Democratic senators accuse ‘green’ gas companies of overcharging consumers in ‘brazen conflict of interest’

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A group of progressive senators in a Monday letter to federal regulators accused fossil fuel companies of deceiving the public with ostensibly “green” gas — and overcharging customers for projects that won’t help the climate.

In the letter provided exclusively to The Hill, the five senators called on the Federal Trade Commission to examine whether the certified gas industry is engaged in “unfair and deceptive practices.”

The group includes Sens. Edward Markey (D-Mass.), Bernie Sanders (I-Vt..), Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.), Sheldon Whitehouse (D-R.I.), Corey Booker (D-N.J.) Jeff Merkley (D-Ore.) and Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn.).

Many gas and electric utilities “are using so-called ‘certified’ gas to falsely burnish their climate bona fides, and some charge premiums for gas bearing these frequently meaningless designations,” they wrote on Tuesday.

As public awareness of the environmental costs of natural gas have grown, the industry has poured money and energy into voluntary certification programs.

It has embraced such voluntary regulation as a means to head off recently announced federal controls on gas leaks, a new standard that the leading Texas gas regulator has proposed suing the federal government over.

To win over climate conscious customers, “gas producers sometimes publicly describe their product as ‘certified,’ ‘responsible,’ or ‘differentiated’ and market it as a climate-friendly fossil fuel,” the senators wrote.

But, they added, “too often these green claims are false or misleading, as the methodology underlying them is opaque, the technology supporting them is unreliable, and the downstream climate effects of gas combustion are ignored.”

These programs, which go under the broad category of “certified natural gas,” promise customers (and the municipal utilities they buy from) a product that leads to less planetary heating than uncertified projects.

That pitch — largely predicated around the idea that gas leaks will be controlled — is important because methane, the predominant ingredient in gas, heats the climate dozens of times more powerfully than carbon dioxide, the most common planet-warming chemical.

Efforts to reduce methhane leaks are at the forefront of attempts to clean up the industry’s practice — and, in a world where renewables increasingly outcompete gas on price, its image. 

And utilities around the country have won approval to pay for the price premium commanded by certified gas by passing the costs on to consumers, according to an analysis from the Revolving Door Project cited in the letter.

For example, two New York gas utilities received approval last year to pass $250,000 in certification costs on to ratepayers; a third, ConEdison, is passing on $800,000.

Vermont, New Jersey, Colorado and Michigan have approved similar programs.

Michigan’s attorney general has pushed back on that state’s proposal, arguing that electric utility shareholders — not the “captive customer base” — should bear the cost of the companies’ climate commitments.

The senators, meanwhile, pushed back on the assertion that those commitments are helpful to the climate. Burning any gas heats the planet, no matter how responsibly sourced the fuel is, they noted.

And there is persistent evidence from environmental non-profits and monitoring groups that certification bodies may be missing leaks on a scale that could cancel out their green claims in whole or in part. Even small rates of leakage lead gas to produce just as many emissions as coal — a problem that gets worse when the chemicals released by packaging and shipping it are factored in.

The senators charged that by simply calling gas “natural” or describing it as a “bridge” between dirtier fuels and renewables, the industry was making deceptive claims about its role in warming the climate.

They framed the effort to portray it as “certified” or “responsible” as a further step down this line — and argued it presented a “brazen conflict of interest.” 

“The gas companies’ profits depend on the monitoring companies certifying their gas, and the monitoring companies depend on willing industry customers,” they wrote.

“Thus, there is no incentive to ensure the accuracy of emissions measurements.”

Certified gas, the senators concluded, is part of a much broader claim on the part of industry: that the planet-heating aspects of gas can be cleaned up enough that its use won’t have to be reduced.

“But the evidence is to the contrary,” they wrote. “The FTC shold not permit the industry to falsely claim credit for reducing methane pollution from the gas system – particulary when it comes at the expense of the fight against climate change.” 

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