural gas shortages are especially pronounced during winter and summer, when homes rely on natural gas and electrical power for heating and air conditioning. 

For the most part, natural gas is a less dirty energy source than other fossil fuels. For example, it emits about half as much CO2 as coal per unit burned. For that reason, it was often hailed as a cleaner and more economically-sustainable alternative to coal and oil at the start of the century. Some also suggested natural gas could decrease the United States’ reliance on imported oil. 

But with new data and research, there are increasingly more reasons to move away from natural gas. It is still a nonrenewable fossil fuel; the burning of natural gas, while less damaging to the environment than coal or oil, still contributes heavily to rising temperatures. Furthermore, natural gas leaks are an imminent threat to the health of the people living near them — in the case of the facility underneath the Ballona Wetlands, this especially impacts the residents of Playa Vista and the Westchester community. Aliso Canyon may be the most infamous example, but it is by no means the only one.

Experts say that the best solution is to transition away from natural gas, but to do so carefully and strategically so as to avoid setbacks, such as increased reliance on dirtier energy sources. Luckily, the groundwork for this transition is already in place. Today in California, 44 cities have passed legislation to reduce natural gas dependence in favor of electric alternatives. In preparation for a new energy code that will be released in 2022, the California Energy Commission released a statement suggesting that future legislation will incentivize renewable energy and establish “electric-ready” requirements for new residential buildings, meaning that even buildings that continue to use natural gas will be built so that a future transition to electric energy is feasible. 

Both state and federal environmental objectives require greater investment in electrical, as opposed to gas-reliant, infrastructure. These efforts, however, can only be effective if they are met with an equivalent advance in renewable energy technology. Not to mention that natural gas-related emissions are by no means the only source of global warming. For example, the primary source of carbon emissions in California is transportation, which overwhelmingly relies on petroleum energy, not natural gas. For that reason, experts warn that the transition to green energy must be multifaceted. There may not be a single solution to climate change, but actually accepting that reality is the first step to developing a plan that moves the planet forward. 

Read more about natural gas use here, and watch the battle over natural gas use at Ballona here.

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