The New Soldiers in Propane’s Fight Against Climate Action: Television Stars

For D.I.Y. enthusiasts, Matt Blashaw is a familiar face, judging bathroom remodels or planning surprise home makeovers on popular cable television shows.

Mr. Blashaw also has an unusually strong opinion about how Americans should heat their homes: by burning propane, or liquid petroleum gas.

“When I think of winter, I think of being inside. I think of cooking with the family, of being by a roaring fire — and with propane, that is all possible,” he said on a segment of the CBS affiliate WCIA, calling in from his bright kitchen. “That’s why we call it an energy source for everyone.”

Less well known is the fact that Mr. Blashaw is paid by a fossil fuel industry group that has been running a furtive campaign against government efforts to move heating away from oil and gas toward electricity made from wind, solar and other cleaner sources.

The Propane Education and Research Council, or PERC, which is funded by propane providers across the country, has spent millions of dollars on “provocative anti-electrification messaging” for TV, print and social media, using influencers like Mr. Blashaw, according to the group’s internal documents viewed by The New York Times.

As a federally-sanctioned trade association, PERC is allowed to collect fees on propane sales, which helps fund its marketing campaigns. But according to the law that created this system, that money is supposed to be used for things like research and safety.

In 2023, the organization plans to spend $13 million on its anti-electrification campaign, including $600,000 on “influencers” like Mr. Blashaw, according to the documents, which were obtained from PERC’s website as well as a public records request by the Energy and Policy Institute, a pro-renewables group.

The overwhelming majority of scientists around the globe agree that the burning of coal, gas and oil produces greenhouse gases that are dangerously heating the planet. Scientists commissioned by the United Nations have warned that nations must deeply and quickly cut those emissions to avoid a catastrophic escalation of deadly flooding, heat waves, drought and species extinction.

The propane industry sees things differently. It needs to “combat the growing narrative that fossil fuel combustion is the main cause of climate change, and that propane is a dirty fossil fuel,” Stuart Weidie, chairman and chief executive of North Carolina propane company Blossman Gas, told the propane council at a February 2021 meeting.

“The movement to electrify everything is rapidly gaining momentum, and poses a substantial threat to the sustainability of our industry,” he said, according to meeting minutes.

Erin Hatcher, who heads communications at PERC, said its campaign “asserts propane’s role in a clean energy future” and “promotes the advantages of a wide path to decarbonization.” Influencers like Mr. Blashaw, she said “use and specify propane in their construction projects and are very familiar with propane’s advantages.” Ms. Hatcher would not say how much her group has paid Mr. Blashaw.

Mr. Weidie said that his fundamental belief in the importance of a low-carbon future had been “lost in out-of-context conversation.” He said he believed electrification was set to “play a big role but is not the only answer,” and that propane was “a great energy for generations to come.”

Mr. Blashaw referred questions to PERC.

Most American homes are heated by natural gas or oil. But in states where the energy grid is increasingly powered by wind, solar and other renewables, electric heat pumps are fast becoming a lower-carbon alternative to gas and oil. They heat as well as cool.

Researchers at Princeton University found that for the United States to stop adding greenhouse gases to the atmosphere by 2050, nearly one-quarter of American homes would need to switch to heat pumps. That’s double the number today.

Congress has approved billions of dollars to help Americans electrify buildings, including tax credits for heat pumps, as part of the major climate law passed last summer.

But such a shift would reduce demand for propane, which is used in 50 million American homes, in furnaces, stoves, fireplaces and a range of appliances, according to the National Propane Gas Association. Propane, like natural gas, doesn’t emit as much planet-warming greenhouse gases as coal, gasoline or diesel. But it’s still derived from fossil fuels.

“If you’re burning gas to heat your house anywhere in a northern climate, it’s a huge amount of emissions, probably the largest part of your emissions,” said Forrest Meggers, an associate professor at Princeton.

The propane industry’s anti-electrification campaign has been particularly well funded because of PERC’s status as a federally-sanctioned trade association.

A 1996 law authorized the creation of PERC and allowed it to collect a half-cent fee on every gallon of propane it sells, an example of what is known as a federal “checkoff program” designed to support specific industry sectors, typically agricultural commodities. Those fees are supposed to be used for safety and consumer education, training, or research and development projects.

But ambiguous language in the original bill, together with limited oversight by the Department of Energy, has meant the group has diverted millions of dollars from the fee toward marketing, including its anti-electrification campaigns. The Government Accountability Office, the investigative arm of Congress, has repeatedly raised concerns that PERC has been misusing the funds it raises from the fee, which comes to more than $40 million a year, and criticized lax government oversight.

PERC has also funded groups working on campaigns in response to federal and state climate policies, possibly violating a provision in the 1996 law that bans the organization from lobbying, the G.A.O. has warned.

In 2022, for example, PERC committed nearly $900,000 to a New York propane industry group to address the “massive challenge from well-funded efforts to electrify the entire state” — namely, to fight policies stemming from New York’s 2019 climate law which, among other goals, aims to ensure that buildings and vehicles stop adding greenhouse gases to the atmosphere by 2040.

New York had passed “the most radical climate change legislation in the country” and propane was “marked for extinction, along with natural gas, heating oil and gasoline,” Rich Goldberg, whose public relations firm led the effort, warned last year in a blog post. The propane industry needed to run an “aggressive, fuel-neutral campaign aimed at slowing down the CLCPA electrification freight train,” he said, referring to New York’s Climate Leadership and Community Protection Act.

On social media and an opposition website, the local New York Propane Gas Association panned heat pumps as cripplingly expensive and unreliable, especially in cold climates, urging residents to oppose the state’s climate plans. The group also lobbied against a state carbon tax, which failed to advance.

The group’s claim about heat pumps is misleading. Advances in technology mean the pumps are effective in colder regions, said Dr. Meggers of Princeton. Federal rebates of up to $8,000 for low- and moderate-income households, as well as various state-level incentives, have made heat pumps more affordable. And efficient heat pumps can save households hundreds of dollars a year, compared to oil and gas systems, according to the Department of Energy.

Still, by the New York propane group’s own accounting, its social media ads reached 2 million people, and its videos were shown more than 2.8 million times. “PERC is running the largest national anti-electrification campaign I’ve encountered anywhere in the United States,” said Charlie Spatz, a researcher at the Energy and Policy Institute. “Propane customers, whether they’re buying fuel for their home heating or for their grill, they’re unwittingly funding PERC’s anti-climate agenda.”

In an interview, Mr. Goldberg stood by his characterization of the New York climate law. “People would be required to convert their energy use in their house, how they drive, how power is produced,” he said. “That’s pretty extreme.”

Ms. Hatcher of PERC, meanwhile, said the council was unaware of any current concerns about its spending. She said the group makes sure the activities it funds are authorized under the 1996 law and added that most of its budget goes to research and development, training, and safety education.

PERC budgets for 2021-2023 seen by The Times show that marketing and communications is the largest spending category.

The Energy Department and New York Propane Gas Association did not provide comment.

The propane industry’s messaging has gone beyond heating.

“Space Gal” Emily Calandrelli is a Massachusetts Institute of Technology-trained science communicator who has hosted shows on Netflix.

She is now a paid influencer for the propane industry, according to PERC documents.

Last August, Ms. Calandrelli appeared on local Houston network CW39 to malign electric bus technology as expensive, unreliable — and, where the electric grid is still powered heavily by coal and natural gas, not very clean.

“The good news is that there are now better alternatives for cleaner school buses today, like propane school buses,” she said, which could reduce tailpipe emissions for a far lower cost.

Experts question that claim. For tailpipe emissions that could both harm kids’ lungs and warm the planet, “electric buses are going to change the game,” said Hailin Li, a professor at West Virginia University. And with the federal government providing $5 billion toward electric school buses, there is little reason to go with propane, he said.

Federal rules require broadcasters to announce when content has been sponsored or paid for in any way. CW39 did state that Ms. Calandrelli is working with “Energy For Everyone,” but did not name the propane industry.

Ms. Hatcher of PERC said TV networks were fully aware of their guests’ sponsors. Ms. Calandrelli referred questions to PERC. CW39 did not respond to requests for comment.

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