Internal documents detail how gas utilities greenwash RNG and hydrogen

Internal American Gas Association (AGA) meeting notes from March 2018 reveal that the industry planned to use RNG advocacy as part of a strategy to “mitigate” stakeholder opposition, specifically from environmental groups. Following a presentation by National Grid on how it dealt with opposition to a gas pipeline expansion in the northeast, AGA devised an action item for its members to “consider how technologies to decarbonize the pipeline can serve as a conduit to environmental organizations, thereby seeking to mitigate the opposition’s fervor against infrastructure expansion.”

In 2020, AGA reported over $30.2 million in revenue, of which $28 million was explicitly from utility membership dues, according to the trade association’s tax filings. Utilities pass these fees on to their customers to pay each month through their gas bills. For example, National Grid’s Massachusetts subsidiaries, Boston Gas Company and Colonial Gas Company, together have paid over $300,000 a year to AGA. AGA has used this revenue to lead efforts to pass state-level bills to block local action to cut greenhouse gas emissions

During another industry meeting, Eversource told the assembled utilities that gas is “in for fight of it’s life” [sic] and that RNG will “likely save” the gas business. A “call to action” slide framed several questions for the utilities to discuss, including: “how can we make sure we reach decision makers” and “take advantage of power outage fear.”

The meeting was hosted by a consortium within the Energy Solutions Center, which is a nonprofit housed in the office of the American Gas Association. Members of the Energy Solutions Center include: Atmos, DTE Gas, Exelon, Enbridge, MDU, National Fuel, SoCalGas, South Jersey Gas, Spire, Summit, UGI, and Washington Gas. 

While Eversource said it left the secretive “Consortium to Combat Electrification” group in 2021, it had been paying a membership fee to Energy Solutions Center and recovering the costs from its customers. Eversource’s Connecticut subsidiary Yankee Gas paid Energy Solutions Center $36,971 in 2020, according to operation and maintenance work-pages on file with the Public Utilities Regulatory Authority.

Southern California Gas Company, a Sempra subsidiary, funded an organization called Californians for Balanced Energy Solutions (C4BES) to promote the continued investment and use of the gas system to local communities and governments. Documents detailed how SoCalGas targeted “key Laitno leaders” to support C4BES and push the idea of “renewable” gas as an alternative to reducing emissions.

Internal C4BES emails additionally revealed the SoCalGas-funded group’s awareness regarding the serious potential climate and affordability limitations with the RNG supply. Michael Boccadoro, executive director at Dairy Cares, a California-based coalition that promotes dairy farms, and former board member at C4BES told the Guardian that RNG “doesn’t make all that much sense from an environmental standpoint … There’s a lot of folks who believe we can decarbonize the pipeline simply by replacing fossil natural gas with renewable gas. I’m not one of those people.”

A PowerPoint presentation made in February to the group’s board, a copy of which was obtained by The Los Angeles Times, lists one of the group’s goals as “Communicate the role of both natural gas and renewable gas in protecting the environment.” Several slides describe government initiatives that could limit the use of gas under the heading, “Why We Are Here: Natural Gas Under Attack.” Metadata showed the PowerPoint was created by Ken Chawkins, a public policy manager at SoCalGas.

The Los Angeles Times also revealed that SoCalGas was using ratepayer funds to promote gas to its customers through the trade association American Public Gas Association. In other words, money paid by SoCalGas customers on their monthly bills has been used to support groups working to promote gas.

Industry officials have also publicly stated that RNG and hydrogen gas are not viable solutions to completely replace fossil gas in buildings.

In May 2021, the Arizona Corporation Commission hosted an RNG workshop and invited representatives of Southwest Gas, the American Gas Association, and the Coalition for Renewable Natural Gas to present. In response to questions from the Arizona PIRG Education Fund, the Coalition for RNG admitted that “the estimated potential for RNG from anaerobic digestion feedstocks in the 2040 timeframe” could replace only 5.4% of the country’s current gas consumption in the residential, commercial, industrial, and natural gas vehicle sectors. The coalition cited a 2019 study prepared for the American Gas Foundation. That data came from a 2011 study prepared for the American Gas Foundation. A more recent 2019 study that the coalition used as a source suggested that RNG could replace – in the most aggressive scenario – only 23% of the country’s gas consumption in the residential, commercial, industrial, and natural gas vehicle sectors.

Southern Company’s Mark Berry, vice president of research and development, told UtilityDive in August 2021 that stakeholders shouldn’t be expecting the existing lines that are getting built today to carry 100% hydrogen. “If you were talking to natural gas people, they will tell you there are concerns with how much hydrogen could blend into existing infrastructure.”

Tennessee Valley Authority’s Joe Hoagland, vice president of enterprise relations and innovation, said that hydrogen-powered turbines are decades off for the utility.

At least one public official has recognized the industry’s attempt at greenwashing their fossil fuel capital expenditure projects.

Rebecca Tepper, chief of the Energy and Environment Bureau at the Massachusetts Attorney General’s office, said the gas industry is using RNG and hydrogen to “kick the can down the road” and expand infrastructure on the premise that the fuels will eventually decarbonize the grid. “I think that is a very damaging message, and I think it’s wrong. I think we all need to be aware of it,” Tepper said, highlighting recent media coverage of the fuels. “When it comes out, I think people need to speak out against that.”

Posted by Energy and Policy Institute