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As climate activists hammer the natural gas industry, a group of pipeline and energy companies formed an industry group to re-brand natural gas as a “clean” energy choice and market the idea to a specific group of people in Pennsylvania and New York: Black and Latino voters.

“They want a long-term campaign to improve the opinion of natural gas, to make sure it doesn’t go the way of coal,” said Taylor Kate Brown, who reported this story for Floodlight, the nonprofit news organization that partners with local outlets to investigate the corporate and ideological interests holding back climate action. It was published in The Guardian.

Brown wrote that TC Energy and Kinder Morgan are two of the names behind the group Natural Allies for a Clean Energy Future, which formed in 2020. It has a two-year PR budget of $10 million dollars.

The Allegheny Front’s Kara Holsopple spoke with Brown about its campaign to people of color.

LISTEN to their conversation

(The interview has been edited for clarity.)

Kara Holsopple: Who is this group trying to reach?

Taylor Kate Brown: They are very specifically trying to reach out to liberal-leaning voters who they consider the Democratic base: young people 18 to 34, people of color, specifically Black and Latino demographics. And we know that because as part of my reporting on this part of documents shared with us via public records request by the Energy and Policy Institute that they were specifically interested in these groups and messaging to these demographic groups.

Holsopple: Why is that? 

Taylor Kate Brown: In these documents, there is an indication that the natural gas industry writ large knows that they’ve done a good job messaging to Republicans, to people in states where it may be gas is more part of the economy. They were specifically looking at what messages might be really effective with people who are concerned about climate change, who are part of the Democratic base, and who live in either swing states or more liberal-leaning states where there’s been more active climate change policy.

Holsopple: So they’re placing ads on social media like Facebook and Instagram. What’s their message? 

Taylor Kate Brown: Their overarching message is to tie gas to the renewable energy world, to the energy transition, to fighting climate change. And they do that by sort of tying the idea that gas can lead to emissions reductions by replacing coal with gas and then also having some renewable energy.

But the issue with this particular sort of rhetoric is that at the end of the day, gas is still a fossil fuel, and in many situations, it’s become competitive as an energy source with zero or low emissions energy.

Holsopple: Who are they featuring in their messaging? Who are the faces of this campaign?

Taylor Kate Brown: Two members of their leadership council, two former senators, Heidi Heitkamp (D-North Dakota) and Mary Landrieu (D-Louisiana), have both been featured in Natural Allies ads. They’ve written, sponsored content, and been quoted as a member of the Leadership Council of Natural Allies.

They have featured quotes and op-eds from what I would call more centrist Democratic messengers. John Kerry shows up there. There’s also a very specific focus on labor. There are a few labor groups that are actually associated with the group. They tend to be labor unions that are reliant on pipeline construction jobs. And there’s a lot of messaging there about jobs and affordability.

Holsopple: There was even, if I remember correctly, a Black History Month post. 

Taylor Kate Brown: Yes. I will note two things about that. The Black History Month ad is talking about a woman, Alice H. Parker. She was an inventor who patented a furnace system for homes that used gas.

The sort of weird twist about this particular ad is that the image that [ad ]features, it is one that’s commonly around the Internet as Alice H. Parker, but it’s not her. A reporter at the Energy News Network actually did some digging and found out that this particular image is of a white woman who is not Alice H. Parker at all.

I spoke to Mustafa Santiago Ali, currently the vice president of environmental justice at the National Wildlife Federation. He pointed out when he looked at this ad, and before we had known that this particular photo is of a white lady, not of Alice Parker, that on the face of it, they’re recognizing the contributions of African Americans. But what they’re really trying to do is sort of make this closer tie between the Black community and natural gas. But that leaves out the historic over-effect on Black communities of pollution in general and the continuing increased climate change effects on Black communities as well.

Holsopple: What kind of pressure is the gas industry facing in the U.S. – in states like Pennsylvania and New York – that would fuel this kind of campaign? 

Taylor Kate Brown: Pennsylvania is far more pro natural gas than New York is. They even indicate that in their internal documents, in part because there are a lot of gas producers in Pennsylvania and it’s a significant part of what the state is doing in terms of energy. That being said, there is definitely an active environmental movement in Pennsylvania.

One of the major pipeline cancelations in the past several years, PennEast, happened in part because of local pushback against pipelines in Pennsylvania. The governor has tried to – and I know this is an ongoing issue – make Pennsylvania a part of the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative. And just recently, the governor also vetoed a bill that would have basically stopped any Pennsylvania municipality from saying that there would be no new gas hookups in buildings going forward.

Now, this kind of bill actually passed about 20 other states between 2020 and now, in part because the gas industry was afraid of cities like New York and LA, who have said going forward after this date, we will not put any new gas hookups in buildings for heating and cooking. And that is a threat to the gas industry.

And quickly about New York, their 2019 climate law actually put emissions reductions into law. We’re seeing the effects of that now and what that actually means. The state has denied permits for a few gas plants. There have been some questions about New York also becoming the first state to ban new gas hookups on a state level. And so there’s a lot of activity in these two states, and it feels very much like a push-pull.

Holsopple: Is the industry campaign working? What kind of engagement are they getting? 

Taylor Kate Brown: They think they are. According to their own documents, they polled basically both their initial pilot campaign and the campaign that happened over 2021 and 2022. They saw an increase, especially among the groups that they’re particularly interested in, which are young people and nonwhite residents, an increase in the sort of general goodwill towards gas.

In Pennsylvania, among those who saw the ads versus those who didn’t, they saw a 22% increase in being more favorable to natural gas and an 8% increase in that “It is a partner for renewables.” And even a 10% increase in people saying natural gas has a positive impact on the environment. Those numbers go up across both New York, Pennsylvania and D.C. when we’re talking about people who are 18 to 34 and who are nonwhite.

 Holsopple: What did you learn by reporting this story?

Taylor Kate Brown: When people talk about fossil fuel companies doing PR campaigns, I think the one that most often comes to mind are oil majors – your Exxon, your Shell. The companies that are behind Natural Allies are companies that maybe most people haven’t heard of, but are major companies that are really tied into the infrastructure of how we get gas, both for power plants and for inside our homes. And in total, the companies that we know of that are supporting this effort made $78 billion in revenue in 2021. So these are not small companies. These are major companies, but they’re not household names.

The other thing I would say that really was illuminating to me is how much there is an effort to try to push policy in D.C., but how important states are to this group. In addition to this PR campaign, the executive director of Natural Allies has said, at least in 2021, she was speaking to utility regulators. This is sort of the idea that there are multiple places of decision-making at the state level. Legislators are important. Voters are important. But also these utility commissions that can make really consequential decisions about where we get our energy from and what kind of emissions a state can move forward with.

Taylor Kate Brown reported this story for Floodlight.