It all began in early January 2023, when a member of the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission, asked about studies linking the use of gas stoves to childhood asthma, told Bloomberg News that “any option is on the table” and that “products that can’t be made safe can be banned.”

The agency moved quickly to walk back the remarks from commissioner Richard Trumka Jr., a Biden appointee, and assure the public that nobody was coming to haul away their stoves. But it was too late: The Jan. 9 story already had set off a new skirmish in America’s culture wars and a media feeding frenzy.

News outlets had a field day competing for most cliché-filled coverage. The Economist observed that a “fiery debate has ignited in America” over a proposal that has “inflamed some Republicans.” Politico opined that the “stove flap gave Republican lawmakers an opening to put Biden’s energy policies back on the front burner.”

All in all, “it was a very stupid news cycle,” as a spokesman for one House Democrat put it. “So little of it was based on fact.” Nobody agreed with that assessment more than the U.S. gas industry, which swiftly launched a public effort to refute the validity of the report that triggered the gas stove kerfuffle.

The report in question was published in December 2022 in the International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health and claimed that nearly 13% of current childhood asthma cases in the U.S. could be traced to gas stove use and the impact on indoor air quality from release of nitrogen dioxide, carbon monoxide and fine particulate matter.

In a statement released a day after the Bloomberg story, The American Gas Association (AGA) disputed the findings and noted that the report was funded by non-governmental organizations, including clean-energy think tank Rocky Mountain Institute (RMI), “to advance their agenda to remove consumer energy choice and the option of natural gas.”

The AGA issued another statement a few days later announcing that RMI “finally admitted” that the study “does not assume or estimate a causal relationship between childhood asthma and natural gas stoves.”

AGA President and CEO Karen Harbert pointed out in the initial coverage that neither the CPSC nor the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) present gas ranges as a major contributor to negative air quality, or health hazard in their technical or public information literature, guidance, or requirements.

“This conversation was largely fuelled by a study which collected no data and made no assumption of causation and relies on reports that did not test natural gas stoves and have ignored research that found no association between gas stoves and asthma,” Harbert said. “For an issue as important and personal as children’s health, sound science matters.”

As part of its response, the AGA pointed to a 2022 study by GTI Energy that actually tested gas and electric stoves in a lab. The study found no difference in particulate emissions, but it did demonstrate the importance of good ventilation for all types of stove because emissions from food and oil are produced during cooking regardless of the fuel source.

Three days after the Bloomberg story, Harbert suggested on a call with reporters that one reason for the furor was the simple fact that Americans really like their gas stoves. Indeed, an estimated 38% of U.S. households have gas stoves and surveys show professional chefs overwhelmingly favour gas for cooking.

“StoveGate”, with its focus on health and indoor air quality, is just a sideshow to the larger and rapidly expanding push for wholesale prohibitions on new natural gas hookups by activists who see total electrification of the U.S. energy system as a key to halting climate change.

As of late January, nearly 100 cities and counties across the country had adopted electrification ordinances that ban or discourage gas hookups for new buildings in favour of electric appliances and heat pumps. That number is startling considering it was just four years ago that Berkeley, California, became the first U.S. city to approve a ban on natural gas hookups. The law took effect in August 2021.

“For an issue as important and personal as children’s health, sound science matters.”

– Karen Harbert, President and CEO, AGA

New York Gov. Kathy Hochul jumped into the fray just as the gas-stove controversy was cranking up. Her plan announced Jan. 12 would ban gas hookups in new construction starting with new homes in 2025 and expanding to large buildings by 2028 — a move the AGA said would “raise costs to consumers, jeopardize environmental progress and deny affordable energy to underserved populations.”

Gas advocates have pushed back, with (so far) 24 states — many with bipartisan support — passing “fuel choice” legislation preempting municipalities from banning natural gas use in buildings. Those states account for nearly one-third of U.S. residential and commercial gas use. Similar legislation has been introduced in several other states.

The industry also has notched victories in court, notably a ruling by the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit April 17 overturning the Berkeley ordinance on the grounds that city officials overstepped their authority in adopting the ban. The ruling was expected to be challenged, but experts say other bans may not be affected due to the ruling’s narrow focus on specifics of Berkeley’s law.

Even without bans, proponents of building electrification as a path to reducing greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions have plenty of tools at their disposal to encourage desired shifts in consumer behaviour. The 2022 Inflation Reduction Act, for example, created rebates of up to $840 off the cost of an electric cooktop, range or wall oven — as well as rebates and tax credits for heat pumps and electric vehicles.

The uproar over gas stoves offers an object lesson in the difficulties of winning in the court of public opinion even when the facts are on your side. Sound science matters, but it’s not going to win the PR war when the folks you hope to persuade are leading with their hearts instead of their heads.

While Trumka’s boss at the CPSC insisted after the blow-up that no outright ban or restrictions on gas stoves were on the docket, the agency in December already had committed to considering new safety regulations. The CPSC planned to open a public comment period in March to solicit input, but Trumka said in his Bloomberg interview that any action or new proposals this year were unlikely.

Just a few years ago, the idea of a nationwide ban on gas stoves in the U.S. would have seemed preposterous. Short of a total ban, however, new appliance efficiency standards proposed by the Department of Energy earlier this year would make half of all gas stoves on the U.S. market today ineligible for sale.

While it may be too soon to predict how much the nation’s love affair with gas cooking will be curtailed by unsubstantiated claims about air quality, efficiency regulations and the drive for total electrification, one thing seems certain: As a culture-war staple symbolizing the seemingly unbridgeable chasm dividing America’s political factions, the gas stove is here to stay.

Expect to see the burner tips under the gas-stove ban issue ignited over and over in the runup to the 2024 U.S, Presidential election.

In the polarized hyperpartisan atmosphere that pervades American politics, there’s little room for a thoughtful, reasoned debate over the relative merits of gas versus electric cooking, or for that matter over the best way for the U.S. to ensure continued access to affordable, reliable energy while reducing emissions to meet targets set by governments. And the affordability and reliability elements are getting more and more attention as both are seriously at risk with an electrification agenda. But political discourse is all about ginning up the base and reducing complex issues to slogans that fit on a t-shirt, hat, or in this case, apron.

David Coburn is a strategic thinker, writer, media relations expert and communications consultant leveraging 30-plus years of print journalism and agency public relations experience.