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Gaslit, or Full of Gas?

Mother Jones misses the mark with a patronizing investigation of the popular home stoves.

The fossil fuel industry is so devious that it devised a type of stove that people like. That’s a very slight exaggeration of a recent investigative piece in Mother Jones, which dives deep into the natural gas industry’s fierce and covert opposition to a raft of new building codes and other regulations that aim at buildings going fully electric.

The basic health and environmental arguments—natural gas produces indoor particulate pollution; its production involves potentially large methane emissions; gas lines occasionally cause apartment blocks to explode—are all true enough. And the article’s spotlight on corporate influence campaigns is basically fair and accurate. But I have a couple of problems with the piece. 

First is the rigidity of its climate emissions argument. I’m very much a “believer” in the reality of global warming, and I think conservatives should generally be more concerned about it. But there’s still debate as to the relative environmental costs of different energy types. Nevertheless, gone, apparently, are the days when natural gas was widely considered a “bridge fuel” or the least-bad fossil fuel option, though it probably still is. (In fact, natural gas is the main culprit in the precipitous decline in coal power.) 

But there’s still plenty of coal being burned out there, and electricity is only as clean as its source. Consider the debate over electric cars, with some analysts arguing that if they’re charged with electricity from coal-fired plants, they may end up being worse for the environment than plain old gas-powered cars.

But my bigger issue with the piece is that it engages in the worst kind of patronizing paternalism. Like this bit:

Surveys have found that most people would just as soon switch their water heaters and furnaces from gas to electric versions. So, gas companies have found a different appliance to focus on: gas stoves. Thanks in large part to gas company advertising, gas stoves—like granite countertops, farm sinks, and stainless-steel refrigerators—have become a coveted kitchen symbol of wealth, discernment, and status, not to mention a selling point for builders and realtors.

Or this line: “Over the last century, the gas industry has worked wonders to convince Americans that cooking with a gas flame is superior to using electric heat.” Or this attempt to see shadowy corporate malfeasance in unselfconscious bits of everyday life: “In the 1930s, the industry invented the catch phrase ‘cooking with gas.’”

This article makes me, decidedly not a Reason-style libertarian, yearn for a rebuttal in Reason magazine.

Full disclosure: I am the happy owner of a gas stove (it came with our unit, but I intend to keep it and to replace it with another gas stove, if necessary). My parents have an electric stove. When I visit them and try to cook, I have a harder time with it. That’s it. I’m not aware of ever having seen an advertisement or advocacy campaign aimed at convincing me to like gas cooking. I don’t view it as a status symbol. It just…works well, and is affordable.

Induction stoves are more energy-efficient than standard coil or glass electric ones, and they’re considered nearly as responsive as gas. Perhaps as the price of induction stoves continues to fall, they’ll edge out both of today’s mainstream options, much as the LED light bulb has made the late-2000s light bulb war a non-issue. That would be fine with me. But for now, I’ll keep cooking with gas.

Crusading, muckraking, progressive journalism can be fantastic, and it can uncover corporate crimes and corrupt cronyism. But at its worst, it calls you stupid for liking your stove.