Activists petition EPA to restrict the use of home and commercial furnaces by 2030

·Senior Editor
·11 min read

A coalition of 26 climate change, public health and environmental justice advocacy organizations formally petitioned the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) on Tuesday to regulate air pollution produced by residential and commercial heating appliances, a move that would require homeowners and businesses to swap out heating and hot water furnaces.

Noting that oil and gas-fueled boilers that provide heating and hot water in homes, offices, schools and hospitals produce between 9% and 10% of U.S. greenhouse gas emissions, and release nitrogen oxides, which can cause respiratory problems, the coalition called for the agency to issue rules mandating emissions-free residential and commercial home heating appliances by the end of the decade.

Environmental activists rally in front of the U.S. Supreme Court holding a banner saying: Get Climate Done, as well as placards saying things like: People v. Polluters, Climate Action Now and Congress:#Climatecantwait.
Environmental activists rally in front of the U.S. Supreme Court on July 6 in Washington, D.C. (Drew Angerer/Getty Images)

“To protect public health while achieving the added benefit of advancing the Biden administration’s carbon reduction goals, EPA must set zero-emission standards for such appliances by 2030,” the groups, which include the Sierra Club, U.S. PIRG, Environment America and Physicians for Social Responsibility, wrote.

What that would mean, in practice, is that the EPA would set a first-ever standard limiting the amount of nitrous oxides that residential and commercial heating systems can produce, on the grounds that emissions-free heating systems such as electric heat pumps are widely available.

The EPA has not indicated whether it would be likely to fulfill this request. When asked by Yahoo News for comment, a spokesperson for the agency said only “EPA will review the petition and respond accordingly.”

Energy industry experts, while not dismissing the possibility that the EPA could regulate home furnaces, noted a few potential stumbling blocks, including that such a regulation might not pass the agency’s cost-benefit analysis and that it could be overturned in court.

The oil and gas industry is almost certain to resist the implementation of new federal regulations on home and commercial appliances, especially ones that are powered by natural gas.

A natural gas flare burns near an oil pump jack in a field, with trees in the distance.
A natural gas flare burns near an oil pump jack at the New Harmony Oil Field in Grayville, Ill., on June 19. (Luke Sharrett/Bloomberg via Getty Images)

“Any proposal that bans natural gas or natural gas appliances would be harmful to consumers and to the environment,” the American Gas Association said in a statement provided to Yahoo News. “Natural gas is helping our nation achieve our environmental goals in real time, and the data proves that out. Conversely, this proposal would impose undue burdens on consumers at every step of the process, including our most vulnerable communities, all without the environmental benefit that is claimed. This proposal is bad energy and environmental policy.”

The petitioners argue that the Clean Air Act requires the EPA to regulate pollution from residential and commercial furnaces.

“The Clean Air Act says, in the text we cite a few times throughout the petition, that if the administrator finds that a source contributes significantly to pollution that endangers the public health, then the administrator must list the source and set standards,” Amneh Minkara, Sierra Club’s building electrification campaign deputy director, told Yahoo News. “Our petition makes the case, and I think it’s a pretty compelling case that these appliances meet both of those criteria. And so we think that the EPA administrator must list the source.” 

To make that case, the petition gathers evidence that nitrous oxides, which are emitted by chimneys when basement burners combust oil or gas, cause a slew of health harms. According to the American Lung Association, nitrogen dioxide, the most dangerous pollutant in the group, causes “Increased inflammation of the airways, worsened cough and wheezing, reduced lung function, increased asthma attacks, and greater likelihood of emergency department and hospital admissions. New research warns that NO2 is likely to be a cause of asthma in children.” According to the EPA, nitrous oxides also contribute to the formation of smog, a widely prevalent pollutant.

Climate activists, including members of Extinction Rebellion, hold placards reding: For the Water We Drink, For the Places We Call Home, For the People We Love and Our Future Is Not Negotiable.
Climate activists, including members of Extinction Rebellion, rally against a recent Supreme Court ruling on June 30 in New York City. (Spencer Platt/Getty Images)

In 2016, the petition noted, the EPA found “evidence suggesting a causal relationship between [nitrogen dioxide] exposure and cardiovascular effects, diabetes, adverse birth outcomes, cancer, and total mortality.”

The agency has already regulated nitrous oxides from a host of other sources. “EPA has repeatedly recognized the dangers of [nitrous oxide] emissions and has regulated the pollutant under section 111 for other sources, including fossil fuel-fired steam generators, municipal waste combustors, nitric acid plants, stationary gas turbines, and Portland cement plants, among others,” the petition observes.

The petition also notes that there is a precedent of regulating pollution from home heating appliances. “Our proposed source category would be closely analogous to the residential wood heater source category, which covers ‘enclosed, combustion-controlled wood-fired appliances,’” the petitioners wrote. “Under this category, EPA has thus far issued standards for new residential wood-burning stoves, hydronic heaters, forced-air heaters, and masonry heaters. These sources differ in terms of specific technology and process methods, but all produce heat for some domestic use, including water-heating and space-heating.”

_“Air pollution from fossil fuel-powered home appliances, like gas furnaces and water heaters, is a serious problem for neighborhoods across the country,” said U.S. PIRG’s Director of Environment Campaigns Matt Casale in a statement emailed to Yahoo News. “This invisible threat can lead to asthma and makes us more susceptible to respiratory illnesses — and it’s even worse for our children. We need to eliminate this pollution at its source. The EPA should swiftly adopt regulations that protect the health of our communities and help us secure a cleaner future for all Americans.”

EPA headquarters.
The Environmental Protection Agency headquarters in Washington, D.C., in June. (Stefani Reynolds/AFP via Getty Images)

Critics of the proposal, however, argue that the difference in cost between electric heat pumps and fossil fuel furnaces could make it difficult for the EPA to justify enacting new restrictions.

"Promulgating regulation is about more than just zeroing out emissions, it also requires that the agencies are prudent in capturing a net-benefit to American households,” Philip Rossetti, resident senior fellow in the energy program at R Street, a conservative think tank, told Yahoo News. “A forced transition to alternative appliances will carry a cost which will disproportionately fall on poor and disadvantaged Americans.”

While electric heat pumps save money in the long run on home heating fuel, they currently cost more upfront to install. According to This Old House, the home improvement news and entertainment outlet, a new gas furnace costs $1,700 to $9,700 and a new oil furnace costs $4,300–$9,200. The sustainable lifestyle research organization Carbon Switch conducted a national survey and found that electric heat pumps cost between $3,500 and $20,000, with an average cost of about $14,000.

Then there’s the risk that a court could find that a new EPA regulation essentially banning residential and commercial furnaces goes beyond the powers granted to the agency under the Clean Air Act. In June, the Supreme Court ruled that the EPA went outside the law when it wrote the Clean Power rule, during the Obama administration, and set a standard for carbon emissions from power plants that encouraged utility companies to switch from coal to clean energy sources such as wind and solar power. The Clean Air Act only allows the agency to require pollution control technology, not to require switching from one product to another, the court held. More broadly, the conservative majority on the court is skeptical of what it considers efforts to make policy by regulatory agencies, which it thinks is a power reserved for Congress.

Environmental activists at the U.S. Capitol with placards saying: Protect Our Democracy. Protect Our Environment, and Protect People, Not Polluters
Environmental activists rally near the U.S. Capitol on July 6. (Drew Angerer/Getty Images)

“You're kind of putting the square peg in the round hole and taking a policy action through a regulatory action,” Frank Maisano, a partner in the policy resolution group at Bracewell, a law and lobbying firm that represents energy companies including natural gas, renewables and heating and air conditioning manufacturers, told Yahoo News. “The Supreme Court and other courts have frowned on that more recently. The EPA has some regulatory authority in many of these cases, but, as we've seen recently, the Supreme Court has stepped on them when they've overreached.”

Finally, there are technical limitations: Air-source heat pumps extract heat from outside air, which means they do not function as effectively in very cold temperatures. Even homeowners who get heat pumps in those cold climates often keep an oil or gas furnace as a backup option for the coldest days.

Ground-source heat pumps, which take advantage of the steady temperature underground, are more effective in colder climates but are even more expensive than air-source heat pumps. According to the website ClimateBiz, installing a ground-source heat pump in a 2,000-square-foot house costs an average of $10,000 to $20,000.

From a climate change perspective, however, the benefits could be substantial. Furnaces that burn gas or oil release carbon dioxide from the smokestack, and may also leak methane, a powerful greenhouse gas. They account for the majority of the 13% of U.S. greenhouse gas emissions that come from commercial and residential buildings, according to the EPA. The proposed regulation would not apply to industrial boilers, which are also a major source of climate pollution but are harder to replace because industrial processes often require higher temperatures.

The Biden administration is already encouraging Americans to switch from oil or gas furnaces and hot water heaters to electric heat pumps, which extract heat from the cold outside air and transfer it inside, like an air conditioner in reverse. The recently signed Inflation Reduction Act contains tax credits for up to 30% of the cost of new heat pump, with a maximum credit of $2,000. It also will fund rebates for of up to $8,000 for heat pumps and $1,750 for heat pump water heaters for households earning less than 80% of the median household income in their state, and rebates that are half as much for households making up to 150% of their median state income.

A gas flare from the Shell Chemical LP petroleum refinery illuminates the sky.
A gas flare from the Shell Chemical LP petroleum refinery illuminates the sky in August 2019 in Norco, La. (Drew Angerer/Getty Images)

The activists first approached the EPA with the idea of regulating residential and commercial furnaces last summer, but were told that the agency was too busy to consider it at the time.

“We talked briefly last summer,” Minkara, who was one of the petition’s co-authors, said. “They were kind of swamped last summer dealing with [reversing regulatory] rollbacks from the previous administration. So they said ‘come back later.’… and we’re looking forward to continued conversations after they’ve read our petition.”

For the EPA to set a standard based on electric heat pumps, the Clean Air Act requires that the technology be widely available and accessible. Minkara argued that, because of the Inflation Reduction Act’s incentives and other moves the Biden administration has taken under the Defense Production Act to increase the supply of heat pumps, heat pumps will be cost-competitive by 2030.

“[Heat pumps are] currently more expensive [than furnaces] but even compared to a few years ago, they've become more affordable, and with the avalanche of funding from Defense Production Act, the Inflation Reduction Act … will continue to make them more affordable and accessible,” Minkara said. “So we’re hoping that by 2030, when the switch has to happen, when homeowners have to go buy a new appliance, that heat pumps will be the affordable option.”

The petition also offers options for phasing in the rules in step with the evolving technology. For example, in the South, where homes are often already fully electric, and switching to heat pumps is straightforward, the rule could take effect in this decade, while states in colder climates — in which heat pumps are still an emerging technology and older homes may require electric upgrades that are eligible for Inflation Reduction Act subsidies as well — would have until 2030.

Nonetheless, Maisano predicted that the heating industry would object on the grounds that consumer choices are being limited. After all, electric heat pumps are already on the market for those who want them.

But to the Sierra Club and its allies, even just getting the public to think about the effect of the gas boiler in their basement on climate change and outdoor air pollution would be a step forward.

“Even if we don’t get the regulation we want, it’s still a win if the public is put on notice that these appliances are harming the health of their communities,” Minkara said.

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