February 21, 2024

Certified natural gas – or methane gas that is purportedly produced in a low-emissions manner – is a “dangerous greenwashing scheme”, a group of progressive senators wrote in a letter to federal regulators on Monday.

The letter, addressed to Federal Trade Commission chair, Lina Khan, comes as the agency prepares to release its updated Green Guides, which clarify when companies’ marketing claims around sustainability violate federal laws barring consumer deception, giving regulators stronger legal cases against polluters. Those guidelines should “crack down” on claims made by gas certification programs, the lawmakers, led by Massachusetts’s Ed Markey, wrote.

“The reality is that gas certification schemes allow the oil and gas industry to justify the continued expansion of methane gas use and undermine efforts towards a just transition to renewables,” says the letter, which was also signed by the senators Jeff Merkley, Sheldon Whitehouse, Elizabeth Warren, Richard Blumenthal, Bernie Sanders and Cory Booker.

The gas sector has long branded itself as climate-friendly, noting that when burned, the fuel generates less planet-heating carbon dioxide than other fossil fuels. But gas – called “natural gas” by fossil fuel interests – is made of methane, a greenhouse gas 80 times more planet-heating than carbon dioxide in the short term. Some research even indicates the fuel is worse for the climate than coal.

Amid increasing public concern about gas usage and the climate crisis, a new industry of third-party gas “certifiers” has cropped up. These companies develop standards that they use to proclaim that certain producers are reducing emissions from their fracking wells, pipelines and storage facilities, and therefore generating gas sustainably.

The companies can then deem certain gas “certified”, “responsibly produced” or “differentiated”, allowing producers to sell it at a premium. Utilities in New York, Vermont, New Jersey, Michigan and Virginia have purchased certified natural gas and plan to pass on the additional costs to customers, the non-profit watchdog organization Revolving Door Project found last year.

“Those same consumers are still exposed to hazardous air pollution from burning gas in their homes, and combusting that gas is still contributing to the climate crisis,” said Hannah Story Brown, senior researcher at Revolving Door Project.

Gas certifiers’ standards have not appeared to stand up to closer scrutiny. In 2022, for instance, the environmental non-profits Earthworks and Oil Change International spent seven months auditing sensor technologies used by Project Canary, an industry leader among gas certifiers. The groups concluded in a report released last year that the company was consistently failing to detect methane leaks during drilling, fracking, flaring and venting. (Project Canary has said in response that the report contains “inaccurate and misleading claims”.)

This lack of robustness, the lawmakers write, comes as no surprise. “The gas companies’ profits depend on the monitoring companies certifying their gas, and the monitoring companies’ profits depend on willing industry customers,” they said. “Thus, there is no incentive to ensure the accuracy of emissions measurements.”

The senators are now demanding an FTC investigation into gas certification processes. They also call for the agency to issue guidance for third-party natural gas certification regimes in its revised Green Guides, which are set to be released this year.

“These steps will help prevent gas producers and certification companies from misleading and ripping off consumers, harming the environment, and hindering progress on climate change,” the letter says.

Environmental advocates have spent months raising the alarm about certified natural gas schemes. Last summer, the Department of Energy halted its plans to set a standard for what qualifies as “certified” gas after more than 150 advocacy groups – including Earthworks, Oil Change International, Revolving Door Project and the Gas Leaks Project, an organization aimed at countering gas industry greenwashing – raised concerns that doing so would amount to a government blessing for greenwashing.

“Today’s letter from climate leaders in the Senate is an important step towards protecting the public from the industry’s misleading marketing of ‘natural’ gas,” said Caleb Heeringa, program director at the Gas Leaks Project.

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