The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

How dark money groups led Ohio to redefine gas as ‘green energy’

Conservative groups helped Ohio lawmakers push the narrative that the fuel is clean, documents show. They are taking their campaign to other states.

The American Electric Power natural gas plant in Dresden, Ohio. (Michael Williamson/The Washington Post)

When Ohio Gov. Mike DeWine (R) signed a bill this month to legally redefine natural gas as a source of “green energy,” supporters characterized it as the culmination of a grass-roots effort to recognize the Buckeye state’s largest energy source.

“It’s green. It’s clean. And it’s abundant right under our feet, right here in Ohio,” Rep. Troy Balderson (R-Ohio) wrote in an opinion piece in the Columbus Dispatch.

But Ohio’s new law is anything but homegrown, according to documents reviewed by The Washington Post. The Empowerment Alliance, a dark money group with ties to the gas industry, helped Ohio lawmakers push the narrative that the fuel is clean, the documents show. The American Legislative Exchange Council, or ALEC, another anonymously funded group, assisted in the effort.

ALEC — a network of state lawmakers, businesses and conservative donors — circulated proposed legislation for Ohio lawmakers and has urged other states to follow suit, according to the documents, which were obtained via a public records request by the Energy and Policy Institute, a group that advocates for renewable energy.

“What the emails reveal is just how closely Ohio lawmakers coordinated with a natural gas industry group on the new law that misleadingly defines methane gas as green energy, as the first step of a plan to introduce similar legislation in multiple states,” said Dave Anderson, policy and communications manager for the Energy and Policy Institute.

Although Ohio Republicans say they are trying to promote their state’s energy industry, critics have called the new law misleading and “Orwellian.” Unlike renewable energy sources such as wind and solar power, natural gas and other fossil fuels emit significant amounts of greenhouse gases. Leading scientists have said the world must rapidly phase out fossil fuels to avert the worst consequences of unchecked climate change.

The world is running out of options to hit climate goals, U.N. report shows

The law also adds to a fierce linguistic debate, one amped up by the recent furor over gas stoves and their health impacts. Climate activists have urged politicians and journalists to stop using the term “natural gas” and instead use the phrase “methane gas,” since its primary component is a powerful planet-warming pollutant.

The debate in Ohio comes as President Biden seeks to halve the nation’s greenhouse gas emissions by the end of the decade compared with 2005 levels, a move resisted by the fossil fuel industry on the federal, state and local levels.

Last summer, the documents show, a leader of the Empowerment Alliance emailed Ohio state Sens. George Lang (R) and Mark Romanchuk (R) to share a report from Goldman Sachs on the “importance of natural gas” in North America and globally.

“We are on the right track with natural gas is green energy,” wrote Tom Rastin, who leads the Empowerment Alliance with his wife, Karen Buchwald Wright.

As of last fall, Rastin and his wife were listed in Federal Election Commission filings as executives at Ariel Corporation, a manufacturer of natural gas compressors. The couple also are major Republican donors who have dined with former president Donald Trump. Under their leadership, the alliance spent more than $1 million supporting Ohio Republicans in the 2022 election.

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Both lawmakers thanked Rastin for sending the report, with Romanchuk remarking that it highlighted “Ohio’s prominent role” in energy production.

A week later, Lang emailed Rastin from the annual ALEC conference in Atlanta, saying he’d be leaving the convention “with some model legislation to define … that natural gas is clean energy.”

ALEC is known for drafting and disseminating “model” state legislation that tends to advance conservative, pro-business priorities. Several high-profile corporate members, however, have cut ties with the group over what they see as its opposition to climate action, including Google, BP and Facebook.

ALEC did not immediately respond to a request for comment. After this story published, however, the group disputed its involvement in the new law.

Joe Trotter, director of ALEC’s energy, Environment and Agriculture Task Force, said in an email that all model bills go through a “standard legislative process” that includes “member discussion, deliberation and voting.” The Ohio gas bill, he said, “has not gone through any of those steps at ALEC.”

Lang did not respond to a request for comment. Romanchuk declined to comment through a spokesman.

Anthony Conchel, a spokesman for the Empowerment Alliance (TEA), said in an email that “Natural Gas is Green is not an original TEA idea” and noted that natural gas has lower carbon dioxide emissions than coal, the dirtiest fossil fuel, helping the nation reduce some emissions.

“In our view, that is the very definition of green energy,” Conchel said.

‘Guess what? They are clean’

The legislative language that defined gas as green took an unusual path through the Ohio Senate, where it was an amendment to a bill focused on poultry purchases. Dubbed the “chicken bill,” the legislation originally sought to lower the minimum purchasing amount of poultry chicks from six to three.

But at the last minute, Republicans tacked on unrelated amendments aimed at assisting the fossil fuel industry, including another amendment that would make it easier to drill for oil and gas in state parks. By the time the bill reached DeWine’s desk, it was “stuffed” like a chicken, its backers acknowledged.

The final version of the gas amendment stated that “'green energy’ includes energy generated by using natural gas as a resource.” It added that an energy source can be considered green if it “is more sustainable and reliable relative to some fossil fuels,” an apparent reference to gas’s lower emissions than coal.

DeWine spokesman Dan Tierney said that, for the governor, the gas amendment was not worth vetoing the entire bill.

“We do understand the criticism of that language,” Tierney said. “That was put in by the General Assembly. It was not a bill pushed by the administration.”

Tierney added that the governor’s office had completed a legal review that found the gas amendment did not tie the new definition of “green energy” to any state funding or regulations.

In addition to circulating the model bill, ALEC helped broadcast a talking point for its proponents: The European Parliament had recently voted to move ahead with a plan to label nuclear power and natural gas as “green” in some circumstances, a response to energy challenges created by Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.

Amid energy crisis, E.U. says gas, nuclear can sometimes be ‘green’

“Europe has now defined nuclear power and natural gas as clean energy sources of energy. And guess what? They are clean energy sources,” Stephen Moore, a conservative commentator, said on a panel at the ALEC conference, drawing loud applause from the audience.

“So what you need to do in your states is change your renewable energy requirements,” Moore added. “If you don’t get rid of them altogether, you should redefine what clean energy is to include yes, clean nuclear power and yes, natural gas.”

Romanchuk, the author of the amendment that defined gas as green, also looked across the Atlantic for inspiration. In a December email, one of his aides acknowledged that his amendment was “inspired by a European Union vote last summer to classify natural gas as green energy.”

It was not immediately clear if the Europe talking point originated with ALEC or Ohio lawmakers, or whether the ALEC model bill exactly mirrored the gas amendment. But in the emails, one aide to Romanchuk, Adam Landefeld, spelled out the possible benefits to Ohio industries.

The language, he said, could help gas companies in Ohio meet environmental, social and governance (ESG) investing standards. The amendment is an “anti ESG move that will help Gas users in our state,” he wrote.

The Empowerment Alliance, meanwhile, has barely paused to celebrate its victory in Ohio. The group is already targeting other energy-rich states, according to a newsletter with the subject line “Ohio is Red, Gas is Blue, and Green too!” sent to supporters on Friday.

“States like Texas, Louisiana, Pennsylvania, West Virginia are top energy producing states,” the group wrote in the newsletter. “They should follow suit, encouraging their local and state lawmakers to enact similar legislation.”

The Empowerment Alliance is also urging more officials to sign its “Declaration of Energy Independence,” which states that “affordable, clean and abundant energy is the birthright of every American.” So far, nearly 1,200 people have signed, including House Speaker Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) and House Majority Leader Steve Scalise (R-La.).

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