Woks vs. clean energy? SoCalGas wanted you to think electrification would crush California restaurants

When Sacramento wanted to ban gas hookups in new buildings two years ago, it sparked a passionate debate over an unexpected cooking tool: the wok. Restaurateurs argued that cooking a traditional Chinese stir fry is simply impossible without an open flame.

But the dispute wasn’t merely about serving delicious meals to hungry customers. It was also about the bottom line of the nation’s largest gas company, SoCalGas, which serves 21 million customers as far north as Fresno and along the Central Coast.

As California cities began to cut planet-warming pollution in new buildings, SoCalGas spent millions to slow the push for building electrification. The Sacramento-based California Restaurant Association became a key ally in this effort, receiving an influx of funding from the utility and bringing a lawsuit that could now hamper clean energy policies nationwide.

Gas stoves and cherished cooking traditions were at the center of this campaign. After SoCalGas recruited primarily Asian-American community and culinary leaders as pro-gas spokespeople, the restaurant association funded widely circulated research that scientists describe as misleading and helped weaken Sacramento’s own electrification ordinance.

In statements to The Sacramento Bee, the restaurant association credited its growing financial relationship with SoCalGas to economic devastation the pandemic wrought upon restaurants. Much of the money it received from the utility, it said, was used for business grants and worker assistance.

The transition to all-electric restaurants has its challenges. But advocates and experts say SoCalGas and the restaurant association fueled concerns with misinformation, masking them in the language of social justice to undermine California’s response to climate change.

In truth, an increasing number of chefs prefer to cook with electric appliances — woks included.

“Gas utilities are pushing a false narrative right now that electrification means the end of restaurants,” said Charlie Spatz, research manager at the Energy and Policy Institute. “This is manufactured outrage and the National Restaurant Association and their affiliates have gone along with it.”

SoCalGas allies with CRA

When Berkeley passed its first-in-the-nation ban on gas hookups for most new buildings in July 2019, the idea spread like a California wildfire. Dozens of cities began adopting similar measures, posing a potential financial calamity for SoCalGas.

Pollution from heating, cooling, refrigerating and cooking in buildings make up California’s third-largest source of carbon emissions behind transportation and industry. Moving toward zero-emission buildings is state policy, but progress has been slow.

In the last two decades, as emissions from transportation and in-state electricity generation fell by well over 20%, pollution from residential buildings has remained mostly stagnant and increased by 51% in commercial buildings.

The California Restaurant Association (CRA) filed suit against Berkeley’s ban months later, arguing that Berkeley’s ordinance overstepped federal energy law and that the policy would threaten key cooking techniques.

A CRA press release announcing the lawsuit said restaurants “rely on gas for cooking particular types of food, whether it be flame-seared meats, charred vegetables, or the use of intense heat from a flame under a wok.”

Immediately, environmental advocates suspected SoCalGas, the state-sanctioned monopoly utility, was somehow involved.

Those advocates felt vindicated this April when the utility told state regulators it had mistakenly billed customers $1.1 million for legal fees to the law firm used by the CRA to sue Berkeley. Charging ratepayers for anything other than providing safe and reliable gas service — political activities, for example — is a violation of state and federal law.

After the suit was filed, money from SoCalGas to the Redwood City law firm Reichman Jorgensen began to flow. Records show that the utility had no financial relationship with the firm before 2019, but paid the firm nearly $5 million between 2020 and 2022.

The Gas Company tower, center, in downtown Los Angeles is the headquarters of SoCalGas, which teamed up with the California Restaurant Association to combat electrification in Sacramento.
The Gas Company tower, center, in downtown Los Angeles is the headquarters of SoCalGas, which teamed up with the California Restaurant Association to combat electrification in Sacramento.

Representatives of SoCalGas said the money to Reichman Jorgensen was related to questions of federal preemption, a legal question at the heart of the Berkeley case. But they deny any connection to CRA’s Berkeley lawsuit.

“SoCalGas did not fund the Berkeley lawsuit,” wrote SoCalGas spokesperson Alice Walton in an email to The Sacramento Bee. “It is bogus to claim that SoCalGas is funding other parties’ litigation just because we use the same law firms.”

The CRA also told The Bee there was no joint effort with SoCalGas on the lawsuit.

“We have not and do not coordinate with Southern California Gas on CRA litigation or legal expenses,” California Restaurant Association spokesperson Sharokina Shams said in a statement.

Yet it “it strains credibility to suggest that the utility did not fund research that supported the California Restaurant Association’s litigation,” said the watchdog arm of the California Public Utilities Commission, the utility’s regulator, in a filing this week.

In another sign of the growing partnership between the utility and restaurant industry group, contributions to the CRA and its foundation from SoCalGas and Sempra, the utility’s parent company, saw a dramatic upswing after CRA filed the lawsuit.

Contributions from Sempra and its subsidiaries SoCalGas and San Diego Gas & Electric grew from $174,594 in years 2015 to 2018 to $1.8 million from 2019 to 2022, a tenfold increase.

Over half of this money went to the association’s philanthropic arm, the California Restaurant Association Foundation. The CRA said money to the foundation was spent on charitable activity such as business grants, scholarships and youth culinary arts, and was “in no way related” to legislative and other political advocacy.

The CRA’s lawsuit against Berkeley turned out to be a stunning success, when a three-judge panel of the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals ruled in the association’s favor this April and struck down Berkeley’s gas ban as preemptive of federal energy law.

At least 76 California cities had passed similar ordinances at the start of this year, but the ruling has thrown cold water on the state’s local building electrification push. Since April, no new cities have taken up the issue and San Luis Obispo and Santa Cruz both suspended their rules.

States, cities and the Department of Energy now warn that the Berkeley ruling’s wide definition of preemption could threaten core state and local laws such as public safety power shut offs and water conservation standards.

The City of Berkeley and environmental advocates filed a petition in June for an en banc, or further judicial review, of the decision.

“This lawsuit has the potential to be so consequential for clean energy and for climate action across the country,” said Sage Canchola-Welch, an environmental communications consultant. “It’s almost like they pulled a bunch of levers and accidentally hit the jackpot because a panel of judges made a really radical decision.”

Tokenizing woks and tortillas

From the beginning of its fight against burgeoning local gas bans, SoCalGas sought to recruit both Asian and Latino-owned restaurants, businesses and community leaders as spokespeople to advocate against electrification.

SoCalGas internal emails from 2019 show that utility executive Robert Cruz was actively recruiting culinary leaders in predominately Chinese-American enclaves of the San Gabriel Valley as part of the company’s Californians for Balanced Energy Solutions campaign.

The utility created the organization, also known as C4BES, to lobby government officials and state agencies — much of it with customer money. It was exposed as a front group by the Sierra Club in late 2019 and confirmed as such by the CPUC’s watchdog arm.

In emails obtained by The Bee, Cruz sought community leaders to discuss “the impact of electrification on the Asian business and restaurant community” with influential members of the Chinese-American community in Los Angeles. “We need your help to get the word out,” he wrote.

The email was to Samuel Kang, a City of Duarte Councilmember and of the group’s strongest recruits. He distributed pro-gas fliers translated into Mandarin, was featured in press conferences and set SoCalGas executives up with key connections in the Chinese Chamber of Commerce.

“Can you help with this matter?” Kang asked Chester Chong, the chamber’s chairman in a June 2019 email. “Bob is from the Gas company and would like to speak with many more Asian restaurant owners in regards to keeping the option of having natural gas as a fuel source.”

Appearing at a Los Angeles meeting before the CPUC later that year, Kang testified against electrifying buildings using talking points that had been provided to him by SoCalGas, emails show.

The Bee found that SoCalGas had paid the Los Angeles County Business Federation, or BizFed, to recruit “diverse” business owners and drive them to the meeting to advocate in favor of gas. Attendees said the California Restaurant Association had also recruited business owners.

Regarding the contract, SoCalGas spokesperson Walton said, “The improper disclosure of a standard outreach contract and other hand-picked materials from several years ago are part of an ongoing effort by certain intervenors to misrepresent SoCalGas’ public policy positions.”

Chinese and other Asian community members weren’t the only targets of this campaign. Emails show Cruz told city officials in Pomona that he was “asked by (SoCalGas’) leadership to identify some key Latino leaders that might consider supporting” their campaign to preserve the use of gas.

Pacoima Beautiful, a clean air advocacy organization in the mostly Latino, low-income northeast San Fernando Valley, reportedly stopped accepting SoCalGas donations after its leaders said the group was reluctantly doing the company’s bidding.

When SoCalGas representatives urged them to reconsider, executive director Veronica Padilla told the Los Angeles Times in 2020 that a utility representative discussing building electrification asked her: “How are people going to warm up their tortillas?”

“That was so disturbing to me,” Padilla said to the Times about the conversation.

By 2021, on a recorded leadership call, American Gas Association executive Susan Forrester said the industry needed to reach out to restaurants, among other groups, “so that we have more friends on our side willing to talk about how great natural gas is.”

The utility did not respond to a question about why its C4BES campaign specifically recruited members of these communities for its political activities.

Yet numerous advocates told The Bee that SoCalGas was plainly targeting Asian and Latino Californians as an effective political tactic. The environment is an important consideration for many of the state’s left-leaning local elected officials and regulators, but so is appearing sensitive to the concerns of communities of color.

“It’s laughable for SoCalGas to pretend they’re looking out for working class people of color. Oil and gas executives have no problem polluting the air and water of frontline communities across the state,” said Amee Raval, policy and research director of the Asian Pacific Environmental Network. “Then they turn around and use our families to defend their profits? It’s astroturfing 101.”

Discrediting the science

As the industry’s recruitment of spokespeople aimed to stem the tide of local gas bans, SoCalGas faced another obstacle: Mounting research that revealed the harmful health effects of gas stoves.

In spring 2020, UCLA scientists published findings that nitrogen oxides emitted by gas stoves inside the home can cause respiratory symptoms such as asthma, particularly in children, with effects felt in smaller households that lack proper ventilation.

A recently published Stanford University study also found that gas cooking appliances can raise indoor levels of benzene, a carcinogen, above those found in secondhand tobacco smoke. Low income and communities of color with more crowded living conditions are especially vulnerable.

Recent research from Stanford and UCLA has found that gas cooking appliances can have harmful health impacts at home.
Recent research from Stanford and UCLA has found that gas cooking appliances can have harmful health impacts at home.

Both SoCalGas and the California restaurant association have sponsored studies attempting to debunk those findings.

In 2020, the utility paid Danish based energy consulting firm Ramboll with customer money for an analysis it presented to the California Energy Commission in favor of preserving gas appliances. The company told The Bee that it wouldn’t disclose how much ratepayer money was used, calling the process confidential.

Ramboll later changed its tune, announcing last year it would no longer work on gas and oil projects. But the research for SoCalGas contained many of the same talking points as studies published by the restaurant association shortly thereafter.

In 2021 and 2022, the association funded and promoted two non peer-reviewed but widely circulated studies to cast doubt on the growing research. One pointed to potential holes in the UCLA study, and another argued that research has found that indoor air pollution is more dependent on the food being cooked than the fuel used to cook it.

They were conducted by Dan Tormey, a consultant whose industry-funded studies once promoted the safety of urban oil and gas exploration in Los Angeles. Several studies showing serious health impacts led the county to ban new urban drilling activities last year.

Those studies — highlighted in conservative media — have helped turned the gas stove debate into a political culture war on the national stage. In response to potentially stricter federal regulations of gas appliances, Ohio Republican Rep. Jim Jordan tweeted “God, guns and gas stoves.”

Rob Jackson, leading researcher on the health impacts of gas stoves at the Stanford Doerr School of Sustainability, said his work measuring stove emissions in dozens of homes led him to believe that health advantages of removing gas cooking appliances are as important as the climate benefits.

“I don’t see what the Restaurant Association does as science. I see what they’re doing as a combination of commentary and influencing,” he said. “Is everyone at risk? I don’t think so. But there are millions of people in the United States who are. Dismissing the risks to those people based on some ideal scenario that someone creates is dangerous.”

The CRA defended its research papers against Jackson’s criticism.

“Each of the two papers published on the CRA website review multiple studies on various related issues in support of the statements made,” said Shams, the CRA spokesperson, in a statement.

Charlie Spatz from the Energy and Policy Institute said the CRA’s studies are reminiscent of research performed by the hospitality industry between the 1960s and 1980s that sought to debunk health concerns from cigarettes.

“Gas utilities have turned to the old tobacco playbook to counter the policies that are threatening their business operations,” Spatz said.

“Historically, tobacco companies faced an existential threat as local policies emerged to restrict their product. They turned to groups like the National Restaurant Association to fight back, and now we’re seeing the gas utilities turn to the same exact strategy.”

Electrification in Sacramento

Frank Fat’s Chinese restaurant in downtown Sacramento has a reputation for excellent honey walnut shrimp, and for politics. Tobacco lobbyists famously struck a historic deal with state lawmakers on the back of one of its napkins 35 years ago.

As recently as last year, SoCalGas legislative staff were holding private lunches in the eatery’s event room. The utility’s messaging soon appeared in discussions of an otherwise straightforward climate ordinance in city meetings.

The eatery’s second generation owner Kevin Fat, then Sacramento chapter president of the California Restaurant Association, emerged as a key defender of gas stoves as the city considered a plan to turn new buildings electric.

Kevin Fat, CEO of the Fat Family Restaurant Group, stands in May at the bar in Frank Fat’s, the restaurant his grandfather opened in 1939. Fat helped create a process to create a socio-cultural exemption from Sacramento’s ban on gas service to new buildings.
Kevin Fat, CEO of the Fat Family Restaurant Group, stands in May at the bar in Frank Fat’s, the restaurant his grandfather opened in 1939. Fat helped create a process to create a socio-cultural exemption from Sacramento’s ban on gas service to new buildings.

He worked with CRA lobbyist Matt Sutton, Fat and two other local Chinese restaurant business leaders — retired chef David Soohoo and Stockton Boulevard Partnership Executive Director Frank Louie — to rally in favor of keeping gas in restaurants.

At city meetings, in the press and to elected officials directly, the group said that taking gas out of new buildings would put the Sacramento’s beloved Chinese and other Asian restaurants out of business, and thousands of years of culture were at stake.

They often said wok hei, the “breath of the wok” in Cantonese, which imparts a distinct kissed-by-fire flavor flavor to food when cooked at high temperatures often compared to the Maillard reaction, can’t be achieved on electric cookware.

“This is our family’s business that we’ve been in for 84 years, the style of cooking has been around for thousands of years,” Fat told The Bee. “We felt we needed to protect our culture. We need to protect the way we cook. And that was our only goal in mind.”

The flame of a gas stove flares up the side of a wok as chef Quan Sun cooks Chinese cuisine at Frank Fats in downtown Sacramento in May.
The flame of a gas stove flares up the side of a wok as chef Quan Sun cooks Chinese cuisine at Frank Fats in downtown Sacramento in May.

Fat said it would be unfair for Asian restaurants that wanted to use gas be relegated only to existing buildings, though The Bee could not find a case of a new Sacramento building with or considering a new Chinese or other Asian restaurant at the time.

An initial version of the ordinance in passed in June 2021 would have required new buildings to be all-electric by 2026. After frequent media appearances and lobbying, Sacramento city staff put Fat, Soohoo and Louie on an influential technical advisory committee.

With their input, the city issued an update to the ordinance late last year that included significant exemptions and an infeasibility waiver process. Any developer with a restaurant or commercial kitchen on the bottom floor can now claim a socio-cultural conflict with electrification and apply to continue using gas indefinitely.

“We kind of told the city in so many words, working with Jennifer Venema and saying ‘let’s slow this train down,’” said Louie. “And we were able to work with staff to insert a key component that will will allow us to continue to use gas if the technology is not readily available or feasible.”

Fat, Soohoo and Louie have all said they advocated on their own behalf and were not influenced by SoCalGas or the CRA.

The arguments of CRA and affiliated restaurateurs are not without merit. An industry-wide shift to induction cooking would be challenging for restaurant owners running on thin margins, and shifting long-held cooking methods requires training.

Their reasoning has resonated in the pushback against gas bans in communities across California, mainly from business associations and industry groups. The vast majority of local ordinances in the state include carve outs for restaurants and commercial kitchens, according to the Sierra Club.

Retired chef Soohoo became a de-facto spokesperson for this campaign in Sacramento, made evident by text messages with city councilwoman Katie Valenzuela that she shared with The Bee. He appeared to have motives beyond protecting his cultural cuisine.

In an interview with The Bee, Soohoo shared his belief that radiation makes induction cooking dangerous, which is unsupported by science. He also acknowledged his hopes of a business arrangement with SoCalGas.

Soohoo, whose family owned a wok manufacturing company that closed during the pandemic, said he designed a hydrogen-powered wok range that he aimed to pitch the company as an investment opportunity. He traveled in January to southern California at the expense of SoCalGas to perform a wok cooking demonstration at a utility facility.

“As one who has cooked with woks and is an expert, NO STIR FRY ELECTRIC WOK WILL BE AVAILABLE IN 2026,” Soohoo told Valenzuela in one text.

Valenzuela, a local politician and policy advocate attuned to the needs of low-income communities of color, said in retrospect she feels somewhat taken in by CRA and that she did not understand the spectrum of connections between Soohoo’s arguments and those of SoCalGas.

“It sucks when people aren’t transparent,” Valenzuela said. “The real issue is, who do you trust? Fossil fuel groups with unlimited cash to spend have shown that they are adept at masking their interest in topics of genuine concern for someone like me, like cultural sensitivity and racial justice.”

Responding to Valenzuela’s comments, Soohoo downplayed his connection with SoCalGas and stressed that he did not have an existing business relationship with the utility to test a hydrogen wok — only a hope to do so.

Induction stir fry

What SoCalGas and the restaurant association have asserted about cooking with gas is not universally accepted by the wider culinary world. A growing number of professional chefs prefer electric kitchens — woks included.

An induction cooktop contains a coil, often made from copper.

When the power is on, an alternating current passes through the coil. This produces a dynamic electromagnetic field, which has a rapidly changing direction. No heat is produced unless the pan is made of a magnetic material that reacts with the electromagnetic field.

When a magnetic pan is placed near the coil, eddy currents are induced. Eddy currents heat the metal of the wok, which in turn, heats the content of the wok.

The first patents for wok-compatible induction cooktops were filed in the 1990s.

The design of a wok induction cooktop features one key difference from a regular induction stovetop: a glass or ceramic concave surface that can balance the round bottom of a wok, rather than a flat one for a flat-bottomed pan.

Induction stovetops create electric currents in a pan with a magnetic field, cooking food in a fraction of the time for a fraction of the energy. Proponents say the appliances are safer and easier to clean.

Research shows that electric kitchens are also healthier for workers, but cost remains a major issue. On average, an induction stove costs $600 more than a gas range.

High costs will make the transition away from gas difficult, admitted Chef Tu David Phu. But the Oakland-born, Vietnamese-American star of “Top Chef” said climate change is simply too large a threat not to make it.

Equitable decarbonization will require government subsidies and incentives, Phu said, so benefits aren’t limited to wealthy but rather shared across renters and small businesses including restaurants. He highlighted all-electric kitchens in Vietnam as an example.

“They’ve been able to move forward with culture, tradition and heritage in a pretty economical sustainable way for everyone,” he said. “This is beyond tradition and heritage. It’s about what’s left for tomorrow and for future generations.”

Chef Tu David Phu, an Oakland-born Vietnamese American who was featured on season 15 of the Bravo Network’s “Top Chef,” cooks a noodle dish on an induction stove during demonstration at the Leland Stanford Mansion in downtown Sacramento in June.
Chef Tu David Phu, an Oakland-born Vietnamese American who was featured on season 15 of the Bravo Network’s “Top Chef,” cooks a noodle dish on an induction stove during demonstration at the Leland Stanford Mansion in downtown Sacramento in June.

Celebrity chef Martin Yan, a lecturer at UC Davis in food science and host of long-running PBS show ”Yan Can Cook,” said he is sensitive to peers’ concerns about induction cooking, but compared their resistance to early days of the electric vehicle market.

Strong regulations, investment and time will bring affordable options to the U.S., Yang said. He also frequents Hong Kong cooking competitions where induction cooking is ubiquitous.

“They all use it,” Yan said of the induction wok. “And I tell you, there’s no difference.”

Ed Roehr, chef and owner of Magpie Café in midtown Sacramento, said all-electric kitchens are some of the most desirable appliances on the market. As the debate continues, the California Restaurant Association is not the voice for all eateries.

“I don’t think that all restaurateurs want to choose the most polluting path,” Roehr said. “And I think many would be excited to be a part of something that made a material contribution to changing the threats to global climate change.”

Climate advocates lament SoCalGas and the restaurant association’s success in their fight against building electrification. That said, recent regulations and incentives make them optimistic about zero-emissions buildings long term.

How fast that transition happens is the question, said Merrian Borgeson, director of California climate and energy programs at the National Resources Defense Council. And an important turning point in the state’s war over gas stoves lays ahead.

The California Air Resources Board is considering a regulation that would ban the sale of all new gas appliances starting in 2030. The rule would allow only the sale of zero-emission appliances.

SoCalGas now says it is committed to decarbonization by switching to low-emission sources such as renewable natural gas and hydrogen. But many advocates are bracing for the utility and other gas companies to continue fighting any form of a gas ban.

“I hope it’s not a fight, but we’re not done by any means,” Borgeson said. “If we are agreeing on where we need to go, we can have a constructive conversation and how to get there. If we’re still in denial, we have more work to do.”