Natural gas utilities lobby for pre-emption against gas bans and building decarbonization

Across the country, natural gas utilities and their lobby, the American Gas Association, are lobbying state legislatures to adopt laws preempting cities and municipalities from banning new natural gas infrastructure in order to combat climate change. Preemption laws are an anti-majoritarian tool increasingly used by business lobbying groups and conservative lawmakers to stem grassroots progressive momentum.

Gas Industry Lobbies In Statehouses Against Local Electrification: Gas utilities and industry trade groups are fighting across the country to prohibit municipalities from taking steps to cut greenhouse gas pollution from buildings, efforts those utilities and groups view as an existential threat, NPR and the Washington Post report. The American Gas Association, which gets its funding from ratepayers via its member utilities, is actively involved in state-level efforts to prohibit localities from requiring new buildings to be fully electric, according to internal reports, emails and recordings of AGA executives reviewed by NPR. Science shows extracting and burning gas is incompatible with cities’ net-zero climate pollution goals because not only does gas emit carbon pollution when burned, its extraction and transportation is responsible for millions of tons of methane pollution — a heat-trapping gas far more potent than CO2. Studies also show that gas stoves create unsafe levels of indoor pollution, the Post notes. In addition to paying Instagram influencers, the gas industry mainly uses front groups like “The Empowerment Alliance” and “Partnership for Energy Progress” to push the state preemption laws, the same type of laws long used by the tobacco and plastic bag industries to fight local efforts they viewed as a threat. Four states have already passed preemption legislation, and bills are under consideration in 12 more. (NPR, Washington Post $)

** As Cities Grapple With Climate Change, Gas Utilities Fight To Stay In Business, February 22, 2021 on All Things Considered, NPR, by Jeff Brady and Dan Charles, Download

Tyler Hollon, who works for a construction company in Utah, says eliminating natural gas from apartment buildings can reduce costs. Hollon’s company now shares its designs and budgets with other builders. “The reason we’re giving it away is to clean up the air,” Hollon says. “We want everybody to do it. It’s everybody’s air that we’re all breathing. Makes my mountain bike ride that much easier.”Kim Raff for NPR

Facing the rising threat of wildfire and extreme drought, Flagstaff, Ariz., unveiled an ambitious effort two years ago to cut the heat-trapping emissions that drive climate change.

A critical part of Flagstaff’s climate plan proposed that all new construction get to net-zero greenhouse gas emissions by 2040 and that the city promote “aggressive building electrification” to decrease reliance on fossil fuels. As in many places, buildings are a big source of Flagstaff’s greenhouse gases, mainly because many are heated by burning natural gas.

But in February 2020, the Arizona Legislature blocked much of Flagstaff’s plan for its buildings. With the backing of the state’s main gas utility, the Legislature passed a bill that prevents municipalities and counties from banning new gas infrastructure and hookups.

“It definitely put a huge hurdle in our plans for promoting electrification and fuel switching,” says Nicole Antonopoulos, Flagstaff’s sustainability director.

The Arizona law was a test case for a strategy the natural gas sector is now deploying nationwide. Gas utilities, with help from industry trade groups, have successfully lobbied lawmakers over the past year to introduce similar “preemption” legislation in 12 mostly Republican-controlled state legislatures, according to the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC).

The speed and scale of the strategy show just how high the stakes are for the gas industry. According to internal reports and hundreds of recent emails obtained through public records requests and shared with NPR, the gas industry sees an existential threat in the efforts of cities, states, businesses — and now the Biden administration — to sharply reduce fossil fuel use.

“As you’re really looking at what’s going to come out of the Biden administration, they’re really talking about remaking the entire economy through a green lens, and that means eliminating natural gas,” Sue Forrester, vice president of advocacy and outreach at the American Gas Association (AGA), said during an industry conference last November.

Gas utilities and their powerful lobby, the AGA, are racing on multiple fronts to convince lawmakers and the public that swapping out natural gas with electric would harm consumers and lead to higher bills. They argue that using natural gas is compatible with addressing climate change, despite scientific evidence to the contrary.

Pro-gas groups have emerged around the country with names such as “The Empowerment Alliance” and “Partnership for Energy Progress” to sway local and state debates about electrification. The gas industry has launched ad campaigns on Facebook and Instagram touting gas as far better for cooking.

As part of a multipronged campaign to improve public perceptions of natural gas, the American Gas Association’s “Cooking With Gas” campaign features young cooks and social media influencers like Amber Kelley. The AGA then encourages gas utilities around the country to comment on and repost the videos.

Some industry lobbying and public relations campaigns have drawn the attention of regulators. In California, one case involved the group “Californians For Balanced Energy Solutions” (C4BES). The ratepayer advocate’s office recommended that the country’s biggest gas utility, SoCalGas, pay steep fines for improperly using ratepayer money to fund C4BES and oppose gas bans and energy efficiency measures, an allegation the company denies.

“In the broader context, this is reluctance to adapt to changing conditions. It’s a reluctance to work with the community, the state government or federal government to identify solutions to address climate change,” Antonopoulos says of the gas industry. “If they keep spending energy on preemption laws, it will distract them from identifying solutions. And that’s a missed opportunity.”

“Reframing the debate” around natural gas

State preemption laws help industries protect a particular market. These types of laws have long been used by other industries such as tobacco and plastic bag makers to kill local initiatives.

While the AGA says it “will absolutely oppose any effort to ban natural gas,” President and CEO Karen Harbert says her group maintains an arm’s length relationship with efforts to pass preemption laws. We are not coordinating these efforts and we are not state lobbyists,” she tells NPR. “We concentrate our activities, certainly, at the federal level.”

That distinction is important because much of the AGA’s budget comes from ratepayers through its member utilities. That means you, as a ratepayer, could be funding this work, even if you don’t agree with it.

But public documents reviewed by NPR and recordings of AGA executives reveal that the group is actively involved in passing state-level bills, along with utilities and local gas trade groups, that block critical local action to cut heat-trapping emissions.

“We have run pro-gas choice legislation [in] Arizona, Tennessee, Louisiana … and Oklahoma. And so those states now, you have an option. You can’t deny someone natural gas service in their home,” the AGA’s George Lowe told colleagues during an industry conference last November. Lowe, vice president of governmental affairs and public policy, said AGA member companies were eyeing 15 to 20 other states to pass similar bills this year.

March 2020 AGA slide presentation lists as a goal: “To keep natural gas an integral part of a clean energy future by reframing the debate.” Under “AGA initiatives,” it states: “Model and preemptive legislation — Introduced in AZ, TN, MN.”

The recordings and documents from a public records request were obtained by the Climate Investigations Center, a nonpartisan environmental watchdog group, and shared with NPR.

Harbert says gas utilities can be a part of solving the climate problem. “If the goal is to reduce emissions, we’re all in,” she says. “If the goal is to put us out of business, not so much.”

Her industry is working on cleaner alternatives, including so-called renewable natural gas. It uses waste methane from landfills and manure, and it can be mixed with hydrogen to run through the existing gas utility pipeline network. “We really have a very effective delivery system,” she says. “Whatever is going to go through that system — it could be today’s molecules or it could be tomorrow’s molecules.”

Meanwhile, she says, the industry is growing. “Natural gas utilities continue to expand and invest. We’re adding a customer every minute of every day. That means about 600,000 new customers in 2021.”

What the science requires

Over the past decade, natural gas has been credited with reducing carbon dioxide emissions. But for humanity to avoid the most catastrophic consequences of climate change, most of the world’s fossil fuels need to stay in the ground, scientists say. That includes nearly half of natural gas reserves.

Greenhouse gas emissions hit record levels in 2019 because of the expanded use of natural gas, which not only emits carbon dioxide but can leak into the atmosphere from pipelines as methane, a far more potent heat-trapping gas.

“We cannot continue using natural gas for things like heating and cooking because it’s not consistent with reaching a net-zero goal,” says Erin Mayfield, a postdoctoral research associate at Princeton University.

Mayfield co-authored a recent study into the most cost-effective ways to zero out greenhouse gas emissions. The study looked at five pathways to reach “net-zero” emissions by 2050. None of the pathways included gas utilities as they exist now.

At net-zero, heat-trapping gases would no longer build up in the atmosphere because emissions would be so low that forests or technology could remove an equal amount of them.

Other studies by the Department of Energy’s Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory and the National Academy of Sciences echo Mayfield’s conclusion: Electrifying the country’s buildings, making appliances more efficient and powering them with renewable energy are among the best paths to cutting emissions.

“Electric heating can be totally clean … if electric utilities deliver power made from solar and wind and hydro. Which many are promising to do,” says Alejandra Mejia Cunningham, building decarbonization advocate at the NRDC.

Salt Lake City hopes to encourage builders to forgo gas in new buildings through public outreach and financial incentives.Kim Raff for NPR

Cities versus states

Buildings are a ripe target for greenhouse gas cuts, accounting for about 12% of the country’s emissions. President Biden’s ambitious climate plan includes a goal to cut the carbon footprint of buildings in half by 2035 through incentives to retrofit homes and businesses with electric appliances and furnaces.

Many cities already are pushing ahead with electrification. By late January, 42 California cities had taken action to limit gas use in new buildings, according to the Sierra Club. More than a dozen of them have outright banned new buildings with gas hookups. Outside California, Salt Lake City hopes to get builders to forgo gas in new buildings through public outreach and financial incentives. Denver has a plan to electrify most buildings by 2027.

About a year ago in Arizona, Antonopoulos says, Flagstaff was considering a gas ban. “That was one of our strategies: Could we say, ‘No gas in new construction?'” she says.

At that same time, the gas utility industry was preparing its counterattack. At a December 2019 meeting of the AGA’s executive committee, Harbert called these moves by cities a new challenge to the industry.

The AGA set a 2020 priority to “expand efforts at the federal, state, and local levels to ensure policies, regulations and other initiatives include the option of natural gas for consumers and preserve customer choice of energy.”

A few months later, in February 2020, Rep. Russell Bowers, the Republican speaker of Arizona’s House of Representatives, introduced a bill blocking cities from restricting gas hookups. The bill had the backing of Southwest Gas, the state’s largest gas utility, and Bowers had received $3,500 from the company for his 2020 reelection campaign.

Republicans lined up to support the proposal. “We have been able to observe what happens in cities like Berkeley, Calif., that take these radical steps to tell people, ‘This is what you will use, whether you like it or not,'” Rep. Mark Finchem of Tucson said during a floor debate.

The bill sailed through the Legislature and was signed into law within a month. Flagstaff dropped efforts to ban new gas hookups and is trying to find other ways to get to net-zero carbon emissions.

In 2020, Oklahoma, Tennessee and Louisiana also passed preemption laws. This year, 12 states have taken up preemption legislation so far, and the chances of it passing in several are high. They include: ArkansasColoradoFloridaGeorgiaIndianaIowaKansasKentuckyMississippiMissouriTexas and Utah.

Many bills contain similar or even identical language. Proposed legislation in both Utah and Georgia, for instance, would block local governments from “prohibiting the connection or reconnection of any utility service based upon the type or source of energy or fuel to be delivered to any customer.”

“I didn’t dream this up,” says state Rep. Stephen Handy, R-Utah, who introduced the bill in his state. “I became aware of it, frankly, from my local natural gas supplier, Dominion.”

“We’re a little bit worried”

City officials in states considering new bills now wonder what they’ll be allowed to do if the bills pass. Jasmin Moore, sustainability director for Douglas County and the city of Lawrence, Kan., worries that her state’s proposed law, which prohibits any municipal ordinance that “discriminates against, restricts, limits, or impairs” the use of utility service, might even ban city programs aimed at promoting energy efficiency, since that would reduce gas use. “It really seems like it’s intended to slow down our progress,” Moore says.

In Utah, Salt Lake City Sustainability Director Vicki Bennett says, “We’re a little bit worried about the legislation because it’s very broad.” It’s unclear, she says, whether the proposed law in Utah would allow a city to offer financial incentives to encourage developers to go all electric.

Switching from gas to electric in existing homes can be expensive. But building new homes that are all electric can be cheaper than constructing homes with gas hookups.

Vicki Bennett, the sustainability director for Salt Lake City, says she’s worried that a proposed state law might frustrate her efforts to encourage all-electric construction of new buildings. “The thing that’s just the elephant in the room is, every one of us is using natural gas, and that’s a direct emission of carbon and adding to climate change issues,” she says.Kim Raff for NPR

“You eliminate gas taps, you eliminate running all those gas lines through your building,” says Tyler Hollon, sustainability director for Wadman Corp., a construction company in Utah. Hollon says his company did its first all-electric building because an environmentally minded developer, Giv Group, demanded it. Wadman’s executives thought it would cost a lot extra, but they were wrong.

At the two companies’ latest collaboration, a six-story affordable housing project in Salt Lake City, there are efficient electric heat pumps instead of gas furnaces in each unit. Heat pumps also deliver hot water.

Hollon’s company shares its blueprints and budgets with other builders. “We just want everybody to do it. It’s everybody’s air that we’re all breathing,” Hollon says. “Makes my mountain bike ride that much easier.”

The future of gas

The AGA’s Harbert warns that it’s shortsighted to eliminate gas from the country’s energy picture. “The narrative that has been set now is that we are actually the fuel of yesterday and we don’t feel that that’s the case. We believe that we’re the opportunity for tomorrow,” Harbert says.

She says abandoning gas utility infrastructure and building out the electricity grid would be expensive, something researchers with the Princeton study considered before concluding that electrification would still be necessary to keep global warming at safer levels.

Ratepayer advocates share some of the gas industry’s concerns. Stefanie Brand, director for the New Jersey Division of Rate Counsel, says a benefit of having both electricity and gas in homes is that people can still get some services when the power goes out.

“A lot of people can cook. … And a lot of people can have hot water. But think about it, when everybody drives an electric car …” Brand says you might not be able to drive anywhere when a storm knocks out the grid in your neighborhood.

Still, Brand says she understands that the country needs to reduce fossil fuel consumption and move toward more renewable energy to address climate change. That’s why she also concludes that gas utilities may not be able to stay in business.

“I do think they’re going to be around for a while,” Brand says, “but I don’t think they’re going to be around forever.”


The battle over climate change is boiling over on the home front

Municipalities want new buildings to go all electric, spurning gas-fired stoves and heating systems. The gas industry disagrees.

The American Gas Association is battling attempts across the country to ban installing natural gas for stoves and heating in newly built homes.
The American Gas Association is battling attempts across the country to ban installing natural gas for stoves and heating in newly built homes. (Barbara Sax/AFP/Getty Images)

By Steven MufsonFeb. 23, 2021 at 5:00 a.m. MSTAdd to list

A new front has opened in the battle over climate change: The kitchen.

Cities and towns across the country are rewriting local building codes so that new homes and offices would be blocked from using natural gas, a fossil fuel that when burned emits carbon dioxide into the atmosphere. New laws would force builders to install heat pumps instead of gas furnaces and electric kitchen stoves instead of gas burners.

Local leaders say reducing the carbon and methane pollution associated with buildings, the source of 12.3 percent of U.S. greenhouse gas emissions, is the only way they can meet their 2050 zero-emission goals to curb climate change.

But the American Gas Association, a trade group, and its members are campaigning in statehouses across the country to prohibit the new local ordinances. Four states last year adopted such laws, and this year similar legislation has been introduced in 12 more.AD

“Logically the natural gas industry does not want to see its business end, so it’s doing what it can to keep natural gas in the utility grid mix,” said Marta Schantz, senior vice president of the Urban Land Institute’s Greenprint Center for Building Performance. “But long term, if cities are serious about their climate goals, electric buildings are inevitable.”

The issue started heating up in July 2019, when Berkeley, Calif., became the first city in the nation to ban natural gas hookups in new construction or substantially renovated structures. Natural gas is marketed as the “clean” fossil fuel because when burned it produces about 30 percent less carbon dioxide than oil and 45 percent less than coal. The ordinance passed unanimously.

Since then, municipalities across the country have followed suit. In California alone, 42 municipalities, including San Francisco, changed their building codes to make natural gas use impossible or difficult. Denver’s Office of Climate Action, Sustainability and Resiliency endorsed a plan that calls for newly built homes and buildings to be mostly electrified by 2027. In Colorado, Boulder changed its building code and imposed a maximum energy use per square foot on new residential construction of 3,000 square feet or larger, effectively leaving little room for gas.AD

The state of Washington also is at the forefront of this campaign. Gov. Jay Inslee (D) has backed a bill that would phase out the gas utility service and give local governments the authority to set more stringent energy standards than the state code. On Feb. 1, the Seattle City Council voted unanimously to restrict natural gas use in new commercial buildings and multifamily homes higher than three stories. Puget Sound Energy, which distributes both gas and electricity to Washington customers, says it is “fuel neutral” and set an “aspirational goal” of being carbon neutral for its gas sales by 2045. Mary E. Kipp, the firm’s chief executive, said that “climate change is an existential threat that cannot be ignored.”

Most of the gas industry, however, is fighting back.

Southern California Gas, one of the biggest distributors in the country, set up a group called Californians for Balanced Energy Solutions with a website that makes no mention of the gas company or the group’s industry links. In the Pacific Northwest, a group of gas and pipeline companies put up $1 million to establish another front group called Partnership for Energy Progress. The group’s website lists other backers, including pipe fitters and steelworkers’ unions, farmers and energy- intensive businesses. “Natural gas is the cleanest fossil fuel and provides reliable and affordable energy whenever it’s needed,” it says.AD

The AGA says it doesn’t engage in lobbying at the local or state levels, but it has provided its members with myriad supportive documents, which say that electricity and construction costs will increase in the new building requirements.

So far, laws to protect natural gas use have been adopted in Arizona, Louisiana, Oklahoma and Tennessee. Similar laws have been proposed in Texas, Florida, Georgia, Iowa, Kansas, Missouri, Pennsylvania, Utah, Indiana, Arkansas, Kentucky and Mississippi.

Even in the states where the anti-natural gas movement is strongest, municipal efforts have run into obstacles. In November 2019, the California Restaurant Association sued the town of Berkeley to strike down the change in building code. The association in its lawsuit said that “many of these 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.” It added that “a patchwork approach [to natural gas] is unworkable, undercuts California’s need for reliable and resilient energy, increases the cost of housing, and denies consumers choice.”AD

“The average American likes choice and doesn’t want to be told what kind of fuel to use in their homes,” said Karen Harbert, chief executive of the American Gas Association. “Municipalities cannot take away that choice.”

“The natural gas industry frames it as a choice issue; we frame it as a choice issue,” said Johanna Neumann, a senior director at Environment America, an environmental group. “The industry frames it as a choice for people who want to use natural gas. We see it as a choice for a community to decide its energy future.”

Natural gas has long been marketed as the clean-burning fuel. “Gas. The wonder fuel for cooking,” says a postwar AGA ad showing a slim, happy couple. “Perform new cooking miracles yourself on a modern gas range,” says another from 1939 showing an apron-clad mother feeding a child in a high chair. “Quickest heat, highest heat, steadiest heat. You get them all — only with gas — the most responsive fuel.”AD

But views of natural gas have changed. Consumers can now buy improved heat pumps and induction stoves, which can boil water in nearly half the time as a gas stove. Induction stoves also have no open flame and leave behind little residual heat once they’re turned off. But they account for only about 5 percent of new stove sales, according to Consumer Reports.

Moreover, natural gas emissions still make a large contribution to the world’s greenhouse gases. Total residential and commercial greenhouse gas emissions increased by 9 percent from 1990 to 2018.

In addition to emphasizing climate considerations, many environmental groups have been arguing that gas stoves and heaters create indoor air pollution, especially nitrogen dioxide. “The indoor air quality analysis found that concentrations of nitrogen dioxide (NO2) during cooking events can exceed the levels set by national and California-based ambient air quality standards,” said a study by the University of California at Los Angeles. The study was commissioned by the Sierra Club. UCLA Fielding School of Public Health Professor Yifang Zhu, the lead researcher, said that “fossil fuel use in household appliances can adversely impact indoor air quality and public health.”AD

Burning natural gas also creates equity issues, as low-income homes tend to be smaller with kitchen stoves that are less well ventilated.

But natural gas is cheaper than electricity in most parts of the United States, at least for now. Forty-seven percent of U.S. homes rely on natural gas for heat while 36 percent rely on electricity, according to the EIA.

“Right now there is a significant upfront cost to the transition to different appliances. There are real switching costs. That’s important for us to be honest about,” said Eileen Quigley, executive director of the Seattle-based Clean Energy Transition Institute. “That doesn’t mean we don’t make the transition. It means we have to address them. The challenge of decarbonization is upfront cost now and the payback that we’ll get later.”

In some places, local governments make allowances for special businesses such as restaurants. “People say okay, we’ll let you alone if you’re a restaurant and have gas stoves. That kind of carve-out is crazy from a technical point of view, but not politically,” said Sue Tierney, senior adviser of the consulting firm Analysis Group and a former utility regulator in Massachusetts.AD

And local leaders emphasize that owners of existing kitchen stoves, boilers and water heaters do not need to change anything. “This rule applies only to new buildings — so for those of you who love your gas stove so much that Berkeley would have to pry it out of your cold dead hands, you won’t have to let go of your gas-burning appliances quite yet,” a Union of Concerned Scientists blog said.

The Massachusetts town of Brookline sought a compromise with its code change. It said new buildings had to install electric boilers but they could still use gas stoves.

Massachusetts state Rep. Tommy Vitolo (D), a lawmaker who also does mathematical analyses of electric power markets for the consulting firm Synapse Energy Economics, said there were two good reasons, one political and one scientific. “The science is the amount of combustion you do at your oven is minuscule compared to the damage done by a water or space heater. It’s a tiny, tiny fraction. It’s small ball,” he said. The political one is that “people really like their cooktops. There is something intimate and ritualistic about it. So let’s go after the things that are big and that people don’t have strong attachments to.”AD

Vitolo lives in a 106-year-old house that still has a gas stove and gas clothes dryer. “So our gas usage is very small, but it’s not zero.”

Brookline’s policy carve-out, however, wasn’t enough to avoid a clash with someone who is ordinarily an ally of climate experts and activists. In July 2020 Massachusetts Attorney General Maura Healey (D) — a leader of efforts to hold ExxonMobil responsible for hiding knowledge it allegedly had about how burning fossil fuels would lead to climate change — threw out the town’s new building code because she said it encroached on state authority.

“The Attorney General agrees with the policy goals behind the Town’s attempt to reduce the use of fossil fuels within the Town,” Healey wrote. However, she added, “the Town cannot add an additional layer of regulation” to state codes. “This is true no matter how well-intentioned the Town’s action, and no matter how strong the Town’s belief that its favored option best serves the public health of its residents.”

Now, the Massachusetts legislature is trying to change state law to allow a state agency to draft a net-zero building code that municipalities could choose to adopt. There would not be a patchwork of codes — just two options, according to state guidelines. The governor has been reluctant to sign it. Talks are in progress.

Vitolo says the costs of delay are great. “If we install a furnace or burner in a building in 2022, will we have to take it out before end of its useful life in order to meet emissions targets?” he asked. That’s the important comparison, he said: not gas vs. electric now, but gas now plus heat pumps 15 years later.

Brookline is already requiring the changes in its municipal buildings. “Whatever we’re going to build as a town, we are the ones who will be responsible,” Vitolo said. “We don’t want the town meeting in 2040 to say, ‘Those guys in 2020 did a terrible job.’ ”538 Comments

Headshot of Steven Mufson

Steven MufsonSteven Mufson covers the business of climate change for The Washington Post. Since joining The Post in 1989, he has covered economic policy, China, diplomacy, energy and the White House. Earlier, he worked for The Wall Street Journal. In 2020, he shared the Pulitzer Prize for a climate change series “2C: Beyond the Limit.”Follow