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Under fire, the gas industry is hiring Democratic politicians to help

The Climate 202

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But first:

The gas industry is under fire. It’s hiring Democratic politicians to help.

At a time when many other Democrats fault natural gas for fueling climate change, former senator Mary Landrieu (D-La.) frames it as a solution.

“Yes, this country needs to move forward on wind and solar,” Landrieu said in a recent Bloomberg News interview, speaking on behalf of a nonprofit group that advocates for natural gas. “But we need to back it up with a fuel that we can count on, a power source, and that’s natural gas. It’s abundant, it’s cheap, and it can be cleaner.”

What she didn’t mention, however, is that the nonprofit group was created by half a dozen gas companies with the goal of convincing Democratic voters that gas is a “clean” energy source.

The group, dubbed Natural Allies for a Clean Energy Future, comes as Democratic leaders across the country restrict gas use to fight climate change. The bans threaten customer losses for gas utilities, which dominate the nation’s liberal strongholds in its cities and on its coasts. To resist these efforts, the nonprofit has enlisted prominent Democratic politicians and pollsters to help enhance gas’s reputation among liberal voters.

“The gas utilities are acutely aware that their constituency is blue voters,” said Charlie Spatz, a research manager at the Energy and Policy Institute, which advocates for renewable energy. “The gas industry is not at the end of the day worried about right-wing voters. They have them.”

Natural Allies is backed by TC Energy, the Canadian pipeline giant behind the controversial Keystone XL project, and Southern, one of the country’s biggest utilities. 

Shortly before the 2020 election, the group ran an advertising campaign aimed at convincing 3.5 million people in three battleground states — Pennsylvania, North Carolina and Michigan — that gas is clean, according to documents obtained by the Energy and Policy Institute.

“During this campaign, Natural Allies was particularly focused on determining what messages might resonate with key elements of the Democratic party’s base, anticipating the very scenario the industry is facing today,” the group wrote in a 2021 email.

More recently, the group has run ads featuring both Landrieu and former senator Heidi Heitkamp, a moderate Democrat from North Dakota. The group got another influential messenger this month, when former congressman Tim Ryan (D-Ohio) said he would join its leadership council after losing a Senate race to J.D. Vance. a Republican.

In an interview, Ryan argued that gas has helped cut the country’s carbon emissions because it is cleaner than coal, another fossil fuel. “I don’t think we can get where we need to be with carbon reduction without a robust natural gas strategy,” he said.

However, the primary component of natural gas is methane, a warming pollutant much more powerful than carbon dioxide, and methane often leaks as companies extract gas and ship it across the country. Although the gas industry says it’s working to curb its methane pollution, leading scientists say the world must rapidly phase out all fossil fuels to avert the worst consequences of climate change.

‘A very aggressive campaign’

Natural gas is the most popular method of heating homes in liberal pockets of the country, according to census data, while electricity prevails in more conservative regions.

For example, roughly 63 percent of California households used natural gas for heating in 2020, the data shows, while 23 percent of South Carolina households did.

The trend is particularly evident between the North and South. Gas dominates in densely populated states with Democratic governors, including Massachusetts, New York and New Jersey. Electricity reigns in more rural states with Republican leaders, including Alabama, Mississippi and South Carolina.

Several blue states have followed the lead of localities by banning gas use in new buildings. 

  • Last year, Washington became the first state in the country to mandate that newly constructed buildings be outfitted with electric space heating and hot water systems.
  • In California, regulators voted in September to phase out the sale of new gas furnaces and water heaters beginning in 2030. 
  • And in New York, Gov. Kathy Hochul (D) endorsed banning the use of fossil fuels by 2025 for smaller new buildings and by 2028 for larger or commercial ones.

At the national level, meanwhile, President Biden last year signed a landmark climate law that offers households hundreds of dollars to switch from gas-powered appliances to cleaner versions. And the Consumer Product Safety Commission is weighing federal regulations on new gas stoves because of concerns about their harmful indoor air pollution.

Conservative politicians have bristled at talk of regulating gas stoves. Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis (R) on Wednesday proposed exempting gas stoves from the state’s sales tax, saying, “They want your gas stove, and we’re not going to let that happen.”

Such statements could backfire, Spatz warned, on an industry that depends on mostly Democratic customers.

“I’m kind of tickled by the idea that [Republicans] are now the spokespeople for gas stoves, because that really is kind of the worst-case scenario from a communications perspective if you’re trying to sway a lot of liberal voters,” he said.

Ryan, however, said his group’s efforts to reach more liberal voters were just beginning.

“We are going to have a very aggressive campaign in getting this message out,” he said.

Agency alert

Biden team gives nod to huge Alaska oil project, setting up climate fight

The Biden administration on Wednesday formally recommended that the Interior Department grant partial approval to ConocoPhillips’s controversial oil drilling project Willow on Alaska’s North Slope, The Washington Post’s Timothy Puko reports. 

In the final supplemental environmental impact assessment, the administration said that under its “preferred alternative” the company would be allowed to drill three well pads, instead of the five it had originally requested, in an effort to protect some of the region’s wildlife. According to the administration, this alternative would result in smaller greenhouse gas emissions than the other drilling options, causing roughly 9.2 million metric tons of carbon dioxide per year.

Environmental groups, however, are already urging the administration to reject the slimmed-down proposal, saying it would deal a major blow to President Biden’s efforts to reduce U.S. emissions 50 to 52 percent by 2030. For its part, ConocoPhillips said it could work with the report’s recommended option and start construction as soon as Interior makes that decision.

Interior Secretary Deb Haaland, who once fought the project as a member of Congress, now has 30 days to make a final decision on whether to approve it, shrink it or reject it.

Energy Department proposes gas stove regulations, reigniting debate

The fight over cooking by gas flame was reignited Wednesday, as the Energy Department proposed efficiency regulations for gas stoves just weeks after the Consumer Product Safety Commission suggested it might regulate the appliances.

The Energy Department proposal would require the biggest, fanciest stoves to be 30 percent more efficient, according to an analysis by the American Council for an Energy Efficient Economy. The proposed standards would take effect in 2027 and would save the nation up to $1.7 billion, the department said.

Industry groups, including the American Gas Association and the Association of Home Appliance Manufacturers, immediately criticized the standards.

“We are concerned that this is another attempt by the federal government to use regulations to remove viable and efficient natural gas products from the market,” Karen Harbert, chief executive of the American Gas Association, said in a statement.

But ACEEE’s Andrew Delaski called such claims “just not accurate.” The middle- and low-range stoves on the market would have no problem meeting the new standards, he said. High-end models, he said, would need to start becoming more efficient, just like federal rules have forced manufacturers to build more efficient clothes dryers and other big appliances.

“As required by Congress, the Department of Energy is proposing efficiency standards for gas and electric cooktops — we are not proposing bans on either," agency spokesman Jeremy Paul Ortiz said in an email.

Many thanks to our colleague Evan Halper for helping with this item.

International climate

Rich nations pledged to pay for climate damage, but where’s the money?

Less than three months after the U.N. Climate Change Conference in Egypt, where world leaders announced the creation of a fund to help poor countries cope with the ravages of climate change, it seems unlikely that the United States and other wealthy nations will step up to bankroll the much-hyped fund, The Post’s Steven Mufson reports. 

Instead, White House climate envoy John F. Kerry told attendees at last month’s World Economic Forum meeting in Davos, Switzerland, that he needed “money, money, money, money.” 

“That’s what we need,” Kerry said during a recent meeting with journalists at The Post. “We need it for the developing world. We need it for the right choices to be made and to leapfrog the mistakes.”

In particular, Kerry and others are urging multinational development banks such as the World Bank to focus more on climate change and to use tools such as concessionary loans that would make private investors more comfortable with risks in the developing world.

“No government in the world has enough money to be able to effect this transition,” Kerry said, adding that the United States would also have trouble providing further sums, “given the makeup of Congress.” 

International climate

E.U. proposes green strategy to compete with Inflation Reduction Act

The European Commission on Wednesday unveiled a proposal aimed at helping the bloc compete with the United States as a manufacturing hub for electric vehicles and other green technologies, Reuters’s Philip Blenkinsop reports. 

The draft plan calls for faster approval of green projects and trade agreements to secure supplies of critical minerals. It comes as European leaders voice concern that the Inflation Reduction Act will encourage E.U. green tech companies to relocate.

“Major economies are rightly stepping up investment in net zero industries,” European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen said during a news conference. “What we are looking at is that we have a global playing field.”

While the European Commission is hoping member states will support the plan at a summit starting Feb. 9, some members have voiced opposition to parts of the proposal, setting up a hot debate.

In the atmosphere


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