Climate misinformation is becoming law
Fossil fuel interests are no longer just marketing lies about "natural gas." They’re getting them codified into law.
It was a big deal when Ohio Governor Mike DeWine signed a law designating methane gas as “green energy” in January. The bill’s passage was covered by local news, national news, industry publications and glossy magazines.
So when we recently learned that Tennessee Governor Bill Lee signed a similar law last month—HB 0946, which legally defines methane gas as “clean energy”—we were a bit surprised. Aside from Caroline Eggers at Nashville’s WPLN News, who has done two great stories on the bill, we couldn’t find any coverage of the legislation.
It’s possible that most local and national media were distracted. The bill, which states that public utilities must count “natural gas” as a “permissible source” of clean energy, was signed into law on April 12, 2023—the same day state lawmaker Justin J. Pearson was reinstated to the Tennessee Legislature after being infamously expelled for protesting on the chamber floor. (Heck, that’s what we were covering at the time).
Whatever the reason, Tennessee’s new law deserves the same level of scrutiny as Ohio’s, as it’s a key part of a growing industry-funded strategy to delay climate action by codifying misinformation about natural gas into law. Like gas, the strategy is most harmful when people don’t notice it seeping in. So today, we’re belatedly injecting some odor.
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When deceptive marketing becomes the law
Let’s just get this out of the way first: Methane gas, which the industry brands as “natural gas,” is not a “clean” or “green” source of energy. It is a fossil fuel primarily made of methane, a powerful greenhouse gas. Methane gas has “contributed to the largest increase in global fossil CO2 emissions in recent years,” according to the IPCC. That’s why many scientists say reducing the use of methane gas is one of the most effective ways to fight climate change.
Despite all this, the fossil fuel industry has been marketing gas as a climate solution for decades. This marketing has only intensified as the public has gotten more serious about tackling climate change.
But industry-created climate misinformation is no longer just infiltrating podcasts and social media feeds. It’s also infiltrating the law. The phenomenon started in Europe last year, when the European Parliament voted to label certain uses of natural gas as “green.” That meant billions of dollars that were intended to fund climate-friendly projects could legally be used for methane power plants and terminals.
Now, industry climate misinformation has also started making its way into U.S. state law—albeit in slightly different ways.
Ohio’s bill labeling gas as “green,” for one, appears to be more of a public relations stunt than anything. Ohio Governor DeWine’s press secretary told Natural Gas Intelligence that “the legislative language did not affect any funding or regulations,” adding that it was “more of an opinion statement.” The Ohio bill’s own sponsor doesn’t even seem to know what it does; he told Energy News Network he hoped the law would help companies in the gas business meet Environment, Social and Governance (ESG) investing standards. But he added: “I don’t know if it will work.”
Tennessee’s new law, on the other hand, has a specific, anti-climate policy intent. It doesn’t just vaguely say that “gas is clean energy;” it says that local governments attempting to set “clean energy” standards must include gas in that definition. “That makes it a kindred spirit with the now over 20 states who have passed ‘preemption bills’ attempting to prohibit cities from limiting the use of gas in buildings,” said David Pomerantz, the executive director of the Energy and Policy Institute.
The common thread: industry influence
What unites these new state laws is their connection to fossil fuel interests. Ohio’s green energy law was funded by The Empowerment Alliance, a dark money group with ties to the gas industry, the Washington Post reported in January. The conservative American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC) shared with Ohio lawmakers a “model bill” with talking points about how methane gas is clean energy, according to emails obtained by the Energy and Policy Institute. Those emails explicitly spell out how the industry creates laws to keep itself in business.
We don’t have the same smoking gun private emails linking the gas industry and dark money groups to Tennessee’s bill. But there are a few very public connections between the lawmakers who supported the Tennessee bill and fossil fuel interests, including some of the same fossil fuel groups that created Ohio’s bill.
Three of the Tennessee bill’s co-sponsors are ALEC members: Rep. Chris Todd, who is an ALEC “state chair”, Rep. Susan Lynn, who is on ALEC’s board of directors, and Sen. Ed Jackson, also an ALEC state chair. Tennessee lawmakers have also publicly aligned themselves with the same dark money group that funded Ohio’s law, by signing The Empowerment Alliance’s “Declaration of Energy Independence.” Signers of the declaration, which calls methane gas the “environmentally responsible bridge to our energy future”, include Governor Bill Lee and multiple state senators—including bill co-sponsor Sen. Walley.
Representative Clark Boyd, who first sponsored HB 0946, has received $10,000 in donations from the oil and gas industry and $13,500 from electric utilities from 2018 to 2023. But his largest industry donation—$8,000 between 2018 to 2023—comes from the Tennessee Electric Cooperative Association (TECA), which has also donated to every state senator who sponsored the bill.
TECA is a trade association representing the state’s utility companies, all of which get their power from the Tennessee Valley Authority (TVA). TECA thus advocates for the interests of TVA—and TVA has big plans to expand its methane gas production in Tennessee. Specifically, TVA is currently working on $3.5 billion worth of gas projects that, if completed, will constitute the second-largest utility gas expansion in the country by 2030, according to the Sierra Club.
TVA has received significant pushpack to its planned gas expansion. In January, 112 organizations signed a letter to the EPA calling for a stop to the projects. In the letter, the groups cited the need for actual clean energy. "The EPA can either use its legal power to advance the clean energy economy, or…can needlessly sign off on dangerous fossil fuel expansion,” they wrote.
The fact that methane gas is now legally “clean energy” in Tennessee is a benefit for TVA and its planned methane gas expansion. And it’s not the only recent bill that benefits TVA. Last month, Rep. Clark Boyd sponsored a bill that makes it a Class C felony to interrupt or interfere with “critical infrastructure” like pipelines. In February, Boyd also sponsored a bill to block any future bans of gas stoves. Last year, Tennessee lawmakers passed the Tennessee Natural Gas Innovation Act, which legally categorized methane gas as a source of “clean energy” for utilities. They also passed laws preventing local governments from blocking fossil fuel infrastructure and the state from working with banks that divest from fossil fuel companies.
Clearly, state governments have become the battleground for America’s energy transition—and fossil fuel interests are fighting hard. So we’ll continue to follow this story in Tennessee, and the fossil fuel industry’s fight to codify misinformation into law. If you see anything similar happening with clean energy laws in your state, let us know—especially if you have proof of industry influence. Because to avoid the dangers of gas, you first have to be able to detect it.
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Additional fun(?) facts:
The now-infamous Tennessee Three—Reps. Justin Jones, Justin Pearson, and Gloria Johnson—were among the 20 lawmakers that voted against the “natural gas is clean energy bill.” (Perhaps not surprising, given Pearson’s past activism).
Ohio’s bill to redefine natural gas as “green energy” was officially described as a bill to “Revise [the] number of poultry chicks that may be sold in lots.”
In 2020, Tennessee bill sponsor Rep. Clark Boyd, and co-sponsor Sen. Ed Jackson, won the Tennessee Gas Association’s “Friend of the Flame” award for their loyalty to the industry.
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There is another disturbing trend, which concerns hydrogen. The IRA legislation allocates large amounts of money for the creation of "hydrogen hubs." This pile of cash available from the Feds is having bad effects. In New Mexico, Governor MIchelle Luhan Grisham (D) has twice introduced legislation to help create hydrogen hubs within the State. The hydrogen produced by these hubs would be "blue hydrogen." Blue hydrogen is generated by catalytic "reforming" of methane to produce hydrogen and carbon dioxide. Environmentalists in New Mexico have successfully blocked this legislation twice, pointing out that blue hydrogen is not a renewable fuel since it is produced from methane which is a fossil fuel.
Thank you for your reporting on this, and it is disconcerting and serious, but I did laugh at this:
"The Ohio bill’s own sponsor doesn’t even seem to know what it does; he told Energy News Network he hoped the law would help companies in the gas business meet Environment, Social and Governance (ESG) investing standards. But he added: “I don’t know if it will work.”"