Natural gas has long been touted as a “bridge fuel,” a cleaner-burning energy source that can offer a path from the filthy, coal-dominated past to a renewable future. The argument has always had serious holes, but fossil fuel boosters are now starting to redefine reality by insisting that burning natural gas is just as green as letting the wind spin a turbine.
“‘Green energy’ includes energy generated by using natural gas as a resource,” declared Ohio House Bill 507, which Republican Gov. Mike DeWine signed into law in December.
But that’s just the beginning. The bill, at least partially ushered through by a dark-money nonprofit with ties to the oil and gas industry called The Empowerment Alliance (TEA), also allows for oil and gas drilling in state parks and bestows the “green energy” designation on any energy source that can lower cumulative emissions or “is more sustainable and reliable relative to some fossil fuels.” That vague description could theoretically include certain kinds of oil and coal, as long as they beat out the worst of their cousins.
The new Ohio law, which echoes a federal resolution introduced by Ohio Rep. Troy Balderson (R) last May as well as similar under-the-radar moves at the county level, may seem like just another bit of esoteric culture war maneuvering. But in Ohio, it is merely the latest in a decadelong series of moves meant to undermine renewable energy progress and re-center the oil and gas industry. Now the question is whether the groups that helped push through Ohio’s new law will succeed in replicating that playbook elsewhere.
“This is the state where we have basically completely gotten rid of the [renewable portfolio standard] and the efficiency standard. And it’s a state where the legislature has increasingly made it more and more difficult to build renewables,” said Neil Waggoner, of the nonprofit Sierra Club’s Ohio chapter. “The language here, it’s codifying a lie. There’s nothing green about it.”
The TEA apparently wants to expand its natural gas-related campaigns into several other states, and the sudden culture war surrounding gas stoves indicates how gas is the newest center of a pro-fossil fuel, anti-climate action agenda.
“It’s hard to say that this is just a one-and-done sort of thing,” Waggoner said. “It’s all part of a longer pattern.”
County level and up
The TEA started its efforts going county to county in Ohio with a message of natural gas’ “clean” potential. This worked in some places, such as Hocking County, which adopted a resolution in November calling gas “green” after a visit from a consultant hired by TEA. Lawmakers in Jackson County and Putnam County also passed resolutions urging Congress to adopt the same stance.
Defining a fossil fuel as on par with actual renewable energy might not have an enormous immediate impact, especially in a state where previous efforts have already reduced the incentives to build out solar and wind power. But it sets the stage for future shenanigans that could prop up the oil industry and tamp down on true clean energy.
“Any time that someone tries to do something positive on renewables, gas [could] get a cut of the incentives, or whatever it might be,” said Dave Anderson, policy and communications manager for the nonprofit Energy and Policy Institute, which has been tracking TEA through a number of public records requests.
In TEA’s local efforts, Anderson said that some counties entertained the group’s visits but didn’t end up passing any resolutions. But in general, TEA’s message seemed well received, and the group has tried to spread it widely.
“An additional layer of what The Empowerment Alliance has been doing with their digital advertising … is more attacking wind and solar projects, and even energy storage, as not being environmentally friendly,” Anderson told Grid. TEA also circulates a “Declaration of Energy Independence,” which has been signed by governors, senators and more than 60 U.S. House members. The document says that “natural gas is the fiscally-sound, reliable and environmentally responsible bridge to our energy future.”
Balderson’s resolution at the federal level, though it garnered 20 Republican co-sponsors, didn’t go further than its introduction last year. In Ohio, the gas-is-green language was introduced by Republican State Sen. Mark Romanchuk, who said he spoke with TEA but wrote the provision himself. What actually got the language passed was to attach it to an unrelated bill — specifically, a bill that would “revise [the] number of poultry chicks that may be sold in lots.”
“It’s a real chickens--- way to push this through,” Waggoner said.
Dark money tentacles
As a nonprofit, TEA’s funding sources do not have to be publicly disclosed, but it has some interesting connections. On its only publicly available IRS filing, from 2019, two officers are listed: Director and President Brooke Bodney, and treasurer Eric Lycan. The latter was previously treasurer of another group called Generation Now, which federal prosecutors allege was used to funnel more than $60 million to then-Ohio House Speaker Larry Householder in a massive scandal that, after arrests by the FBI in 2020, is only this week finally going to trial. In another IRS filing, Bodney was listed as a fundraiser for Generation Now.
That bribery scheme — the largest in Ohio’s history — was directly connected to Ohio House Bill 6, which bailed out aging coal and nuclear plants and gutted the renewable energy and efficiency standards in the state. The Renewable Portfolio Standard originally required utilities to get 12.5 percent of their electricity from renewable sources by 2027; the bill slashed that to 8.5 percent and kills it entirely after 2026. Waggoner called it “the most corrupt piece of energy legislation in the country.” Lycan and Bodney have not been named in the charges brought against Householder and others; Generation Now itself entered a guilty plea to federal racketeering charges.
Federal prosecutors filed a brief on Jan. 6 of this year naming One Ohio United and adding its financial documents as evidence in the new corruption trial.
Expanding the gas wars
While this may seem like an arcane collection of dark-money pass-throughs and shady dealings, not all of the push to greenify natural gas is so fringe. The American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC), a conservative group that provides model legislation to be used in state governments on everything from immigration to gun control, circulated related language to be used in bills and resolutions. Balderson’s congressional resolution received support from the Marcellus Shale Coalition, the Gas and Oil Association of West Virginia, and the Ohio Oil and Gas Association, a group whose board includes executives from major utilities and energy companies like Dominion. Documents obtained by the Energy and Policy Institute show at least one major energy utility, Entergy, is a supporter of TEA. Entergy operates in four states — but not Ohio, signaling how this battle may soon stretch beyond the Buckeye State’s borders.
“It seems pretty clear that they are beta testing this for going into other states,” Waggoner said.
In celebrating the victory in Ohio, TEA said that states like Texas, Louisiana, West Virginia and Pennsylvania — two of which are states where Entergy operates, incidentally — should follow suit. “TEA is hopeful similar proposals in nearby industrial states will take root,” the group wrote in a newsletter. “This victory marks the beginning.” TEA has not yet responded to questions from Grid regarding its plans.
Unsurprisingly, the group seems energized by the brouhaha that sprung up recently over gas stoves, a classic bit of culture war engagement bait that featured some imagined scenario where Democrats would go house to house confiscating kitchen appliances. Though health concerns surrounding gas stoves are decades old, fossil fuel proponents are seizing on the mostly fake fight as another way to make natural gas — a term for a substance composed mostly of methane, which itself results partially from a century of industry propaganda — the center of an agenda pushing back against climate-friendly trends.
“I think the greater danger would be that someone would find a sneakier way to do this so that something similar was incorporated into actual renewable energy or clean energy standards in another state, in a way that would more limit the opportunities available to wind and solar power,” Anderson said.
The new Republican House leadership, along with the oil and gas lobby, already has plans to fight back against some provisions of the Inflation Reduction Act, the 2022 bill that includes $370 billion in clean energy and other climate-related funding. The new chair of the House Energy and Commerce Committee, Cathy McMorris Rodgers (R-Wash.), said Republicans are working on “a package of bills” aimed at various energy issues.
“The gas industry is trying to get ahead of things,” Waggoner said. “I think that they know the cultural war aspect works.”
Thanks to Lillian Barkley for copy editing this article.