Natural gas association launches front group to oppose climate activists

The group wants to create grassroots opposition to anti-pipeline movements.

A “No Pipeline” sign is posted next to a property line marker only a few feet from the route of the proposed Atlantic Coast Pipeline. CREDIT: AP Photo/Steve Helber
A “No Pipeline” sign is posted next to a property line marker only a few feet from the route of the proposed Atlantic Coast Pipeline. CREDIT: AP Photo/Steve Helber

The American Gas Association — a trade group representing over 200 natural gas companies — has launched an energy front group designed to create the appearance of grassroots support for natural gas projects, the Huffington Post reported.

Local opposition to pipeline projects is growing across the country, from the months-long protests at Standing Rock to community opposition across the Southeast, and supporters of the fossil fuel industry have increasingly attempted to paint opposition to pipeline movements as extremists. In March, one of Pennsylvania’s top utility regulators — and current nominee for the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC) — said at a gas industry conference that people who oppose pipeline projects are engaged in a “jihad” against natural gas.

The new front group, Your Energy, doesn’t use quite that level of rhetoric on its promotional materials, though it does tout natural gas as a solution to climate change, and argues that climate activists are trying to “deprive us of clean, affordable energy.”

“Your Energy was created to speak out against a misguided movement that assaults our way of life,” the main website reads. “This movement is based on the simplistic belief that keeping our natural resources in the ground is the only solution to climate change. This isn’t just false — it’s dangerous to our quality of life, economy and energy security.”

Your Energy has already created state-level groups aimed at targeting anti-pipeline and anti-fossil fuel movements in states along the Eastern Seaboard. According to Kert Davies, founder of Climate Investigations Center, Your Energy Virginia — the group’s Virginia spin-off — launched in April. The group was a sponsor of the Virginia Chamber of Commerce’s 2017 Energy and Sustainability Conference, held in May.

According to audio of the conference obtained by the Huffington Post, Jim Cheng, a former secretary of commerce for Virginia, spoke at the event on behalf of Your Energy, and said that it was “created to raise the energy IQ of Virginians about the many benefits of natural gas” as well as “to follow on these radical and uniformed elements within your communities that try to intimidate or shut down pro-energy supporters.”

“It’s overtly against activists,” Davies told ThinkProgress of the tactics employed by Your Energy. “It’s basically saying there is this other movement that wants to ruin everything, and you need to be the movement that is pro-natural gas because it’s a climate solution.”

And it’s likely that heading into Virginia’s 2017 gubernatorial election, natural gas and pipeline projects will continue to be a major issue for state residents.

Currently, there are two natural gas pipeline projects under consideration in Virginia — which has led to fierce debate over the role of natural gas in the state, even becoming a dividing issue between the state’s two Democratic nominees for governor during the state’s recent gubernatorial primary. The largest of the two proposals, known as the Atlantic Coast Pipeline, would span from West Virginia to North Carolina, cutting directly through western Virginia. The proposal has pitted land owners and environmentalists against natural gas interests and the project’s backer, Dominion Energy, which is the largest utility in the state.

Climate activists argue that Dominion’s recent push to invest in natural gas — with the Atlantic Coast Pipeline and the liquefied natural gas export terminal, known as Cove Point, proposed for the Chesapeake Bay — threatens efforts to combat climate change. Although natural gas is significantly less carbon-intensive than coal when it is burned, it consists mainly of methane, which is 86 times more effective at trapping heat than carbon dioxide over a 20-year period. And numerous studies have shown that natural gas often leaks methane during extraction, storage, and transportation — effectively negating any climate benefit that comes with burning the fuel in place of coal.

But climate activists are far from the only critics of the Atlantic Coast Pipeline in Virginia; local landowners have also largely opposed the pipeline, refusing to surrender their land through eminent domain.

It’s that kind of grassroots movement, Davies said, that the natural gas-funded Your Energy hopes to emulate.

“The fossil fuel industry craves its own grassroots movement, and they really are having a hard time not appearing to be the thugs that they are,” he said. “In most cases, our communities are an obstacle for these companies to get through so that they can make money.”

Davies notes that there is, thus far, no clear connection between Dominion and Your Energy Virginia, except that Dominion has significant stakes in natural gas production and transportation within the state. But Dominion has been a member of the American Gas Association — the group behind Your Energy — since 2009, and Dominion’s president, Diane Leopold, sits on the American Gas Association’s board.

During the state’s recent gubernatorial primary, candidates for both the Republican and Democratic party took stands against Dominion’s proposed pipeline. Republican Corey Stewart, chairman of the Prince William County Board of Supervisors, came out against the pipelines due to eminent domain issues. And Democratic candidate Tom Perriello decried the Atlantic Coast Pipeline due to its potential climate impacts, as well as local environmental and water resources. Perriello also promised not to take any money from Dominion Energy during his campaign.

Ralph Northam, Perriello’s Democratic competitor, won the state’s primary election on Tuesday, and will face Republican Ed Gillespie, a former Republican National Committee chairman, in the general election. Unlike Perriello, Northam has not taken a clear stance on the Atlantic Coast Pipeline, merely saying that he thinks there should be a strict environmental review by both the state and FERC.

Before the primary election, Dominion sent a letter to the company’s current and former employees and shareholders, imploring them to vote in the primary after taking “time to review the candidates’ positions and see how they stand on critical projects such as the Atlantic Coast Pipeline” — a veiled suggestion that employees voting in the Democratic primary chose Northam over Perriello.

During the primary, Northam and his PAC received $109,283.30 from Dominion’s executives, board members, lobbyist, and PAC, according to DeSmogBlog. Gillespie, the leading Republican candidate, received $43,125.

Still, it’s unlikely that Dominion will back Northam over Gillespie in the general election. Gillespie has been a vocal proponent of the Atlantic Coast Pipeline, and oil and gas development in general.