Protesters slam gas group’s use of customers’ money to thwart climate efforts

15 04 2024 | 14:57Dharna Noor

A group of advocates and Democratic senators gathered in Washington DC on Tuesday to decry utilities’ practice of spending customers’ money to advance a pro-fossil fuel agenda.

“Americans are already paying the price of climate change,” said Senator Ed Markey of Massachusetts at a gathering at the US Capitol. “They shouldn’t have to pay the salaries of those who are fueling it.”

The event marked the launch of a campaign by the non-profit Gas Leaks Project targeting the American Gas Association, the largest trade group for gas companies which represents some 200 utilities.

In an emailed statement, the CEO of the American Gas Association, Karen Harbert, said: “Any claim that we have not been a leader in advancing environmental goals is simply not accurate,” and said the advocates are “willfully spreading misinformation and promoting ill-informed energy policy”.

She said the gas industry has also “committed to collaboration with policymakers and regulators to help achieve our nation’s ambitious climate and energy goals”.

Yet the AGA, with annual budgets between $30m and $60m, has long worked to thwart climate efforts. Last month, for instance, the lobbying group came under fire for successfully working to strip decarbonization measures from building codes. It has also lobbied against stricter federal energy efficiency regulations and fought to pass bills banning state and municipal efforts to phase out gas. That political activity is funded primarily by its members’ dues, which are in turn funded by ratepayer dollars.

The extraction and use of gas, called natural gas by industry interests, emits planet-heating and toxic pollution. Reports show the AGA has been aware of these dangers for 50 years, but has continued to undercut climate efforts. In coordination with its members and other industry groups, the AGA has long promoted gas as a superior cooking fuel and as an energy source compatible with climate progress.

Industry interests refer to the energy source as “natural gas” – a term advocates say is a form of greenwashing.

“The fossil fuel industry depends in roughly equal parts on hydrocarbons and lies,” said Sheldon Whitehouse, the Rhode Island senator who was also at the event.

AGA’s Harbert said that gas helps the US in “achieving our environmental goals”.

But gas is primarily made of methane, a greenhouse gas 80 times more planet-warming than carbon dioxide in the short term. It has also been linked to asthma and other health risks. And research shows that consumer-grade natural gas contains nearly two-dozen different toxic air pollutants as defined by the EPA, including benzene and other cancer-causing compounds.

“Your home shouldn’t be hazardous to your health,” said Andre Greene, pastor of Varick Memorial AME Zion church, at the conference.

Advocates with the campaign, Ditch the AGA, unveiled a new website that helps viewers determine whether their utility is a member of the American Gas Association, and if it is, encourages them to pressure their local officials to demand that the utility cut ties.

In August Eversource, New England’s largest utility, left the American Gas Association amid pressure to rapidly cut its emissions. Four states have also passed legislation to prevent the use of ratepayer dollars to fund political activity, and ten others are considering similar policies.

“We want to see that kind of action from every state’s utility regulators,” said Caleb Heeringa, the Gas Leaks Project’s group’s program director, to the Guardian.

Federal and state regulations prohibit utilities from passing some lobbying costs off to ratepayers, but other tactics to influence politics are permitted, and trade associations’ activities are largely not considered lobbying by the IRS. Advocates are calling on the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission to place stricter limits on utilities’ use of ratepayer funds to advance their political agendas.

The press conference followed a protest earlier in the day outside of the AGA’s Washington DC headquarters. Demonstrators held a banner that said Ditch the AGA and signs that said "American Gaslighting Association".

Nearly all utilities in the US are members of the AGA.

Polling from the thinktank Data for Progress recently found that a majority of American voters would support efforts to stop utilities from using ratepayer funds for lobbying activities.

If officials don’t act soon, “future generations will have to pay for the misleading narratives put out by the American Gas Association with the health of their families, quality of their environment, and economic prosperity of their communities”, said Neal Goturi, the 16-year-old Founder of Electrify Our Future, a youth-led climate advocacy group in Howard county, Maryland.