These natural gas ads are full of hot air
Gas companies say their clean energy claims are backed by science. They fail to mention the science is fossil fuel funded.
If you’ve read Politico, Axios, or E&E News lately, you may have come across ads claiming that natural gas is an effective solution to the climate crisis.
One ad, which appeared last week in an E&E article about a gas industry misinformation campaign, says that “Natural gas is the best way to reach climate goals faster and power our future cleanly, reliably, and affordably.”
Another piece of sponsored content published in Politico cites multiple studies to claim natural gas will help America “reach climate goals faster.” It adds: “This is not political conjecture or industry rhetoric.”
But these ads, run by the nonprofit Natural Allies for a Clean Energy Future, are the definition of industry rhetoric. The group is wholly run and funded by the fossil fuel industry, as the Guardian and Floodlight reported in June 2022.
In addition, the “independent studies” the group cites are not actually independent. An analysis by HEATED shows that each is published by an organization with significant financial ties to the fossil fuel industry.
As a result, multiple climate scientists and disinformation experts told HEATED that Natural Allies’s ads are misleading. “Their claims are all either extremely vague or disproved with middle-school-level science,” said Kate Marvel, a climate scientist at Project Drawdown, who previously worked at NASA’s Goddard Institute for Space Studies.
“Using natural gas warms the climate. Period, full stop,” said Andrew Dessler, professor of atmospheric sciences at Texas A&M University. “There is no world in which natural gas is a long-term ‘solution’ to the climate problem.”
Still, Politico and Axios each defended the practice of running the ads, despite concerns they may be misinforming millions about the climate crisis.
“It is not up to us to decide what is factually accurate or what is not factually accurate,” Politico executive vice president Cally Stolbach Baute told HEATED. “We frankly respect our readers enough to be fully transparent with them on our advertising and encourage them to evaluate our journalism on its merit and its accuracy.”
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The merit and accuracy of Natural Allies’s ads
To support its claim that natural gas is the best way to solve the climate crisis, Natural Allies cites multiple “independent studies” which have "underscored the value natural gas plays in a low-carbon, clean energy future.”
But HEATED has found that all of the cited studies relating to natural gas’s role in solving climate change are funded at least in part by fossil fuel interests. In addition, none of those studies are published in a peer-reviewed journal.
Here are the studies Natural Allies relies on to claim natural gas is an effective climate solution:
A Columbia University study on using natural gas infrastructure to transition to clean energy. This study is from the university’s Center on Global Energy Policy, which has received $1 million or more from Occidental Petroleum and natural gas company Tellurian. It has also received anywhere from $200,000 to $500,000 from Aramco, BP, Cheniere Energy, ConocoPhillips, Devon Energy, Equinor, ExxonMobil, and Shell, respectively.
Two studies from the American Gas Association, a gas trade group. One outdated 2020 study claims carbon emissions in the U.S. are at their lowest point in 27 years due to natural gas. (Carbon emissions in the U.S. increased by a record 7 percent, or 325 million metric tons, from 2020 to 2021, according to the U.S. Energy Information Administration).
Two Progressive Policy Institute reports finding natural gas will help manage the cost and reliability of renewable energy as it expands across the U.S. The Progressive Policy Institute is a Democratic think tank whose parent company is the Third Way Foundation. Third Way has received more than $1 million from the American Gas Association, American Petroleum Institute, American Natural Gas Alliance, Edison Electric, and the Nuclear Energy Institute, according to research from Brown University and Australian National University. ExxonMobil also contributed $100,000 to Third Way Foundation from 2018 to 2019.
A General Electric report claiming carbon emissions are reduced up to 40 percent more when renewables and natural gas work together, rather than renewables working on their own. General Electric’s financial interests include both fossil fuels and renewables. Natural Allies also claims the data from this study is from the International Energy Agency, and thus independent. But the cited emissions reduction is from GE’s own analysis, not the IEA.
It’s important to note that sponsorship of research doesn’t always mean the research is biased or incorrect. A report that lacks published peer review does not always equate to a report without merit.
In addition, not all of the organizations are funded entirely by fossil fuel interests. Columbia University’s School of International and Public Affairs, which funds the Center on Global Energy Policy, has also received $1 million from Bill Gates’ sustainable energy startup collective, Breakthrough Energy. The Progressive Policy Institute’s reports also ask many of the same questions about the benefits of natural gas as studies in scientific journals.
But in this case, there is far more compelling peer-reviewed, independent scientific evidence that natural gas is not, in fact, an effective climate solution.
Natural gas is not a climate solution
By promoting natural gas as a climate solution, Natural Allies is actually doing the opposite of what peer-reviewed research suggests is necessary to achieve effective climate policy. According to a study published in the journal Energy Policy, marketing natural gas as a climate solution risks delaying the renewable energy transition further.
That’s because, while natural gas may emit less carbon dioxide than coal or oil, peer-reviewed research suggests that’s only a short-term benefit. Increasing investments in natural gas carries a long-term risk of delaying the clean energy transition further, according to a systematic review of the scientific literature on natural gas.
“The leakage of methane from natural gas extraction (fracking) is substantial, and since methane itself is an even more potent greenhouse gas than CO2, it’s possible that fossil gas is even worse for the climate in the near term than coal,” said Michael Mann, an environmental science professor at the University of Pennsylvania, in an email. “Even the name ‘natural gas’ was a clever PR stunt by the fossil fuel industry, because there’s nothing ‘natural’ about it.”
Unless substantial policy actions are taken to discourage fossil fuel use—including a global price on carbon—the review said that investing in further natural gas development “could lock-out emerging renewable technologies for extended periods.” In addition, investing in more natural gas now risks locking in carbon emissions over several decades. Building new gas pipelines, LNG terminals, and gas-fired power plants “pose a particularly great risk for carbon lock-ins,” scientists wrote this year in the journal Nature Energy.
The world’s top authority on climate change, the IPCC, says that the world needs to be at net zero emissions by 2050 to stabilize at safe levels of warming. This is in conflict with the expansion of natural gas, a fossil fuel that emits significantly more climate pollution than Natural Allies’s ads make it appear. According to the IPCC, “Gas has contributed to the largest increase in global fossil CO2 emissions in recent years.” The U.S. Energy Information Administration projects that global natural gas production will increase about 30 percent by 2050.
There’s an honest debate over how to effectively transition global energy usage to renewables, including the use of natural gas in combination with carbon capture and storage. But it’s being warped by multi-million dollar campaigns by self-interested actors like Natural Allies, who are encouraging carbon lock-ins and renewable lock-outs by re-branding natural gas as “clean.”
Climate disinformation researcher Jennie King calls this “solutions denial”—a common form of fossil fuel industry disinformation.
“It's an absolute tried-and-tested argument within the disinformation playbook to constantly create more interim milestones before we achieve what a real necessary transition looks like,” said King, who works at the Institute for Strategic Dialogue. “So taxpayer money [goes] into creating new dependencies on [fossil fuels], which ultimately in the long term, make it much harder for us to achieve an actual clean energy transition.”
Asked to respond, Natural Allies provided a written statement from executive director Susan Waller extolling the virtues of natural gas as a replacement for coal.
"We’re proud of our organization’s factual ads that share these important details to help the public recognize the value of accelerating our clean energy future and reaching our global climate goals affordably and reliably, which can be done best by partnering natural gas with renewables,” said Waller, a former executive at oil and gas pipeline giant Enbridge.
Newsrooms sell out their climate reporters for fossil fuel funds
Natural Allies’s misleading ads and sponsored content have appeared in some of the biggest news outlets in the country. Since 2020, the group has spent $10 million for content that’s appeared in places like E&E News and Politico newsletters, Axios, Newsweek, Vox, the Wall Street Journal, and cable news stations, according to The Guardian and Floodlight investigation.
Readers of these outlets will likely not recognize, as HEATED has uncovered, that Natural Allies’s ads are part of the self-perpetuating cycle of fossil fuels, and a form of climate disinformation.
But at Politico, making sure readers are not misled is apparently not the advertising department’s responsibility.
“We make it clear who is advertising, and frankly, we leave it to our readers to make up their own minds,” said Politico’s Cally Stolbach Baute. “We're not activists at Politico, so we don't take policy positions or engage in advocacy in any way. Making a decision on an advertiser could potentially endanger the nonpartisan nature of our journalism.”
Axios, on the other hand, does decide what is misleading and not misleading when it comes to advertising. Its ad policy prohibits running campaigns from “sponsor names that do not accurately represent the funding entity behind the campaign.”
But when HEATED asked whether Natural Allies for a Clean Energy Future qualified as an inaccurate representation of the gas industry, Axios’s director of communications Emily Falcone implied it does not.
“Our advertising policies are focused on the content of the advertisements,” she said in an email. “Every sponsor we work with has been vetted and meets our standards.”
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Catch of the Day: Today’s furry friend is on the alert for anything amiss. Reader Scott says Nico is warily observing something menacingly moving on the hillside out the window. Perhaps a gas man?
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Thank you SO MUCH for doing this work. Ugh ugh ugh. Politico Pro's comment about not vetting ads to be factually accurate is especially abhorrent. WTF?!
Also, I particularly loved this: "“It's an absolute tried-and-tested argument within the disinformation playbook to constantly create more interim milestones before we achieve what a real necessary transition looks like,” said King, who works at the Institute for Strategic Dialogue." I currently work in the building code space, trying to get equitable access to EV charging for multi-family residents, and the sanctimonious excuses for foot-dragging 'interim milestones' on the part of the entrenched power players ("we need to move slowly because builders need to get used to these things") is patently misleading and maddeningly effective. Not surprising to see that it's part of a bigger policy playbook!
I think it is clear, as this excellent reporting shows, that the goal of fossil fuel companies, whose business is natural gas, is to make the transition to clean energy as slow as possible any way they can to maximize the production and selling of natural gas. And part of that will be trying to convince people about its supposed climate benefits.
But I read something this:
"There’s an honest debate over how to effectively transition global energy usage to renewables, including the use of natural gas in combination with carbon capture and storage."
And just get frustrated. Because I want that debate, but we never ever seem to actually have it. And when the clear limitations of renewables and obstacles of trying to solve the intermittency problem of wind and solar is brought up by people like myself, it suddenly isn't a debate anymore but a solved problem only limited by policy implementation. So you have environmental groups like Friends of the Earth, working against people like me who are trying to keep massive amounts of clean energy online.
Which actually gives room for natural gas producers to market their product because they then fill that intermittency gap with fossil fuels, which is exactly what will happen if Diablo Canyon closes.
To be clear, I'm not saying HEATED needs to take some leading role on the debate here, but it is just more my frustrations with the climate movement more broadly in not being committed to solving this debate as quickly as possible. Because until this debate is solved, fossil fuels like natural gas will continue to have an opportunity to market itself here.
I hope HEATED can at least agree it is sink or swim time for renewables, because as is pointed out in the article, natural gas isn't a solution here.
As always thank you for the wonderful in depth reporting.