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Natural gas ban threats spark fear for restaurants

Mar 21, 2023

by Gianna Melillo | Oct. 25, 2022

Restrictions on natural gas-powered appliances have sparked alarm among chefs and restaurant owners alike, who worry any bans on gas stoves will fundamentally change the way some cuisines are prepared and pose significant cost challenges.

Although 21 states have preemption laws in place prohibiting any future legislation from banning natural gas, more than 60 cities in California have taken steps to phase out the appliances, while similar proposals have been enacted in New York and other states to help combat climate change.

"It's spreading pretty quickly," said Jot Condie, president and CEO of the California Restaurant Association (CRA) in an interview with Changing America. "Thinking globally, acting locally is important, but developing an energy policy city by city is not a smart way to do this. And we’re kind of watching this unfold in real time," Condie said.

The CRA is in the midst of a lawsuit brought against Berkeley, Calif. — the first city in the country to implement a ban on natural gas hookups in all new building constructions. A ruling is expected before spring of 2023, Condie said.

The majority of implemented policies do not immediately ban the use of natural gas in commercial buildings. Instead, they’re aimed at transitioning new constructions or renovations away from using the fuel, by mandating future structures don't include gas hookups or infrastructure. Some laws carve out exceptions for commercial restaurants.

According to internal data from the National Restaurant Association, 76 percent of U.S. restaurants use natural gas, while 94 percent of owners who use gas in their establishment say any ban would negatively impact their business.

Burning natural gas does not emit nearly as much carbon dioxide as other fossil fuels like coal and oil. But methane and pollutant leaks during the extraction, production and distribution process pose environmental concerns.

Methane is the second most abundant greenhouse gas resulting from human activity, according to the Environmental Protection Agency, and is 25 times as potent as carbon dioxide at trapping heat in the atmosphere.

Natural gas appliance leaks also pose health concerns. A new study carried out by researchers in California found that even when off, gas stoves in kitchens can leak benzene concentrations comparable to those found in secondhand smoke.

Benzene is a known carcinogen and exposure can cause leukemia.

"Natural gas leaks are a source of hazardous air pollutants that have largely been overlooked," said study co-author Drew Michanowicz in a release.

"Policies that phase out gas appliances are not only good for our climate, our study shows that these policies also provide important public health benefits by improving indoor and outdoor air quality."

But for restaurants, the policies have been adopted too quickly and without much consideration for the industry, owners and representatives say.

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"There are certain types of food and certain culinary techniques that really require a flame in some way, shape or form to work and also for consistency and quality purposes," said Mike Whatley, vice president of state affairs and grassroots advocacy at the National Restaurant Association. "This is an issue that particularly, uniquely impacts restaurateurs in that it impacts the very product that we’re serving."

The organization's data show 90 percent of operators who use natural gas say losing the ability to cook with an open flame would negatively impact the quality of food served. "The technology to replicate the flame just isn't there for a commercial setting yet," Condie said.

Gas appliances are also traditionally cheaper to run than electric ones, though depending on where a restaurant is located, utility costs can vary.

A lack of policy uniformity poses challenges for restaurant groups that operate in different states or cities, as some only apply to new buildings and others to renovations.

"We want to be a productive player and part of the conversation when it comes to environmental stewardship," Whatley said, but "as a whole, the industry has concerns about flat-out losing the ability to have a natural gas flame via a natural gas ban."

Other restaurateurs make the argument that only a small proportion of emissions come from the commercial sector, with the majority resulting from transportation or industrial pollution.

In California, six percent of greenhouse gases comes from the commercial sector and an even smaller portion is attributable to restaurants, Condie said. In 2020, commercial and residential sectors accounted for 13 percent of all U.S. greenhouse gas emissions, with the majority resulting from natural gas consumption.

"I think everybody understands that climate change is absolutely at a crisis level," he noted, but "it just seems like they’re attacking this issue first at the local level, [with] an industry that can least afford it and is least able to transition to electricity than probably many other industries."

In 2020, the city of Ann Arbor, Mich., adopted its A2 Zero plan aimed at reaching carbon neutrality by 2030. The plan does not ban new natural gas infrastructure, but does include initiatives aimed at cutting down commercial use of natural gas by promoting business electrification.

A preemption law that would prohibit legislation on natural gas bans has been introduced in the state, but has not been enacted.

Kevin Gudejko is the president and CEO of Mainstreet Ventures Restaurant Group, which operates nine restaurants in Michigan and four in Ann Arbor. The group also operates in Florida, Ohio and West Virginia.

A few years ago, one of Mainstreet's restaurants switched to solely using induction burners. "We spent in the neighborhood of about 12 or $13,000 to redo our electric system there," Gudejko said, as the previous infrastructure couldn't provide enough energy.

A midsize company, Mainstreet Ventures will be able to adapt and afford some of the transitioning costs, Gudejko said, but he worries going electric might be less feasible for smaller, family-owned establishments.

Increased demand on the state's electricity grid, which is already facing challenges, could pose additional problems.

"I think there's a place for it, but I just don't see how an outright ban can work for our industry."

Induction burners do heat quickly and can be energy efficient, but when it comes down to fine dining and more finesse, there are open flame techniques that can't be replicated with burners, Gudejko said.

For example, at some of Gudejko's steakhouses, "we use char broilers to get that really crusty outside edge. [It] is really pretty difficult, nearly impossible, to char something on an induction burner."

Tom Hutchinson, co-owner of La Posta de Mesilla and Hacienda de Mesilla in Las Cruces, N.M., raised additional concerns about the move away from gas stoves. Hutchinson previously served on the National Restaurant Association Board of Directors and currently sits on the New Mexico board of directors.

Hutchinson uses natural gas for all the equipment at his restaurants. "Converting it to electrical certainly can be done, but all it does is put demands on the grid," he said. "I don't think the grid's in place, the electric power is in place, to be able to make the conversion," for all restaurants in the state.

New Mexico has no proposals pending for a gas ban but is also not among those with preemption laws in place. It ranks among the top 10 natural gas-producing states in the country.

Echoing Gudejko's worries, Hutchinson said "we’d have to go out and purchase all new equipment for our restaurants, we’d have to reengineer our kitchens," if a ban were to be enacted. "It would be terribly costly to make that conversion today."

Although chefs probably could make the transition to induction over time, many have been trained to prepare food over an open flame, while the ability to control the size of that flame is crucial for some cuisines.

"These are folks that are very, very good at their craft. They’re professionals. They understand the importance of the power source they’re using to heat the foods and cook their foods," Hutchinson said.

"I think, too often, we’re quick to leap to these new ideas without understanding what's really happening and what the true impact is," Hutchinson added, suggesting test cases could be carried out to better understand how the conversion could play out.

"We’ve got to be very, very careful that we don't move too fast."

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