American energy corporation the Williams Companies was facing yet another setback in its attempts to build a natural gas pipeline in New York.
After a years-long battle, state regulators and pushback from protesters had forced the company to cancel its previously proposed Constitution pipeline from Pennsylvania to New York. And in May 2020, another major Williams project – a nearly $1bn gas pipeline that would run underwater from New Jersey to the Rockaway peninsula in Queens – was rejected for a second time.
Williams, which handles about 30% of the natural gas in the US, needed a dramatic turnaround. So in the lead-up to the 2020 presidential election the company, along with at least six other fossil fuel pipeline and utility companies, invested in a strategy to rebrand natural gas through a new industry group they named Natural Allies for a Clean Energy Future.
Its focus: convince younger, liberal and non-white audiences that gas is a “clean” energy solution.
“If we replace coal with renewables partnered with natural gas,” a Black actor in a white lab coat says in one digital advertisement, “[the result will be] reliable, affordable energy for all Americans.”
She ends by saying, “Natural gas: accelerating the world’s clean energy future.”
Versions of that advertisement were seen more than a million times across Facebook and Instagram from February to May 2022, according to public data. The ads are part of a larger public opinion and influence effort being led by Natural Allies, which has grown from a nascent pilot campaign to a fully fledged industry group with a two-year, $10m budget.
In the group’s words, that investment “would redefine the role of natural gas in fighting climate change and protect the social license to operate”, according to internal documents obtained and analyzed by Floodlight and the Guardian.
“Success for the natural gas industry will be rooted in whether we can message to the left and the Democratic base of Black and Latino and age 18-34 voters as effectively as we have messaged to the right,” read one early strategy document.
Natural Allies is backed by Williams and at least five other fossil fuel companies – including pipeline giants TC Energy and Kinder Morgan and the gas utility Southern Company. The known companies who support the group as of 2022 made $78bn in revenues last year.
Natural Allies and the involved companies either declined to comment or did not respond to multiple requests for comment.
Since August 2020, Natural Allies has engaged in a multi-level influence campaign. It hired two former Democratic senators – Mary Landrieu of Louisiana and Heidi Heitkamp of North Dakota – to spread its message, as well as industry veteran Susan Waller to be its executive director, and bought hundreds of digital advertisements, as well as TV spots, aimed at shifting public opinion on gas.
The campaign comes as the US gas industry is facing a new wave of pressure over its contributions to climate change. A small but growing number of cities – including New York City and Los Angeles – have banned gas hookups in new buildings, threatening the industry’s future.
Some states are also rejecting new gas power plants, citing emissions reductions now required by law. In New York, regulators denied permits for two natural gas plants in 2021 under this rationale. Plans for another two large east coast gas pipelines – PennEast and the Atlantic Coast pipeline – were abandoned after significant opposition. A third, Mountain Valley pipeline, has faced significant delays.
Across the US, individual gas companies have responded to the threat of climate regulations by hiring lobbyists, funding regional-specific coalition and astroturf groups, and in some instances going as far as hiring actors to testify at city council meetings.
But the Natural Allies playbook offers a window into how the gas industry is attempting to unify its messaging nationally – funded through big pipeline companies to create a long-term marketing solution for the gas industry’s woes.
The companies backing Natural Allies call it a needed educational campaign about the benefits of gas. Yet environmental activists view the group’s efforts as classic greenwashing, and a repeat of previous efforts by the industry to cherrypick information to promote itself as clean to consumers.
While natural gas has reduced carbon emissions as it replaces coal, it is now competing with zero-emission energy, and recent studies on methane leaks from gas production and transport indicates the industry has a wider greenhouse gas problem than previously thought.
In places like New York, the strategy has only become more noticeable, says Eddie Bautista, executive director of the New York City Environmental Justice Alliance. He said there’s been “a detectable increase” in fossil fuel lobbying and political activity in New York since the state passed its landmark climate law in 2019.
“This is the fossil fuel industry waking up in New York,” he said.
Natural Allies was launched to “address the misinformation that plagues our industry”, Waller said during an appearance on an industry podcast in February 2021 named COB Tuesday. The group’s initial board of directors included senior leadership from Williams, TC Energy, Cheniere Energy, DTE Energy and Duke Energy, according to its 2020 public tax filing.
Their first ad campaign in 2020 zeroed in on three battleground states: Pennsylvania, North Carolina and Michigan, according to documents obtained via public records request by utility watchdog group Energy & Policy Institute, and shared with Floodlight. These states were chosen because of their high level of impact on the gas industry.
The campaign aimed to test what messages would “resonate with key elements of the Democratic party’s base”. Its own internal polling showed their goal was working. Black and Latino audiences engaged with Natural Allies ads more than white audiences and their data showed an increase in positive opinions about natural gas among young adults who saw the ads.
“Movement and message impact among Black voters in particular indicate the importance of these voters to a future campaign,” an early internal document argued. “Black voters – the core of President Biden’s Democratic coalition – are more likely to support affordability over disruptive changes in energy and climate policy.”
In total, Natural Allies has spent more than $550,000 on Facebook and Instagram ads and its advertising has become increasingly weighted towards women and younger consumers – people 18 to 34 years old, according to a Floodlight analysis of the available social media ad data. That target audience are those most likely to support a complete green energy transition. A March 2022 Pew survey found while only 31% of Americans supported a complete phase-out of fossil fuels, the number was closer to half among those aged 18-29. It was even higher among Democrats in that age bracket: 62%
Some of Natural Allies’ ads rely on its “Democratic messengers”, including Landrieu and Heitkamp, who are part of Natural Allies’ leadership council. Natural Allies sponsored an article written by the pair in Politico in February 2022 that argued “politics aside”, gas was “accelerating’’ clean energy.
Landrieu also appears in a social video ad for the group appealing to “our children’s future” as a reason to “reach our climate goals faster” through gas, over a scene of one child pushing another along on a skateboard. The former senators did not respond to requests for comment.
In recent ads targeting younger residents, Natural Allies also used leaders of the labor movement to tie natural gas to “good union jobs”.
Nationally, the group spent more than $4m between 2021 and 2022 on a media blitz in Washington. It placed ads across DC outlets, environmental industry publications including E&E News and Politico newsletters, and cable news stations, according to an April 2022 presentation obtained by Floodlight and analysis of ads.
Natural Allies’ executive director Waller has also presented to energy regulators, giving a virtual presentation to the gas committee of the National Association of Regulatory Utility Commissioners in January 2021.
“They’ve actually asked us to help give them cover,” Waller, Natural Allies’ executive director, said of her meetings with regulators on the industry podcast, a month after her initial presentation.
“This Natural Allies campaign … will help them explain to the public the need for natural gas. I won’t name names, but many of the commissioners, they don’t like what’s happening. They’ve been forced to go to net zero by 2030. They can’t do it.”
Critics say the targets of these advertisements are part of an old playbook.
Mustafa Santiago Ali, vice-president of environmental justice at the National Wildlife Federation and former head of the environmental justice program at the Environmental Protection Agency, said that, like the gas industry, as harmful industries like tobacco and lead “saw greater scrutiny, they began to focus on subpopulations – whether it was younger people or folks of color – and tried to make their marketing have more resonance with those communities.”
Ali pointed out one recent Natural Allies ad that featured Alice H Parker, a Black inventor who a century ago patented a home heating system that used natural gas.
“On the face [of it]… they’re recognizing the contributions of African Americans,” Ali says. “But what they’re really trying to do is reinforce the relationship between the Black community and natural gas.”
He said these messages leave out what science has proven to be a disproportionate effect of pollution and climate impacts on Black and brown communities.
“What they get back in return are burdens,” he said.
From 2021 to early 2022, Natural Allies paid special attention to New York and Pennsylvania, spending nearly $1.5m in the states, according to a 2022 presentation obtained by Floodlight. Recent Facebook ads targeting those states included promises that gas would bring lower energy bills, and reminders that natural gas is producing much of the US’s power.
Several of Natural Allies’ supporters have ongoing gas projects in the region. Williams’ Northeast Supply Enhancement Project remains in limbo, and the company is also planning the Regional Energy Access expansion in New Jersey and Pennsylvania. National Fuel Gas Co’s Northern Access project, running from Pennsylvania through Buffalo, New York, has been delayed over a water permit and is up for another federal extension. Kinder Morgan, which operates or has the rights to use 70,000 miles of gas pipelines, has applied to upgrade the capacity on a pipeline in Pennsylvania and New Jersey.
The ramp-up of the New York-specific campaign comes as the state’s legislature considered – and then failed to pass – several climate-related bills, including banning gas hookups in new buildings statewide.
As part of its campaign, Natural Allies hired two leads from PR and lobbying firms – Mercury Public Affairs and Kivvit – to sell that image and differentiate gas from other fossil fuels, according to internal documents and the gas industry podcast.
“It’s nothing negative about other fossil fuels … [natural gas] just needs to make sure that it’s its own independent brand,” said Mercury’s then employee Mike DuHaime, on the industry podcast.
Neither Mercury nor Kivvit have responded to inquiries about their involvement with Natural Allies.
Environmental Justice Alliance’s Bautista thinks the effort to convince locals that natural gas is part of the necessary energy transition, remains a tough sell, especially in a diverse and liberal-leaning place like New York.
“If they try that … in New York, they are going to run up against elected Black and Latino leaders who are clear about what environmental justice means to their communities,” he said.
This reporting was supported in part by the Climate Social Science Network fellowship at Brown University. Bradford N Roarr, from Brown’s Center for Computation and Visualization, assisted with data analysis