Amid the lockdowns spurred by the deadly coronavirus pandemic, Americans have been doing a lot less. There have been fewer cars on the roads, fewer planes in the air, and entire industries shut down. As a result, U.S. energy use plunged to its lowest level in 30 years this past spring, the Energy Information Administration reported on Wednesday.
The country’s energy consumption dropped 14% during April compared to a year earlier, marking the lowest monthly level since 1989 and the largest decrease since record keeping began in 1973. Monthly coal consumption dropped to 27 million tons in April, dropping 27% from the same period in 2019. Oil consumption also fell precipitously to 14.7 million barrels a day, down nearly a third compared to the same period in 2019. It was a bad period for fossil fuel industries, but there was a notable exception: natural gas.
The country actually used 15% more natural gas in April 2020 than in April 2019. That’s largely because while entire sectors of the economy began to shut down and lockdowns went into effect across the nation, we all began spending a lot more time in our homes. About half of all homes in the U.S. rely on natural gas for cooking, warming water, drying clothes, and heating—particularly relevant since April 2020 was colder than the previous April.
The agency’s report illustrates how urgently we need to get off of gas, the extraction, transport, and use of which has been linked to myriad awful health impacts. It also pollute the climate through carbon dioxide and methane, a greenhouse gas far more climate-warming than carbon in the short term.
Despite these risks, the U.S. is moving in the wrong direction. Natural gas was also the largest contributor to the growth in U.S. carbon emissions last year. In the past five years, the fuel has gone from supplying 20% of the country’s energy to 40%. A March report found that the U.S. is on track to spend $1 trillion on new gas-fired power plants and fuel by 2030, which would wreak havoc with the climate since they could remain in operation for decades.
But there’s no need for the residential sector to continue powering homes with the toxic energy source. As much as I admittedly love my gas stove (sorry!), we have the technology to transition to renewable heating sources, either directly converting solar or wind energy to heat or using electricity from renewables to power heat pumps and electric boilers. Some cities have already begun to ban new natural gas lines. Those bans and other policies to reduce supply and demand are essential because gas is a bridge fuel to a wrecked climate. And doing so could also help millions of Americans save on energy bills, which throughout the pandemic have been soaring.