Last month, Ohio Gov. Mike DeWine (R) signed legislation to call natural gas a “green energy.” The law was pushed by conservative dark money groups and passed by Republican lawmakers backed by the oil and gas industry.
A few weeks later, former congressman and 2022 Ohio Democratic Senate candidate Tim Ryan joined a fossil fuel front group that claims “natural gas is accelerating our transition to a clean energy future.”
These greenwashing efforts are examples of how politicians from both parties are helping the fossil fuel industry’s campaign to promote the use of natural gas and brand it as a climate-friendly energy source. At times, this help has entailed former elected officials getting hired by the industry.
The efforts come as the Biden administration considers banning gas stoves, based on concerns about asthma. Some cities have banned natural gas hookups in new buildings, while others are considering a ban.
Despite the claims of the energy industry and their political allies that natural gas is a climate-friendly alternative to other fossil fuels, the production and use of natural gas, which is essentially methane, has a negative impact on both the planet and public health. Natural gas, which people use to heat their homes and power their stoves, contributes to increasing global temperatures. Experts warn the effects of natural gas leaks could make its use even worse for the planet than coal.
“Earth’s Cleanest Traditional Fuel”
The American Gas Association, a gas industry lobbying group, has described natural gas as “the earth’s cleanest traditional fuel,” claiming that its use cuts emissions. Oil and gas giant ExxonMobil’s website calls natural gas a cleaner fuel, while Chevron says it’s the “cleanest burning conventional fuel.” Other companies are pushing the idea of “green” liquified natural gas, the form in which gas is stored and transported. In 2019, the Trump Administration even tried to rebrand natural gas as “freedom gas.”
But research has shown that methane is worse for the environment than fossil fuel companies let on. Methane molecules, the main component of natural gas, are as much as 90 times more effective at trapping heat than carbon dioxide molecules are. While methane releases far less carbon than coal, its use contributes to rising global temperatures.
For years, energy companies have downplayed the amount of methane they are leaking into the atmosphere. Researchers have found that the effects of methane leaks during the fracking and transportation process could outweigh the supposed climate benefits of using natural gas over coal.
In addition to the broader climate impacts, there are also health and safety risks associated with using gas appliances in homes and workplaces. These factors have led some cities–and some state and federal policymakers–to look to move away from natural gas.
Berkeley and San Francisco, California, have banned natural gas hookups in new buildings. The U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission, a federal government agency that assesses risks associated with products and creates bans or recalls, is considering banning gas stoves, citing concerns about asthma.
In New York, Gov. Kathy Hochul (D) recently voiced her support for a ban on the use of fossil fuels for heating beginning in 2030. She also said she supported a ban on gas stoves in new construction. Last year, New York City banned fossil fuel heating equipment in certain buildings starting in 2024.
The gas stove ban floated by the Biden administration quickly drew ire from conservatives concerned about a purported lack of personal freedom. Coal magnate Sen. Joe Manchin (D-W.Va.) and Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas) have now introduced legislation to preemptively block any federal ban on new gas stoves.
In many states, politicians have also already stepped in to protect the gas industry. In 2019, Flagstaff, Arizona, was focused on using electric power as a way to reduce emissions. The next year, the state legislature passed a preemption law barring cities and towns from banning natural gas on a local level.
Nineteen other states have followed Arizona’s lead and made it so cities and towns cannot ban natural gas–often with backing from the fossil fuel industry. For instance, former Utah state Rep. Steve Handy (R) told Stateline, an initiative of The Pew Charitable Trusts, that gas utility Dominion Energy requested that he propose legislation barring natural gas bans, which he sponsored and Utah passed in 2021.
In Ohio, energy companies hold a notoriously strong influence. In 2020, the chair of the Public Utilities Commission of Ohio resigned after electric utility FirstEnergy Corp allegedly bribed Ohio lobbyists and political officials to try to get a $1.3 billion buyout for two Ohio power plants.
FirstEnergy and its affiliates allegedly passed $60 million through a dark money group to former Ohio House Speaker Larry Householder (R) and other politicians in exchange for the bailout. A federal corruption trial is underway.
There was also a dark money campaign behind the effort to develop and pass Ohio’s new law enshrining natural gas as a “clean energy.” Ohio lawmakers passed the legislation as part of a collaboration with dark money groups tied to the fossil fuel industry, according to documents obtained by the Energy and Policy Institute, a watchdog group focusing on renewable energ,.
The documents show one of the bill’s cosponsors, Ohio state Sen. George Lang (R), wrote from a conference held last summer by the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC), a dark money group and policy hub for conservative politicians, that he would “be leaving the ALEC convention with some model legislation to define on the ORC [Ohio revised code] that natural gas is clean energy.”
One recipient of Lang’s email was Tom Rastin, executive vice president at the Ariel Corporation, the largest producer of natural gas compressors in the world. Natural gas compressors are crucial to pipelines because they make the gas easier to transport.
Rastin and his wife, Ariel CEO Karen Buchwald Wright, lead the Empowerment Alliance, a dark money group that supported the Ohio bill characterizing natural gas as clean energy. The couple has given money to the Republican Governors’ Association, which bankrolled ads supporting DeWine.
On their website, the Empowerment Alliance details its energy agenda. The first point is to “recognize natural gas as green.” They write:
American natural gas is affordable, clean, abundant, and reliable energy that improves the environment while securing American energy independence.
Emails show Rastin corresponding with Lang as well as state Sen. Mark Romanchuk (R), another sponsor. Romanchuk has publicly claimed the bill was inspired by a 2022 E.U. decision to call natural gas “sustainable” in some instances.
According to the documents obtained by the Energy and Policy Institute, in October 2022, Romanchuk’s office sent language from the bill at least three times to Adam Hewitt, a lobbyist for the Empowerment Alliance.
Dave Anderson, policy and communications manager for the Energy and Policy Institute, told the Washington Post:
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.
DeWine, Ohio’s Republican governor, has taken campaign contributions from several utilities that rely on or distribute natural gas, including American Electric Power, Duke Energy, NiSource, Dominion Energy, and FirstEnergy.
“We reviewed the ‘Green Energy’ language, and it has no effect on any state funding or regulations. The language is merely an opinion of the Ohio General Assembly,” Dan Tierney, DeWine’s press secretary, told The Lever.
“Pro-Climate, Pro-Affordability, and Pro-Natural Gas”
A prominent Ohio Democrat, meanwhile, is now aiding a separate fossil fuel industry campaign to greenwash natural gas.
Former congressman Tim Ryan, who lost the Ohio Senate race to J.D. Vance in November, recently joined the leadership council of Natural Allies for a Clean Energy Future, a front group for natural gas interests.
“I am excited to join Natural Allies and promote the role natural gas plays in meeting global climate goals faster, while advancing reliability and affordability here at home,” Ryan said in a press release.
These are kitchen table issues voters understand–people’s livelihoods and jobs often depend on rational energy policy. As Democrats, we can be pro-climate, pro-affordability, and pro-natural gas.
During his Senate campaign, Ryan told the Washington Post that fracking, a process commonly used to extract natural gas, has “provided enormous economic benefits and moved the U.S. towards energy independence. However, we need to significantly ramp up our oversight and regulation of the industry and its practices, especially in regard to its use and disposal of water, as well as methane leaks.”
Natural Allies recently released a video ad narrated by young people that claims,
replacing coal with natural gas is the best way to cut emissions, reach climate goals, [and] empower our future reliably, cleanly, and affordably.
Ryan joined former Sen. Mary Landrieu (D-La.) on Natural Allies’ leadership council. Landrieu, a conservative Democrat, became a lobbyist after losing her race in the 2014 election. She recently registered to lobby for the Williams Companies, a natural gas company supporting Natural Allies, on pipeline issues. Landrieu has also lobbied to help the oil and gas firm Enterprise Products obtain authorization to build a crude oil export hub off the coast of Texas.