fb-pixelThe gas industry is under fire. It’s hiring Democratic politicians to help. - The Boston Globe Skip to main content

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

Natural gas burns on a domestic kitchen stove in Rome, Italy, on Friday, Dec. 24, 2021. European gas prices declined to near the lowest level in three weeks, with increased inflows at terminals in the region bringing relief to the tight market.Alessia Pierdomenico/Bloomberg

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 a half-dozen gas companies, with the explicit goal of convincing Democratic voters that gas is a "clean" energy source.

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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 liberal strongholds in cities and on coasts. To resist these efforts, the nonprofit group 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."

More than 90 counties and cities - almost all of them led by Democrats - have prohibited or discouraged gas use in new buildings. In 2021, New York City became the largest city in the United States to ban gas connections for newly constructed buildings under seven stories.

Natural Allies is backed by TC Energy, the Canadian pipeline giant behind the controversial Keystone XL project, and Southern Company, one of the biggest U.S. utilities. Launched shortly before the 2020 election, the group is led by Susan Waller, a former executive at the pipeline firm Enbridge.

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Last spring, Waller enlisted Impact Research - a leading Democratic polling firm used by Joe Biden's presidential campaign - to survey Americans' sentiments about natural gas. According to emails obtained by the Energy and Policy Institute, Waller told the organizers of a conference for state utility commissioners that the pollsters would share the results with the White House.

More recently, Natural Allies has run ads featuring Landrieu and former senator Heidi Heitkamp, a moderate Democrat from North Dakota. Gas is "essential to accelerating our clean energy future," Heitkamp said in an ad that was seen more than a million times on Facebook and Instagram.

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 tough Senate race to Republican J.D. Vance. Ryan will replace Heitkamp, who is leaving to lead the University of Chicago's Institute of Politics.

Landrieu will remain on the council while also serving as a lobbyist at Van Ness Feldman. Her clients there include the Williams Companies, a gas firm that helped create Natural Allies, as well as renewable energy companies, according to lobbying disclosure forms.

Waller said in an email that Natural Allies "has been fully transparent about our funding members," which are listed on the group's website and also include labor unions in the energy industry.

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.

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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 is 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.

"We have to continue to be very aggressive in reducing methane," Ryan said. "There's no question about it. And I don't think anyone denies that."

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

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

A major reason for this trend dates to 1935, when President Franklin D. Roosevelt created the Rural Electrification Administration, a New Deal program aimed at bringing electricity to rural areas, said Daniel Tait, a research and communications manager at the Energy and Policy Institute.

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"I don't think anybody - even FDR or proponents of a New Deal back in the 1930s - could have foreseen what we see today," Tait said. "It was really just about the provision of basic services. Who knew we would be fighting over it today?"

The trend of targeting gas supplies is deeply troubling to many major utilities, which are watching as some blue states follow the lead of localities that have banned gas. 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) this month 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, President Biden this summer 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.

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Natural Allies launched just as Biden pledged to wean the country off fossil fuels to fight climate change. The group ran an advertising campaign aimed at persuading 3.5 million people in three battleground states - Pennsylvania, North Carolina and Michigan - that gas is clean, documents show.

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Natural Allies found that Black and Hispanic people - a core Democratic constituency - engaged with the ads more than their White counterparts, according to an internal strategy document.

"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 an email, adding that the campaign would "position natural gas as an ally, not an adversary, to the Biden Administration's green energy goals."

Ryan said his Democratic colleagues should also recognize the support for gas among union workers, especially as Biden pledges to be the most labor-friendly president ever.

"Look at the unions that have been the backbone of the Democratic Party for a long time," Ryan said. "They work in the energy industry and the natural gas industry, and they're very supportive of it."

While Biden and other Democratic leaders ditch fossil fuels, many Republican officials are moving in the opposite direction. Twenty states with GOP-controlled legislatures have passed "preemption laws" that prohibit cities from banning gas.

Meanwhile, conservative politicians have reacted with outrage to talk of regulating gas stoves. In Florida, Gov. Ron DeSantis (R) on Wednesday proposed exempting gas stoves from the state's sales tax, while in Texas, Rep. Ronny Jackson (R) recently tweeted that "if the maniacs in the White House come for my stove, they can pry it from my cold dead hands."

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,” he said, “in getting this message out.”