‘Gaslighting’ Europe on fossil fuels – Faye Holder | Popgen Tech
Documents from the International Gas Union have revealed the strategy of disinformation pursued by the powerful lobby.
Rarely does the public get the chance to see the fossil fuel industry’s lobbying strategy laid out so clearly and in such detail. Such corporate information is usually kept under lock and key—while citizens grapple with the consequences of repeatedly diluted climate policies and continued reliance on fossil fuels.
This is what makes strategy documents posted on the International Gas Union (IGU) website so unique. Previously unseen, they describe the advocacy, communication and outreach strategies of a group that boasts more than 150 members and claims to represent more than 90 percent of the global gas industry. Not surprisingly, they have now been removed.
As part of InfluenceMap’s work in tracking climate policy by the fossil fuel sector, we analyzed dozens of these documents covering several years to late 2021. It provides an insight into the highly organized and coordinated nature of the global gas industry. They also provide the industry’s global disinformation playbook—in its own words.
‘Existential’ threat … to value chain
This year the world has seen catastrophic weather events ravage Pakistan and Nigeria, while Europe (again) experienced the hottest summer on record. These episodes were further evidence of the ‘code red’ signal to humanity of accelerated climate change.
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In developing its 2021 position statement, the IGU itself discussed the ‘potentially existential’ threat of climate change – but with a crucial difference. For the organization, the threat of climate change was not to humanity, but to the ‘global natural gas value chain’. This ‘understanding’ of the problem also characterized its response: rather than looking at how fossil gas contributed to climate change, the IGU argued that it should instead find a ‘positive message to defend and strengthen the role of gas ‘.
So how to wrestle back the reputation of gas from the ‘fossil-phobic’ attitudes identified by the IGU? As gas contributes to climate change through the greenhouse gas emissions generated when it is burned or leaked while being transported, the association argued that fossil gas should be redefined and ‘distinguished from other fossil fuels’.
To make ‘green’ gas, the IGU has developed a new category of gases, where fossil gas is housed together with renewable, low-carbon and decarbonised gases. A definition of ‘renewable gases’ appears in the appendix to one of the documents, which suggests that they include biogas, biomethane, gray hydrogen (produced from fossil gas), blue hydrogen (produced from fossil gas with carbon capture and storage) and green hydrogen include .
Putting aside the IGU’s misuse of the word ‘renewable’, this nebulous grouping of gases appears to be deliberately vague and a lobbying tool to promote variations of fossil gas more than anything else. As the IGU says, this new, broad definition of gas provides a ‘broader platform to engage’ and – critically – ‘deepens [the] rationale for infrastructure investment for government and development banks’. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change and International Energy Agency have specifically warned against any such new investment, if climate goals are to be met.
The IGU writes that this effort to ‘green’ gas started in 2020. And there is certainly evidence from him and his members to prove it, including on one of the European Union’s most debated policies—the sustainable-finance taxonomy.
The taxonomy was intended to provide the financial community with a list of environmentally sustainable activities, in line with the bloc’s goal of achieving net zero emissions by 2050. The European Commission’s technical expert group has advised an upper threshold for energy generation of 100 grams of CO2 equivalent. per kilowatt hour, which effectively excluded unabated fossil gas from the ‘sustainable’ list. What followed was a sustained attack from the gas industry and the first real test case for the lobby group’s ‘green’ gas strategy.
For example, in October 2020, 57 gas industry groups and companies, including the IGU, Shell, BP and TotalEnergies, sent a letter to the commission arguing for the inclusion of fossil gas in the taxonomy. In what now sounds familiar language, it said that fossil gas could help achieve climate neutrality goals with the ‘scaling up of all decarbonisation options… including natural, renewable and decarbonised gases’.
Rather than listen to its own expert group, the commission sided with the gas industry. It has since been sued by a group of pro-climate non-governmental organizations (and Austria), on the grounds of breaching its own obligations under the Paris Agreement and breaching European climate law requiring at least a 55 percent reduction in net emissions against mandate 2030 and ‘net zero’ by 2050.
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John Cook, an academic who specializes in climate misinformation, has found that explaining misinformation or the tactics used can be a powerful tool to inoculate against it. Perhaps a different path would have been taken by the commission if the IGU strategy documents had been available to it at the time.
Instead, the commission’s response set a precedent for other EU climate policies facing the same gas industry attacks: the Energy Performance of Buildings Directive, the Energy Efficiency Directive and the Methane Regulations for the Energy Sector. All have recently been weakened during the policy process.
Fossil fuel lobbyists
But it is not only in the EU that the gas industry is succeeding with this ‘green’ gas strategy. COP27 in Sharm El Sheikh was attended by 636 fossil fuel lobbyists, raising serious questions about the credibility of COP as a forum to discuss climate action. This year, ‘low emissions’ energy sources were narrowly included in the final declaration, with many observers noting the similarity to the language used by the gas industry. As a result, many participants expressed low hopes for next year’s COP in Dubai hosted by the petro-state.
Alongside COP, the IGU has listed the World Bank, various development banks, the G20, the United Nations Economic Commission for Europe, the UN Environment Program and policymakers in the United States and China as targets for its advocacy. It has developed ‘sustainable development’ gas messaging strategies using the UN Sustainable Development Goals to promote gas as a solution to energy poverty and air pollution.
The IPCC has identified ‘vested’ fossil fuel interests that ‘exercise political influence’ on policy-making as a key reason for the lack of progress on climate policy worldwide. What makes these documents noteworthy is the new insight into the scope and coordination of this effort to ‘gaslight’ decision makers into supporting gas, and the nuanced disinformation strategies used to do so.
Given the policy victories already achieved by the industry worldwide, it would appear that the IGU’s strategy is working. But perhaps these documents will help policymakers see behind the ‘green’-tinged smokescreen of his lobbying tactics—and get on with the task of taking climate action.
Faye Holder is pprogram manager for oil and gas, digital media and advertising at InfluenceMap, a think tank that provides data and analysis on how business and finance are affecting the climate crisis. She has a master’s degree in environment, politics and globalization from King’s College London.