By Staci Hartwell and Eliseo Magos
The writers are, respectively, the environment and climate justice chair for the NAACP Maryland State Conference and a community organizer with CASA.
Every so often in Maryland, we hear distressing news of a major explosion in a residential neighborhood. These explosions, caused by unsafe gas lines, have become all too common, even as they take lives, destroy homes and disrupt communities.
Last August, a gas explosion took a life and damaged three homes off Reisterstown Road in Northwest Baltimore. Four years before that, a gas explosion in a Silver Spring apartment complex killed seven people.
From 2010 through August of last year, there were 11 major gas incidents in Maryland, resulting in eight fatalities, more than 30 injured people and upward of $11 million in damages, according to the federal Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration.
Gas line safety is a national issue, and these explosions are increasing over time. September will mark the 11-year anniversary of the San Bruno gas pipeline explosion in California that killed eight people, injured more than 50 and set fire to 38 houses. We are also reaching the three-year anniversary of the Merrimack Valley gas explosions in Massachusetts that killed one, left more than 25 people injured and destroyed dozens of homes.
It’s time we start planning how to move away from using gas in our homes to fuel stoves, ovens, hot water heaters and furnaces. Aside from the safety risks, burning gas is, of course, a major generator of greenhouse gas, which causes climate change. Homes and offices accounted for 13% of Maryland’s greenhouse gas pollution in the most recent state inventory, and 80% of that pollution came directly from heating buildings and their water.
Gas in the home is also a threat to health.
A report released in 2020 from the Sierra Club and other groups found that gas stoves may expose people to levels of indoor air pollution that would be illegal under outdoor air-quality standards. Such exposure can lead to respiratory illnesses. Children in homes that cook with gas have a 42% increased risk of asthma. Gas is not safe, and it is not clean.
Congress is now considering two major pieces of legislation that could help pay for the move away from gas, by expanding funding for affordable housing and supporting clean heating and energy technologies, and we urge our representatives from Maryland to make sure those become law.
State policymakers should also carefully consider the problems of residential gas and act to protect the health and safety of Marylanders.
An ad hoc group that is part of the Maryland Commission on Climate Change is considering recommendations on how to reduce or eliminate carbon emissions from buildings in Maryland – recommendations that can inform the work of the General Assembly next year.
A study commissioned by this group found that all-electric new construction is cheaper than mixed-fuel construction for single-family homes, so establishing incentives or requirements for new residential buildings to use electricity rather than gas makes economic and climate sense.
We may soon be able to use federal funding to expand residential electricity and clean energy, rather than continuing to burn gas. Those dollars could be put to work to increase energy efficiency incentives for low- and moderate-income communities and support replacing dirty heating fuels like oil and gas with clean options like heat pumps and geothermal.
A primary focus should be making this change affordable in residential buildings in low- and moderate-income communities that are likely to be hardest hit as the impacts of climate change grow more dangerous. Supporting these families by reducing their energy burdens is critical to an equitable switch from gas to electricity, and federal funding for a just transition for workers must be part of the plan.
Climate legislation will be a key issue in Annapolis next year. Moving the state toward a clean-energy future and away from a reliance on gas must be part of the solution.