When you pay your utility bill, you are underwriting the ongoing climate crisis.
It’s not your fault. But it is happening, and as long as it is, we’ll never get climate change under control.
Here’s what’s going on, and what you can do about it.
It’s All About “Gas Line Extension Allowances”
A new report from the nonprofit RMI (formerly, Rocky Mountain Institute) highlights how utilities charge unknowing consumers to keep expanding the use of natural gas.
As “Overextended: It’s Time to Rethink Subsidized Gas Line Extensions” explains, utility companies that provide natural gas to fuel our furnaces, water heaters, and other appliances deliver that gas through underground gas lines. Many communities (including mine) are adopting plans to use less gas and more electricity because natural gas is one of the major contributors to climate change and air and water pollution. The United Nations Environment Programme says that reducing the methane leaks associated with the fracking that produces natural gas is “one of the most cost-effective strategies to rapidly reduce the rate of warming.” Additionally, alternatives to natural gas-fueled appliances in our homes would “reduce human health harms caused by indoor air pollution from gas combustion.”
Nevertheless, utilities are trying to increase America’s overall use of natural gas as quickly as possible.
One way they do that is by installing new gas lines to new customers. According to RMI, a new natural gas customer is added to the gas line system every minute in the US. That amounts to over 500,000 new customers each year, on top of the 77 million homes and businesses already using natural gas.
Consumers get roped into paying for this because utilities don’t charge the contractors or builders who construct new gas-using homes, buildings, and subdivisions; they charge existing consumers for what is known as “line extension allowances.” Utilities have never asked consumers for their permission to do this, nor have they been forthright about telling existing customers—who may be trying hard to stop climate change—that they’re inadvertently helping it to continue because of the bills they pay.
As long as utilities are allowed to both build new gas lines and charge consumers for them, the practice will continue. RMI says that public utility commissions and government agencies that regulate utilities should reform these allowances to “eliminate subsidies for gas, support state climate policies, and reduce the financial burden on existing gas customers.”
It is hard to pinpoint exactly what percentage of your monthly gas bill goes to these subsidies. But clearly, at a time when we should be doing everything we possibly can to stop climate change, not even a penny of your gas bill should be subsidizing new gas line construction and use.
Though it’s challenging to reform utility rate structures, you’re not without some recourse.
First and foremost, take steps to use less gas at home to lower your utility bill and make less money available to utilities to expand. By now, these gas-saving suggestions should be familiar: Insulate your home and use a programmable thermostat to reduce heating needs. When you’re ready, switch your gas appliances—including your water heater, clothes dryer, and stove—to electric. If you can’t switch to an electric stove any time soon, use electric appliances like a toaster oven, slow cooker, electric kettle, and portable induction cooktop. When it comes time to replace your HVAC system, consider an electric heat pump. Also look into whether solar energy is right for your home. New financing mechanisms are available to help more homeowners install solar. You can also join a community solar co-op.
At the policy level, contact your state and local officials. Send them a link to RMI’s report and urge them to demand accountability from local utilities. Ask them to find out how much your local utility may be charging you to build new lines. While existing gas lines need to be kept repaired, scrutinize plans for new gas lines. Also, if your local and state governments haven’t already done so, encourage them to adopt clean energy plans that call for electrification of homes and buildings, with electricity provided by solar, wind, and other non-carbon-based fuels.
You can also contact your local utility and demand an accounting of how much money they’re charging you to build new gas lines. While you’re at it, get in touch with the local public utility or public service commission and testify and write letters encouraging the commissions to eliminate the ability of utilities to charge you for building new lines. You can find a list of every public service/public utility commission in the US here.