In December 2021, outgoing New York City mayor Bill de Blasio signed a bill banning natural gas hookups in newly constructed buildings. The law passed with support from environmentalist groups including the Natural Resources Defense Council, which said the ban would "eliminate emissions" by requiring electric heat.
There was just one problem: Almost all of New York City's electricity comes from natural gas. That means electrifying buildings will increase emissions rather than reduce them, energy experts told the Washington Free Beacon.
"Emissions will go up," said Mark Mills, a physicist and energy expert at the Manhattan Institute. "It's unavoidable."
It takes twice as many fossil fuels to power an electric stove as a gas one, Mills said, because energy gets lost in the conversion process. So without a relatively green grid, fewer gas stoves means more gas burned overall and more carbon dioxide in the atmosphere.
It seems counterintuitive: If climate change endangers "the future of all life on earth," as the president of the Natural Resources Defense Council said in April, why did environmental groups support a policy that will make it worse?
One answer is the environmental movement's increasing focus on racial justice, which has made it more skeptical of clean energy sources—including nuclear and hydropower—that allegedly harm minorities.
Several of the environmental groups that supported the gas ban framed it as an "antiracist" measure. Gas appliances emit toxic fumes, they argued, and the people most likely to inhale those fumes are black. "This has led to disparate health outcomes for communities of color," the green group WE ACT for Environmental Justice told the New York City Council, because they "experience higher rates of respiratory diseases like asthma."
But the gas ban will itself have a disparate racial impact, energy experts say. An analysis from the Consumer Energy Alliance found that the ban is likely to hike energy bills, which eat up a disproportionate share of minorities' income. The ban will also increase the likelihood of blackouts in minority communities—usually the first to lose power when energy is scarce—by straining the electric grid.
The result could be the worst of both worlds: higher emissions for New York City and a lower standard of living for its most vulnerable citizens.
"You have to accept that all types of energies have tradeoffs," said Josiah Neeley, an energy expert at the R Street Institute. "Those are never going to be evenly distributed."
The tradeoffs have grown more acute with the closure of the Indian Point nuclear power plant, which supplied 30 percent of New York City's electricity—more than all the wind turbines and solar panels in the state combined. The plant was a top target of environmental groups like Hudson River Sloop Clearwater, which claimed that "people of color" in New York "experienced disproportionate impacts" from its radiation. Though Indian Point never exceeded federal radiation limits, it closed in April 2021 under pressure from environmentalists.
To make up for the lost electricity, the Big Apple turned on several gas-powered plants, pushing fossil fuels' share of the city's grid above 90 percent. The shift increased emissions by 7 million metric tons, an analysis from Nuclear New York found. With new buildings forced to rely on electric heat, that carbon footprint will get even larger.
To offset the spike, the state approved transmission lines between New York City and hydrodams in Quebec. But those plans encountered stiff opposition from Riverkeeper and the Sierra Club—both of which also lobbied against Indian Point—who say the lines will pollute the Hudson River and harm indigenous groups.
Native Americans "have experienced critical damage to their traditional homelands and lifeways from massive hydropower infrastructure," the Sierra Club said in a press release, "with little to no compensation from HydroQuébec."
Such race-conscious conservationism is not confined to New York. It's become a faultline within the national Democratic Party, pitting center-left climate hawks against progressive activists. While President Joe Biden has pledged billions to save aging reactors, his administration’s own "Environmental Justice Advisory Council" lists "nuclear power" as something "that will not benefit a community"—the same designation it gives "fossil fuel procurement."
In New York City, wind and solar power have been framed as tradeoff-free alternatives to nuclear. Several green groups argued that the natural gas ban would promote public health and reduce emissions because the state has plans to build a plethora of renewables. Eventually, the argument goes, wind and solar farms will replace the gas-powered plants that replaced Indian Point, without any of the toxins or disparate impacts.
But those projects will take time, energy experts warned—time some climate scientists say we don't have. Mills estimated it would take "over a decade" to build enough wind farms to replace Indian Point. By then, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change predicts that global warming will have reached 1.5 degrees Celsius, the so-called tipping point outlined in the Paris Climate Agreement.
The group's predictions have been wrong before, and one of its lead scientists, Michael Allen, has warned against apocalyptic interpretations of them. But it is those interpretations that predominate at We ACT for Environmental Justice, Earthjustice, the Sierra Club, and the Natural Resources Defense Council—all of which supported the gas ban.
"The idea is that if the electric grid gets to zero emissions in twenty years, you'll reap the benefits by switching over now," Neeley said. "But there's a disconnect between that timeline and the claims about how fast you need to act."
In the meantime, banning gas hookups will strain the city's fossil fuel-heavy grid, which has sometimes struggled to meet demand. When temperatures reached record highs In July 2019, Consolidated Edison, New York City's main electric company, cut power to two black neighborhoods that account for a disproportionate share of the city’s heat deaths. Without a preemptive power outage, Con Edison said, the blackouts would have been more widespread.
The pattern is similar in other states, where minority neighborhoods lose power at disproportionately high rates. One study from the National Consumer Law Center found that African Americans experience power outages twice as often as whites, even when controlling for income. In the 2021 Texas blackout, minority neighborhoods were four times more likely to suffer outages than predominantly white areas, according to research from the Rockefeller Foundation.
"The left leans a lot on environmental racism because racism is the cause du jour," said Daniel Turner, the executive director of Power the Future. "But there is probably some racism in who has their power shut down."
Update May 4, 10:45 a.m.: This story initially stated that the planned transmission lines between New York City and Quebec were in jeopardy following opposition from environmental groups. On April 14, state regulators approved the project anyway.