In a nationwide blitz, gas companies and their allies fight climate efforts that they consider an existential threat to their business. By Emily Holden in Washington, in The Guardian, 20 Aug 2020
When progressive Seattle decided last year to wipe out its climate pollution within the decade, the city council vote in favor was unsurprisingly unanimous, and the easiest first step on that path was clear.
About one-third of the city’s climate footprint comes from buildings, in large part from burning “natural” gas for heating and cooking. Gas is a fossil fuel that releases carbon dioxide and far more potent methane into the atmosphere and heats the planet. It is plentiful and cheap, and it’s also a huge and increasing part of America’s climate challenge.
So, a city councilman drafted legislation to stop the problem from growing by banning gas hookups in new buildings. Suddenly, the first step didn’t look so easy.
“From there, we just ran into a wall of opposition,” said Alec Connon, a campaigner with the climate group 350 Seattle.
Local plumbers and pipe fitters warned of job losses. Realtors complained their clients would still want gas fireplaces. Building owners feared utility bills could soar. The effort died. The ban wasn’t politically tenable, it seemed.
But internal records obtained by the Guardian show the measure’s defeat and the “wall of opposition” that advocates experienced were part of a sophisticated pushback plan from Seattle’s gas supplier, Puget Sound Energy.
Seattle’s story isn’t unique. In fact, it’s representative of a nationwide blitz by gas companies and their allies to beat back climate action they consider an existential threat to their business, according to emails, meeting agendas and public records reviewed by the Guardian.
The documents show the multibillion-dollar gas industry has built crucial local coalitions and hired high-powered operatives to torpedo cities’ anti-gas policies – sometimes assisted by money those same cities have paid into gas trade associations.
In historically conservative states, the gas industry has convinced legislatures to pass laws prohibiting cities from following in Seattle’s footsteps and trying to ban new gas hookups. In the digital world, it has carefully cultivated the fuel’s image, paying Instagram influencers to cook with gas stoves. In the media, it has sought to be quoted in important stories in news outlets like Reuters, according to internal records. In Washington DC, where the industry has strong support from the Trump administration, it has lobbied the federal government on everything from environmental reviews to appliance standards.
“The gas utilities are facing an existential threat, and instead of approaching a decarbonizing economy as an opportunity to reinvent themselves, they’re digging their heels in and going back to the age-old tactics of [the fossil fuel industry],” said Charlie Spatz, a researcher at the Climate Investigations Center. “These public records show just a fraction of a much larger effort to slow down critical climate solutions.”
In the Seattle battle, Puget Sound Energy hired a lobbying firm that had previously defeated a proposed tax on sugary drinks.
The firm, CBE Strategic, was asked to “develop an action plan targeted at countering 350.org’s efforts” and “stopping local governments” from enacting restrictions on gas, according to a summary document of the work.
CBE’s responsibilities included “coalition building, lobbying strategy, communications, and research”.
“We have been able to stop the fast track the proposal was on by deploying a strong coalition of labor and business,” the summary said. CBE planned to “shape an alternative” to the ban. The firm would create an “inclusive stakeholder process” and analyze possible economic impacts on customers.
In other words, the opponents would band together and stall.
Other industry documents confirm Puget Sound Energy’s mobilizing efforts.
One document from a gas appliance industry group – the Hearth, Patio and Barbecue Association (HPBA) – noted that Puget Sound Energy and the local chamber of commerce had “formed a coalition to counter the Seattle City Council and similar efforts in Bellingham and Everett”, and would continue to monitor new anti-gas proposals.
Puget Sound Energy opposed the climate proposals despite its stated mission of “deep decarbonization and greenhouse gas emissions reduction” and goal of a carbon-neutral electric system by 2030.
Neither Puget Sound Energy nor its lobbying firm CBE responded to requests for comment.
After the gas ban was beaten back in Seattle, Caleb Heeringa, a spokesman for the Sierra Club in the city, said advocates saw coordinated industry and union pushback against gas-related climate efforts grow.
A new group called the Partnership for Energy Progress (PEP) was taking root. The partnership is an organization of western utilities, labor unions and businesses that plans to spend $2.8m in 2020 convincing consumers that “natural gas is part of a clean energy future”, and fighting state and local climate restrictions on gas, according to records reviewed by the Guardian.
The partnership’s target demographic, what it calls “flight risks” that could turn on the gas industry, is Democratic women between the ages of 35 and 54 who own homes and have college degrees, according to polling used by the group.
Unions are instrumental to the partnership, contributing about one-sixth of its budget. Leanne Guier – the political director of the Seattle plumbers and pipefitters union that opposed the gas ban – is the group’s president.
Advertisements from the coalition show photos of mothers with their babies next to gas stoves and fireplaces, with the words: “Reliable. Affordable. Natural Gas. Here for You.”
“It’s kind of unlike anything we’ve seen up here,” Heeringa said.
The partnership did not respond to specific inquiries about its work but said in an emailed statement from Guier that its goal was “to communicate the work we do to provide reliable, affordable energy to homes and businesses, and highlight the progress we’re making to address climate change”.
Puget Sound Energy and the Partnership for Energy Progress are using the same strategies that the gas industry and its trade groups are employing at the national level.
The group that represents gas fireplace and stove companies, HPBA, said in one document obtained by the Guardian that “it has become clear in the last six months that electrification is an existential issue that will be with the industry for a long time, often playing out in smaller communities and with very little advance warning”.
To “help address this growingthreat”, HPBA said it would pay to join local coalitions, including the partnership in the north-west. HPBA has also connected with the midwest utility Dominion to fight electrification in Ohio and supported testimony about a pro-gas law in Arizona.
The American Gas Association (AGA), which represents mainly investor-owned gas providers, now convenes monthly calls “that bring together appliance, homebuilder, fuel, and other associations to compare notes and support efforts to push back on decarbonization and electrification issues”, according to the same document.
An April AGA meeting planned to feature officials from Puget Sound Energy and another power company, Dominion Energy, in a discussion of “activities underway at the state or regional level to combat attempts to remove natural gas from communities”, according to the group’s agenda, which was released as a state public record.
An AGA spokesman, Jake Rubin, said the group did not have state chapters operating at the local level, but “members present past and current opportunities and challenges so that other companies may learn from their experiences”.
As the public learns more about the harms of natural gas, the industry is playing both defense and offense.
Burning natural gas produces less planet-heating carbon dioxide than burning coal or oil. Gas advocates have positioned it as a smart alternative to those dirtier fossil fuels. Even the Obama administration backed gas as a “bridge fuel”.
But the extraction and transportation of natural gas leaks methane: a climate pollutant with a short-term warming potential far more powerful than carbon dioxide. Scientists are revealing we have greatly underestimated the methane emitted by the gas industry.
Fossil gas is responsible for 42% of the US greenhouse gas emissions that come from burning fossil fuels, according to data from the Department of Energy interpreted by Robert Howarth, who researches methane at Cornell University.
“Gas is one of the biggest drivers of emissions growth both in the US and globally, and the future trends for expansion on the system are really worrying,” said Sheryl Carter, director of the power sector climate program at the Natural Resources Defense Council. “The infrastructure investments that are being made right now … they last for 40 to 60 years. So that really locks in those emissions increases.”
Progressive local governments have recognized the significant impact of gas and are trying to phase it out, at the same time as the Trump administration has halted essentially all of the national government’s climate work.
More than 30 cities in California and a town in Massachusetts have pursued similar steps to discourage or eliminate gas use in new buildings.
In San Luis Obispo, California, the city tried to disincentivize gas hookups, rather than ban them outright. The utility company there, Southern California Gas Co, hired consultants who helped postpone a vote on the measure, according to the Los Angeles Times.
In Sacramento, the city is trying to ban fossil fuel use in new buildings by 2023 and transition a quarter of residential and small commercial buildings away from fossil fuel use by 2030 but faces opposition from a gas utility group trying to “to push back against these with other trade associations”, according to a June email from the American Public Gas Association, which represents municipal utilities.
Fearing more local climate efforts, the gas industry has supported legislation in four states to ban cities from doing what Seattle, San Luis Obispo and Sacramento have tried to do, according to emails between trade group officials and companies.
These so-called “pre-emption laws passed in Arizona in February, in Tennessee in March, and in Oklahoma and Louisiana in May.
Similar bills were considered in Kansas, Minnesota and New Jersey. A ballot initiative was pursued in Colorado. Legislation in Mississippi and Georgia died early in the session.
There are at least 250 bills in state legislatures that a coalition of more than a dozen gas-related organizations are fighting because they “present threats to the industry involving electrification/decarbonization”, according to one document from the National Propane Gas Association. In a presentation in June, an official with the American Public Gas Association (APGA) said the group would “continue to monitor and engage” with legislation as appropriate.
APGA is funded with public money from the cities whose municipal gas utilities it represents.
So, ironically, the industry fight against electrification is often being paid for in part by progressive cities.
Members of APGA include utilities in cities pursuing climate action: San Antonio; Philadelphia; Tallahassee; Richmond, Virginia; and Palo Alto, California.
Philadelphia wants to cut city emissions 80% by 2050, yet its utility paid hundreds of thousands of dollars over the past few years to gas trade groups, according to invoices obtained by the Climate Investigation Center records.
Palo Alto has a climate goal that is even more ambitious than the state of California’s. It wants to slash greenhouse gases 80% by 2030. But its city utility paid APGA $20,902 last year, the Center found.
“If you have a climate policy and you’re serious about that in your city, you need to pull out because they are working to undermine it every day,” said Matt Vespa, an attorney for Earthjustice in San Francisco. “You can’t fund a fossil fuel advocacy group and claim climate commitments.”
APGA’s president, Dave Schryver, said the group was “a strong advocate for the key role its members and natural gas plays in a sustainable energy future”. He argued policy-driven electrification could increase annual energy costs by at least $750 per household, according to an analysis paid for by the industry.
APGA has been fighting electrification since at least 2013 when it established a taskforce to “counter the regulatory and legislative threats to the direct use of natural gas”, according to an internal presentation obtained with a public records request by the center.
This year, APGA is spending at least $127,000 on anti-electrification initiatives and $200,000 for media monitoring, engagement with reporters, letters to the editor, op-eds and social media efforts. It is also launching a $300,000 “gas genius” campaign to bolster public opinion of gas on social media. APGA declined to comment on its specific efforts.
The other gas trade group – AGA – is paying Instagram influencers to popularize gas stoves with a #CookingWithGas campaign. AGA declined to disclose its spending on the campaign but said it would “continue to share recipes and ideas from a variety of chefs and people who like to cook at home as this content is interesting and well received”.
The elimination of gas from buildings is just the first looming threat for the industry. To fight the climate crisis, the US will need to phase out the gas it burns for electricity and the petroleum it burns in cars – both of which are produced by the same industry.
Carter said the industry needs to prepare for the US to move away from relying on fossil gas as a “bridge”.
“Instead of continuing to build the bridge, which I think a lot of this new investment in infrastructure is about, we need to work to get off the bridge,” Carter said. “In order to create the net-zero carbon future we need to reach to deal with the climate crisis, it requires us to move away from fossil gas.”