Behind the scenes of an energy bill, propane and natural gas interests run a full-court press

By: - May 31, 2023 10:20 am
burners on a gas stove

(File photo)

Text messages and emails obtained by NC Newsline show the extent of involvement by the gas and propane industries in advocating for House Bill 130, which would prohibit local governments from restricting those fuels in commercial and residential buildings.

The bill was heard today in the Senate Agriculture, Energy and Environment committee, but only for discussion and no votes were taken.

“Local governments can’t prohibit connection, reconnection, modification or expansion of an energy service based on the type or source of energy to be delivered…” HB 130 reads.

“Energy service” is defined as “natural gas, renewable gas, hydrogen, liquefied petroleum gas, renewable liquefied petroleum gas, or other liquid petroleum products.” The renewable gas provision is important because it refers to biogas generated by manure from enormous swine and poultry farms, which is controversial because of the environmental impacts of those operations.

The bill resurrects a similar measure that passed both chambers in 2021 but was vetoed by Gov. Roy Cooper.

In February, as HB 130 wended its way through committee, David McGowan, a lobbyist for the American Petroleum Institute, sent eight pages of rebuttals to objections the bill sponsors could encounter.

Natural gas stoves emit harmful fumes — benzene, nitrogen dioxide and methane — even when they’re off. The New York Times reported the results of a study showing levels of some pollutants can be five times higher than safety benchmarks for one-hour exposure, as set by the EPA.

McGowan, though, prepared a response, saying the issue can be “easily addressed with proper ventilation.” However, many rental units don’t have such ventilation; nor do they have range hoods to vent the fumes outside. Smaller apartments are especially at risk, the Times story reported, because the pollutants can easily drift to other rooms outside the kitchen.

McGowan also dismissed the point that low-income households and people of color would be disproportionately harmed by pollution from natural gas stoves. Instead, he wrote that energy costs, as a result of electrification, would prevent the people from affording their medication.

However, natural gas prices fluctuate — more so than electricity prices — and make home energy prices unpredictable. For example, the U.S. Energy Information Administration reported that the average wholesale cost of natural gas in 2022 was the highest since 2008. When compared to 2021, the natural gas spot price increased by 53%.

Don D’Ambrosi, a research assistant for Rep. Dean Arp, sent a draft of the bill to a lobbyist for the Southeast Propane Alliance. “Also, please be working on updated talking points,” D’Ambrosi wrote to Jon Carr, the lobbyist.

Isabel Villa-Garcia, vice-president of government affairs for the Restaurant & Lodging Association, emailed Arp’s office on Feb. 16: “Our restaurant members in particular are very concerned about their ability to cook on gas and the potential expense of having to retrofit kitchens.”

There are no pending ordinances in North Carolina that would limit natural gas, including any restrictions on the restaurant industry.

California and Washington have adopted statewide restrictions on natural gas in commercial buildings; similar legislation is pending in Connecticut, New York and Massachusetts.

However, 20 states have passed legislation — like House Bill 130.

In February Rep. Pricey Harrison (D-Guilford) opposed the bill in committee, based on health and environmental concerns. “It usurps local government control. Many cities are enacting 100% clean energy policies, and electrification of new construction is one way of getting at it. I think it is bad policy.”

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Lisa Sorg
Lisa Sorg

Assistant Editor and Environmental Reporter Lisa Sorg helps manage newsroom operations while covering the environment, climate change, agriculture and energy.