Natural Gas Battles Local Climate Efforts Natural gas utilities face a bleak future in a world increasingly concerned about climate change. An NPR investigation shows how they work to block local climate action and protect their business.

As Cities Grapple With Climate Change, Gas Utilities Fight To Stay In Business

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ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

The Texas blackout last week has put new focus on the country's energy sources. Climate change concerns are pushing the auto industry toward electric. And now, there's a similar push around buildings, another big source of heat-trapping gases. Natural gas utilities worry that electrifying homes and offices may jeopardize the gas industry's future. NPR's Jeff Brady has the first part of an investigation into how the industry is fighting back.

JEFF BRADY, BYLINE: In recent years, natural gas got a bit of a halo. It helped reduce carbon emissions as gas-fired power plants replaced dirtier coal ones. But that's no longer good enough as more cities, businesses and now the Biden administration seek to completely zero out greenhouse gas emissions, including from buildings.

KAREN HARBERT: If the goal is to reduce emissions, we're all in. If the goal is to put us out of business, not so much.

BRADY: Karen Harbert heads the American Gas Association, the main trade group for gas utilities that serve tens of millions of homes and businesses. These days, her members spend a lot of time touting the cleaner alternatives they're developing - so-called renewable natural gas and hydrogen. But to avoid the worst effects of climate change, scientists say quicker action is needed. Most researchers, like Erin Mayfield at Princeton University, have concluded that switching away from gas to electricity is the most efficient way to eliminate carbon emissions from most buildings by 2050.

ERIN MAYFIELD: We cannot continue using natural gas for things like heating and cooking because it's not consistent with reaching a net-zero goal.

BRADY: President Biden's ambitious climate plan includes incentives to switch from gas to electric furnaces and appliances. That was a concern at an industry conference just after the November election. NPR obtained a recording. AGA Vice President Sue Forrester said the plan would mean nothing less than eliminating natural gas.

SUE FORRESTER: Our goal is to reframe the debate around natural gas and to really show value proposition of natural gas and our energy infrastructure and how we're going to be key to a clean energy future.

BRADY: Even before Biden was elected, the industry saw the electrification push coming. It doubled down on its Cooking With Gas campaign that included young social media influencers.

(SOUNDBITE OF INSTAGRAM VIDEO)

AMBER KELLEY: Hey, guys. I'm Amber Kelley from Cook With Amber. The first thing we got to do is heat up our pan, so I'm going to turn our stove on.

BRADY: Some of the industry's other efforts are more aggressive, but less public. It's lobbying to pass state laws barring local governments from restricting gas use in new buildings. This after more than 40 California communities banned new gas hookups or restricted gas use in order to meet their climate goals.

NPR reviewed internal AGA documents obtained through public records request by the Climate Investigation Center. They show that these state laws became a priority for the gas association at least as far back as December 2019. So far, four states have passed the so-called preemption bills, and 11 more mostly Republican-led states are considering them. Again, Karen Harbert.

HARBERT: We are not coordinating these efforts, and we are not state lobbyists. We concentrate our activities certainly at the federal level.

BRADY: The distinction is important. Much of 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. In California, the country's largest gas utility, SoCal Gas, faces possible fines for allegedly using ratepayer money to oppose municipal electrification efforts, allegations the company denies.

It's clear from internal communication that the AGA is at least serving as a clearinghouse for the utilities and local gas associations promoting preemption bills around the country. Robert Brulle is a visiting professor at Brown University who researches campaigns like this.

ROBERT BRULLE: There are textbooks on this. And this is a textbook example of this kind of information and influence campaigning operation.

BRADY: That campaign is framed in customer choice terms - that people should be able to choose what kind of energy they use in their homes. Brulle says the risk is that it will help stall climate action further, favoring one vested interest over the collective good.

Jeff Brady, NPR News.

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