BOB GARFIELD Leah Stokes told Brooke that all in all, she's actually optimistic about the very electricity sector she tends to excoriate. Electrification, the transition towards heating homes and moving goods and people using renewable energy instead of fossil fuels has emerged as a viable carbon free next chapter for much of American life. Not such a bright future, however, for its so-called clean natural gas.
NEWS REPORT The Berkeley City Council unanimously voted to ban natural gas from new buildings starting January the 1st next year, requiring an electric infrastructure. Hoping the regulations will help with pollution and climate change, and don't think this is just a local issue, California officials say more than 50 other cities are looking into the ban and it's only a matter of time before more states jump on the turn-off-the-gas bandwagon. [END CLIP]
BOB GARFIELD Wait, really? We've been told for ages that gas is the perfect household fuel.
GAS STOVE AD A gas water heater operates for about half the cost of a comparable electric model. And you can save with gas cooking, clothes drying and home heating. Now, more than ever, gas works for less. [END CLIP]
BOB GARFIELD In any event, you'd think Home Gas Service was small potatoes compared to the carbon emissions of cars, factories and coal burning power plants, but no. Turns out natural gas presents its own environmental perils. Phase out plants are now commonplace, and the gas utility industry is raising the alarms from sea to shining sea. And as Rebecca Leber of Mother Jones has reported, big gas has attempted to influence public opinion every which way, including your social media feeds. Rebecca, welcome to On the Media.
REBECCA LEBER Thanks for having me. Now, maybe this is obvious, but in practice, if you have a gas range, you also most likely have gas hot water heating and a gas furnace. But there is no phrase now you're heating hot water with gas. Decades ago, the gas industry used a campaign so successful that the phrase became part of the vernacular: "now, you're cooking with gas" wholly apart from its literal meaning. Can you tell me about that?
BOB GARFIELD They recruited celebrities. There was Bob Hope in the forties who used cooking with gas as a punch line in a stand up. And in the 50s and 60s, the industry used celebrities in ads to market to housewives.
GAS STOVE AD Hello, I'm Jinx Falkenberg and this handsome gas range is the new double oven magic chef. Because it's gas, it seals in juiciness and flavor while it broiled and it bakes beautifully. [END CLIP]
GAS COMPANY Tonight's Adventures of Ozzie and Harriet is brought to you by your gas company. With pipeline companies and gas appliance and equipment manufacturers. For dependable comfort and modern convenience, gas makes the big difference. Cost less too. [END CLIP]
REBECCA LEBER Now I looked at newspaper ads throughout the last century and it's really remarkable how many talking points the industry used that is still part of our vernacular today, to defend the gas stove.
BOB GARFIELD Why did they focus on the kitchen?
REBECCA LEBER The stove is our most visible appliance. People generally don't care about what heats their water as long as the water is hot. So the gas stove is really the industry's wedge issue here.
BOB GARFIELD It's like Trump's trickle-y showerheads or Dr. Seuss. How specifically are they making our stoves a battlefront in the culture wars?
REBECCA LEBER Cities across the nation are considering electrifying the building sector. They're targeting new construction. While that doesn't mean people will lose the gas stove that's currently sitting in their home, the industry has really capitalized on this alarmist messaging that you'll lose your favorite appliance.
BOB GARFIELD And this time around, no Bob Hope or Ozzie and Harriet, but minor social media influencers paid to promote gas ranges versus electric. It's a fossil fuels battle waged on Instagram. What does it look like?
REBECCA LEBER Well, the industry's own documents describe the strategy that they have targeted lesser influencers in our culture, not quite celebrities to market to specific demographics, including women, including women of color, to tell us that the gas stove is superior.
INFLUENCER This only works on a natural gas stove, and I'll show you why. When we turn on the stove, [STOVE CLICKS] you'll see that blue flame come up and you can tell that it's heating the entire bottom of the wok, which is key for that really great caramelization that you want in most of your stir fries, and to make sure that the heat is distributed perfectly. [END CLIP]
BOB GARFIELD All right, a lot of the action in this fight is in California, 42 municipalities have banned or otherwise complicated new gas connections in private homes. Give me an example, please, of how the industry's PR contractors have worked to sway public opinion there.
REBECCA LEBER We've seen in California robo text from industry groups. I found in my reporting a PR representative for the company Imprenta, going on Nextdoor, a social media platform where people are only supposed to post in their community. He posted in a Culver City community page, Culver City Banning Gas Stoves: "I use an electric stove, but I never cooked as well as a gas stove, so I ended up switching back." Wilson Truong, the PR rep, wasn't a member of Culver City at all. He was working on behalf of the largest gas utility in California, trying to fight city efforts to pursue electrification. Now, I went to this man's employer, they confirmed to me that they were trying a tactic of infiltrating Nextdoor. They were going to find a member of the community to do this, but they did confirm to me that this was another tactic.
BOB GARFIELD There's another example from social media that you reported, and this was also a giant fail. Just tell me, please, about "Women for Natural Gas" and who the women were.
REBECCA LEBER So there was a group, Texans for Natural Gas, that had a testimonials page and micro website called Women for Natural Gas drenched in pink cursive font. It showed three professionally dressed women with quotes attached about how they are women for natural gas, just praising the virtues. What I found was these women weren't real. One of the women actually was a LinkedIn editor. When I went to her, she said she has never heard of this group, they did not have permission to use her photo and then she demanded it taken down. When I went to the contractor for the group, they distanced themselves entirely from this, saying that this was someone else's fault. No one ever pointed me to the person who was at fault, but this website is still up. They did take the headshots down and last I checked, they were just pink outlines of women instead of real headshots.
BOB GARFIELD All right, now earlier we discussed the risks posed by burning, especially unvented hydrocarbons inside the home. The gas industry has always come back and said, look, if you go through all the regulatory agencies, you will not find one single documented case of poor health outcomes based on gas heating or cooking.
REBECCA LEBER The industry is basically arguing that lack of regulation means a product is safe. Now, we know from experience, like when we look at lead in paint and secondhand smoke, that just because they have not regulated something doesn't mean it is safe for the public to use. The EPA has looked at this issue and it has found links between burning a gas stove in your home and asthma and respiratory illness. It just hasn't taken the step to regulate indoor air pollution. Generally, indoor air pollution is very poorly regulated. Now, California Air Resources Board, back in the fall, issued its strongest statement yet linking the stove to respiratory illness like asthma. And this is a big deal because this is California's powerful environmental agency, just as the state is considering whether to phase out gas and new buildings. So just because we don't see the EPA taking a firm stance on this now doesn't mean this won't be definitive in a few years.
BOB GARFIELD Going back to the 60s and the 70s, in spite of the vast amount of propaganda and denial by the tobacco industry, there were a few advertising agencies that refused to handle tobacco accounts, very lucrative tobacco accounts. They said, "nope, we're not going to be a part of that." Some of the PR firms that had been up to these hijinks on behalf of Big Gas have also walked away.
REBECCA LEBER One major PR firm is Porter Novelli, which confirmed in November after I originally wrote about their influencer campaign, that it would no longer work with gas companies because of the emerging science on public health. We're at this turning point where the use of gas is starting to become unjustifiable, just like we've seen with the coal industry and tobacco. We're just at the beginning of this, but I think we can start to see PR companies are going to face a lot more pressure to leave these clients, especially because they have the same PR companies that often tout their good work for the climate and environment. That environmentalists have really pointed out the hypocrisy, if they're also simultaneously helping fossil fuels advance their agenda.
BOB GARFIELD So you found these social media scandals in a teapot. Since you broke that story, has gas continued to show up in influencer feeds?
REBECCA LEBER The industry hasn't shown any signs of stopping. In fact, emails that I obtained from the industry after my original reporting said they would not stop for even one hour. One of the more obstinate executives, Sue Christensen, said in one email: "if we wait to promote natural gas stoves until we have scientific data that they are not causing any air quality issues, we'll be done." I think that just sums up the industry's position here. She would disagree that gas stoves are a problem for air quality, but she's also saying she doesn't care. Let's continue marketing this to the public.
BOB GARFIELD Rebecca, thank you so much.
REBECCA LEBER Thanks.
BOB GARFIELD Rebecca Leber covers environmental politics and policy for Mother Jones.
BROOKE GLADSTONE Coming up, recycling plastic, our favorite environmental delusion.
BOB GARFIELD This is On the Media.
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