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Is natural gas ‘clean energy’? Tennessee lawmakers want you to think so.

Natural gas pipelines leak methane, a climate pollutant that is 80 times more potent than carbon dioxide on a 20-year timescale.
Caroline Eggers
Natural gas pipelines leak methane, a climate pollutant that is 80 times more potent than carbon dioxide on a 20-year timescale.

Natural gas is “better than” coal.

This refrain is a classic argument for the fossil fuel industry, and it is how Tennessee lawmakers are persuading the state legislature to rebrand natural gas as “clean energy.”

“Relative to what we have used historically for electrical generation, it is clean,” said Rep. Clark Boyd, R-Lebanon, a sponsor of the bill.

Natural gas emits significant amounts of greenhouse gas emissions that warm Earth. Natural gas cannot be clean without some type of carbon capture, to remove the direct carbon dioxide pollution from burning, and an elimination of methane leaks from drilling and pipelines — so most experts agree that it will never be an economical choice, if it is possible. Fracking sites have been linked to childhood cancer, premature death and damaged ecosystems.

Communities have become increasingly aware of the dangers of natural gas recently, largely due to new research on the harms of gas stoves and the underreported contributions to climate change detected from space. Some local and state governments are choosing to require up to 100% of their electricity needs from renewable energy sources, like wind and solar, or carbon-free sources, like nuclear.

“Today, there are 22 states across the US that have clean electricity standards in place, and most of those are designed to really encourage carbon-free electricity,” said Lori Bird, the US energy program director for the World Resources Institute. “So, the legislation in Tennessee is not consistent with most of the policies that have been adopted.”

The recent exception is Ohio. Last year, Gov. Mike DeWine signed a law that similarly classified gas as “green” in the fracking-friendly state. Documents obtained through a public records request by the Energy and Policy Institute showed that dark money groups tied to the natural gas industry backed the effort, along with the American Legislative Exchange Council.

Dave Anderson, the policy and communications manager for the Energy and Policy Institute, led that investigation and has since looked into Tennessee’s proposal.

“I’m not sure who exactly is behind the Tennessee bill, but it certainly seems to follow that broader trend of the gas industry kind of freaking out about anything, whether it’s a moratorium on gas in new buildings or programs that promote electrification,” Anderson said.

The Ohio bill was tied to helping companies meet environmental, social and governance, or ESG, investing standards.

The Tennessee bill appears to have the intent of preempting local governments from enacting effective clean electricity standards or net-zero goals, Anderson said. The city of Chattanooga, for example, just announced a net-zero by 2050 goal last week.

Communities in Tennessee have limited direct influence over which electricity sources get built in the state. The Tennessee Valley Authority, the federal utility that provides nearly all of the state’s electricity, has been pushing forward with natural gas projects in the past few years to replace its coal plants — despite growing calls for renewable sources like wind and solar energy.

“TVA is focused on our decarbonization journey, which includes carbon-free nuclear, hydro and renewable energy sources as we aspire to be carbon neutral by 2050,” TVA’s Scott Brooks said in a statement. “However, faced between the choice of energy security and decarbonization, energy security wins every time.”

TVA has argued that natural gas is needed for reliability, another idea that the bill sponsors have used to defend their legislation. When pressed further on why natural gas should be considered clean, Rep. Boyd cited a common talking point of the fossil fuel industry.

“You have a way of making the sun shine at night? I’m not familiar with that technology,” Boyd said.

Caroline Eggers covers environmental issues with a focus on equity for WPLN News through Report for America, a national service program that supports journalists in local newsrooms across the country. Before joining the station, she spent several years covering water quality issues, biodiversity, climate change and Mammoth Cave National Park for newsrooms in the South. Her reporting on homelessness and a runoff-related “fish kill” for the Bowling Green Daily News earned her 2020 Kentucky Press Association awards in the general news and extended coverage categories, respectively. Beyond deadlines, she is frequently dancing, playing piano and photographing wildlife and her poodle, Princess. She graduated from Emory University with majors in journalism and creative writing.
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