Fossil fuel executives see a ‘golden age’ for gas, if they can brand it as ‘clean’

Natural gas flare from offshore oil drilling rig in Cook Inlet in Alaska on a summer evening.

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Natural gas has long been subject to a war of words. Once it was a “bridge fuel” that would straddle the gap from fossil energy to renewable sources. More recently, climate activists have sought to highlight that gas pollutes, too, by stripping “natural” from its name and calling it fossil- or methane gas.

The industry is pushing back, and gas executives displayed their latest linguistic counteroffensive at an industry conference this month in Houston.

“It’s time for us to stop tiptoeing about the value of natural gas,” said Octávio Simões, chief executive of Tellurian, which is struggling to finance its multi-billion dollar plan to export liquified natural gas, or LNG. “It’s time for us to say it is an incredible fuel, and we’re not afraid to burn it in our kitchens,” he added, drawing cheers from the otherwise subdued crowd.

Gas’s fortunes have fallen over the last decade as emerging science revealed that its production and transport releases large volumes of methane, the fuel’s primary component and a potent greenhouse gas. 

Some estimates indicate these leaks have wiped away much or even most of the gains the United States appeared to make in cutting climate pollution by replacing coal with gas as a fuel for power plants. 

When burned, gas releases about half as much carbon dioxide as coal, but methane traps about 85 times more heat than CO2 over a 20-year period. Other science has shown that gas stoves emit harmful chemicalsthat can collect in people’s homes.

A gas ring on a stove powered by natural gas. (Photo Illustration by Christopher Furlong/Getty Images)

“We lost the narrative on the value of natural gas,” Simões said during the panel, held in a windowless hotel ballroom with soaring ceilings and seating for hundreds that was only about half-full.

Toby Rice, who leads EQT, the country’s largest gas producer, was sitting next to Simões and has been at the forefront of an effort to win back that narrative. During the panel, Rice called his company’s product the “cleanest energy in the world,” despite the fact that gas emits 20 percent of global carbon dioxide emissions.

Fossil fuel executives were broadcasting the same message as Rice and Simões throughout the conference, CERAWeek by S&P Global, one of the energy industry’s largest annual gatherings. 

Ryan Lance, chief executive of ConocoPhillips, said in a separate panel that “the whole taxonomy around gas is changing” as a result of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, which sent energy prices soaring and European countries scrambling for new sources of fuel. “Gas is something that’s going to be more than just a bridge fuel,” Lance said. “It’s going to be around for a long time.”

Environmental groups and many scientists have warned that this outcome would be a disaster for the climate. 

“Neither fossil gas nor liquefied natural gas (LNG) is clean, nor are they particularly low” in climate pollution, the Natural Resources Defense Council said in a report last year. The report argued that a planned LNG export expansion threatened to place global climate goals out of reach, and that the Biden administration should instead support development of wind and solar energy, which are increasingly cost-competitive with gas, as a replacement for coal overseas.

CERAWeek draws government officials, too, and one day, executives with the American Petroleum Institute, U.S. Chamber of Commerce and other fossil fuel industry groups met with representatives of G7 nations to press the “unique and vital role of natural gas in meeting shared energy security and climate objectives.” 

During the meeting, the executives urged the G7 nations to “affirm the crucial contributions of natural gas” when they hold their annual summit in May, according to an open letter from the industry groups. 

Former Ohio Congressman Tim Ryan has been hired to promote natural gas to Democrats. (Photo by Graham Stokes)

Fossil fuel companies have been gearing up for this battle for years. Among those who cheered Simões’ defense of gas was former Sen. Mary Landrieu, who was sitting toward the back of the room with former Rep. Tim Ryan. The two Democrats have been hired by a group called Natural Allies for a Clean Energy Future, launched by EQT and several other gas companies and labor unions to promote the fuel to Democrats.

“That’s what me and Mary are really focused on,” Ryan said in an interview after the panel, “how to get Democrats kind of in line.”

Internal documents obtained by the Guardian revealed that the group ran a multi-million dollar advertising campaign in advance of the 2020 election trying to “redefine the role of natural gas in fighting climate change and protect the social license to operate.” One document said that “success for the natural gas industry will be rooted in whether we can message to the left and the Democratic base of Black and Latino and age 18-34 voters as effectively as we have messaged to the right.”

EQT launched a separate group in October, along with pipeline developers Williams and TC Energy, called the Partnership to Address Global Emissions, or PAGE Coalition, to promote LNG exports as a tool for cutting climate pollution. That group has also enlisted center-left political groups including the Bipartisan Policy Center, the Progressive Policy Institute and labor unions.

The PAGE Coalition has sponsored content and events with Politico and Axios, and spent $850,000 last year lobbying Congress and the Biden administration. EQT’s Rice traveled last year to the United Nations climate summit in Egypt, known as COP 27, where the PAGE coalition held a side-event. An EQT tweet shows Rice talking about “the greatest green initiative on the planet.”

Russia’s weaponization of its gas last year presented American companies with a new opportunity to promote their own exports.

“You’re not going to wake up one day and have some petro-dictator say, ‘you know what, we’re shutting down your energy,” Rice said during the CERAWeek panel in Houston. “It’s backed by the U.S. military, and it’s bullet-proof.”

The industry argues that using American gas overseas can be a win for the climate, too. Some research has indicated that methane emissions are lower in the United States gas sector than in Russia. And if the gas is used to replace coal in power generation, which is still widespread in many Asian countries, companies have said expanded gas exports can be part of an effort to lower carbon dioxide emissions.

In a January report, Paul Bledsoe, a strategic advisor at the Progressive Policy Institute and advisory council member of the PAGE Coalition, made this case to argue for doubling gas exports and expanding production by 10 percent. The report argued that the United States needed to limit gas leaks throughout the supply chain, pointing to new regulations from the Biden administration as a first step, but also called for speeding approval of new pipelines and gas export terminals.

“The reason we have to produce more is we’ve got to nudge Russia out of the market as best we can, on the basis of lower emissions,” Bledsoe said in an interview on the sidelines of the conference. “I think this will happen over the next five years if we do it right.”

Bledsoe said he has not been paid directly by the gas industry. Tommy Kaelin, a spokesman for the Progressive Policy Institute, did not answer whether the organization has received industry funding, saying that “no funding source influences our research.” Previous reporting has revealed the group has taken donations from ExxonMobil and the American Gas Association.

EQT and many other gas companies say they are working to reduce leaks to a minimum—reporting to the EPA suggests EQT has one of the lowest rates of methane emissions among top producers.

But Steven Hamburg, chief scientist at the Environmental Defense Fund, said there isn’t enough data to know exactly how much methane is leaking from pipelines and other equipment. “The statements about ‘our emissions are low,’” he said, “they’re not based on transparent, empirical data.”

Even if methane leaks fell to near zero, gas still emits carbon dioxide when it is burned. Globally, the fuel has been a growing source of climate pollution, though emissions dipped slightly last year after Russia shut exports to Europe.

The arguments from Bledsoe and the PAGE coalition also ignore science saying that meeting the Paris Agreement’s goal of limiting warming to 1.5 degrees Celsius requires rapidly phasing out all fossil fuels, including gas. 

A 2021 report by the International Energy Agency, for example, said that no new natural gas fields were compatible with the 1.5 degree target, nor were “many” of the LNG plants then in the construction or planning phases. 

That same year, a UN report found that gas use needed to begin its decline immediately. (Limiting warming to 2 degrees, a less ambitious goal associated with more dangerous extreme weather and sea level rise, would allow for more gas use, with a peak around 2030, the report said.)

Bledsoe and others have argued that carbon capture and storage could one day begin to limit the emissions from burning gas. During one panel at the CERAWeek conference, John Kerry, special presidential envoy for climate, also alluded to the emissions-cutting technology, saying, “Gas is part of the transition, folks, absolutely. But if you get to 2030 and you’re not abating those emissions, you’re then contributing to the problem.”

To date, there are no commercial-scale gas power plants fitted with carbon capture technology, which has failed to catch on despite decades of investment and research.

In some ways, gas companies are winning their battle. Last year saw the highest domestic gas use ever, though consumption dipped globally after Russia cut shipments to Europe.

“I truly think it’s the golden age right now for natural gas,” said Alan Armstrong, who was sitting on stage with Rice and Simões and is the chief executive of Williams, which pipes about one-third of the nation’s gas.

But the executives’ comments could also be read more as a last-ditch defense than a confident attack. Their panel was framed by a question: Not whether renewable energy growth would erode demand for natural gas, but “how quickly” that will occur.

Economists and policy experts project that the Inflation Reduction Act, with its subsidies for clean energy, could quickly send gas demand falling. An increasing number of cities and states are also adopting policies to phase out gas for use in heating and cooking in buildings, pinching another source of demand. In that light, expanded exports become a necessity for the industry’s future.

Executives have said that they could have trouble realizing their goal of increasing exports unless they can build new pipelines quickly. Permitting reform, then, is the policy target of the industry’s linguistic spear.

“We really need to raise our voices as the American public and demand that we get permitting reform,” said Armstrong, the Williams executive, and demand that it speeds approval of fossil fuel projects, not just clean energy.

“That’s the issue,” said Ryan, the former congressman now working with the industry group Natural Allies. “And the fact that we have, you know, the industry, a lot of labor unions now moving in and joining Natural Allies, it’s a pretty strong coalition on the Democratic side, plus the renewable folks want transmission lines.”

Days earlier, John Podesta, the senior White House climate advisor, had told the conference that the Biden administration’s clean energy goals depended on passing permitting reforms through Congress, and he asked the oil and gas industry for help.

Throughout the conference, there was an optimism that the industry could secure legislation that would assist its export plans.

“I think they’re going to get done,” Ryan said.

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Nicholas Kusnetz, Inside Climate News
Nicholas Kusnetz, Inside Climate News

Nicholas Kusnetz is a reporter for Inside Climate News. Before joining ICN, he worked at the Center for Public Integrity and ProPublica. His work has won numerous awards, including from the American Association for the Advancement of Science and the Society of American Business Editors and Writers, and has appeared in more than a dozen publications, including The Washington Post, Businessweek, The Nation, Fast Company and The New York Times.

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