The fossil fuel industry is using the same playbook to fight city climate plans around the country
When the city of Austin drafted a plan to shift away from fossil fuels, the local gas company was fast on the scene to try to scale back the ambition of the effort.
Like many cities across the US, the rapidly expanding and gentrifying Texas city is looking to shrink its climate footprint. So its initial plan was to virtually eliminate gas use in new buildings by 2030 and existing ones by 2040. Homes and businesses would have to run on electricity and stop using gas for heat, hot water and stoves.
The proposal, an existential threat to the gas industry, quickly caught the attention of Texas Gas Service. The company drafted line-by-line revisions to weaken the plan, asked customers to oppose it and escalated its concerns to top city officials.
In its suggested edits, the company struck references to “electrification”, and replaced them with “decarbonization”– a policy that wouldn’t rule out gas. It replaced “electric vehicles” with “alternative fuel vehicles”, which could run on compressed natural gas. It offered to help the city to plant more trees to absorb climate pollution and to explore technologies to pull carbon dioxide out of the air – both of which might help it to keep burning gas.
Those proposed revisions were obtained by Floodlight, the Texas Observer and San Antonio Report through public records of communications between city officials and the company.
The moves have so far proven a success for Texas Gas. The most recently published draft of the climate plan gives the company much more time to sell gas to existing customers, and it allows it to offset climate emissions instead of eliminating them. The city, however, is revisiting the plan after a backlash to the industry-secured changes.
The lobbying in Austin is not unique. It echoes how an electricity and gas company spent hundreds of thousands of dollars scaling back San Antonio’s climate ambitions by funding the city’s plan-writing process, replacing academics with its preferred consultants and writing its own “Flexible Path” that would let it keep polluting.
The American Gas Association in a statement for this story said it “will absolutely oppose any effort to ban natural gas or sideline our infrastructure anywhere the effort materializes, state house or city steps”. But it argued that position is “not counter to environmental goals we all share”, and said “natural gas is key to achieving the cleaner energy future we all want”.
Texas’s reliance on gas was on display in mid-February when more than 4m households lost power for days after a freak winter storm battered the state. Gas power plants dominate the Texas grid, providing 47% of the state’s electricity. Many of those plants and the natural gas pipelines leading to them failed in the cold conditions.
More than a third of Texas households also rely on gas for heat. Competition for gas-fueled power and heat forced prices to surge as high as 16,000%, one power company said. Utilities now face massive bills from their gas suppliers – and many are passing the costs on to customers in the form of sky-high bills.
The CEO of Comstock Resources, a gas company owned by the billionaire Dallas Cowboys owner, Jerry Jones, described the gas industry windfall as “hitting the jackpot” in an earnings call.
A nationwide fight goes local
The gas industry is battling climate change reforms in cities around the US – with support from Republican politicians.
In Texas, lawmakers have introduced two bills that would prohibit local governments from banning gas connections. “There hasn’t been a city necessarily that has banned natural gas yet, but we have whispers from the Austin city council, the city of Houston, even smaller cities,” said Jeff Carlson, the chief of staff for Representative Cody Harris, who introduced one of the bills.
Four other state legislatures passed similar laws last year, and 12 more have seen proposals for them in 2021. The gas lobby, the American Gas Association, has said it isn’t actively coordinating support or lobbying for state laws to prohibit gas bans, but its internal records indicate a different story.
“We are increasingly active in the States,” the association’s president, Karen Harbert, said in a November letter to members explaining how the organization spent membership dues in 2020. She said the association is participating in several “Pro Natural Gas Coalitions” to bring allies together.