Internal Documents Reveal the Fossil Fuel Industry’s Latest Greenwashing Campaign
A propane trade group plans to spend $12.8 million in 2023 convincing Americans that propane is good for the environment
In January 2020, Tina Wilson, a marketing executive at the Propane Education & Research Council (PERC) sent an email to the industry group’s CEO with plans for what would eventually become a multi-million dollar greenwashing campaign.
For years, propane industry executives like Wilson had watched as cities and states passed climate policies that threatened the industry’s profits. In her email, Wilson was blunt in describing these challenges. “Our industry finds itself in the predicament of being banned from hundreds of municipalities,” she wrote.
But she had a plan to fight back.
Key to the new plan was Americans’ lack of familiarity with propane. Like coal and natural gas, propane is a fossil fuel that, when burned, causes climate change. But most people don’t know that. In 2019, Wilson hired a polling firm to survey 1,000 Americans on their perceptions of propane. She discovered that only 3% of respondents considered propane a fossil fuel.
Wilson saw an opportunity to exploit this lack of knowledge and convince the American public and policymakers that propane wasn’t a cause of climate change, but instead a solution to it.
Over the next three years, PERC would go on to spend tens of millions of dollars promoting propane as a clean, sustainable source of energy.
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PERC paid influencers millions to convince Americans their product is green
To promote their message, they sponsored thousands of local TV news and radio shows according to internal documents obtained by Energy and Policy Institute. As The New York Times first reported, PERC enlisted the help of HGTV stars like Matt Blashaw and social media influencers like Emily Calandrelli (also known as “Space Gal”) to help rebrand the dirty fossil fuel as a low-carbon energy.
In 2020, the same year that Wilson emailed the new strategy to PERC’s CEO, the fossil fuel trade group spent $3.5 million paying influencers to promote propane as good for the environment. $1.2 million of that budget was spent targeting homeowners, according to an internal document.
In a sponsored Earth Day segment on Colorado’s Fox 31 News, Blashaw said when many homeowners think of Earth Day they think of improving their home’s insulation or installing Energy Star appliances. “But I want to give them the knowledge of clean energy,” he said. “If families choose propane, they’re making a decision to lower carbon emissions.”
Like many of PERC’s environmental claims, Blashaw’s Earth Day pitch was misleading. When it’s burned in homes and industrial facilities, propane emits greenhouse gasses into the atmosphere. For that reason, most experts agree that replacing fossil fuel-powered appliances with alternatives like heat pumps, that can eventually run on 100% clean electricity, is necessary to reach net-zero emissions.
In 2018, the American Council for an Energy-Efficient Economy (ACEEE) looked at the carbon-intensity of propane furnaces compared to electric heat pumps. The study found that heat pumps were better for the environment in all but the most coal-dependent parts of the country.
“[Propane] is slightly cleaner than coal,” Steve Nadel, the author of that study, told me. “But compared to electricity, in most sections of the country, it’s not cleaner.”
Nadel said it’s also important to compare the environmental impact over the lifespan of any given appliance. “Someone purchases something today and it lasts 18 years,” he said.
“The electric grid continues to get cleaner,” Nadel said. “And it will continue to get cleaner, as many states and utilities move to fully decarbonize or dramatically reduce their emissions.”
Blashaw didn’t mention this in his Earth Day interview. Instead he framed propane as the cleanest way to power a home and electricity as expensive, dirty, and unreliable.
According to one of PERC’s internal documents, the campaign with Blashaw was promoted in more than 7,000 news stories. It was seen or heard more than 300 million times.
In a February 2021 meeting, PERC’s Chairman, Stuart Weidie said the goal of the expansive marketing campaign is to “combat the growing narrative that fossil fuel combustion is the main cause of climate change and that propane is a dirty fossil fuel.”
According to PERC’s polling, the campaign was effective. In 2019, when they ran their first poll, 32% of American consumers agreed with the statement that “Propane is a clean fuel.” Three years later in December 2022, 47% of respondents agreed with the statement.
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PERC developed “provocative anti-electrification messaging”
PERC didn’t just promote propane as a clean fuel in their campaigns. They also spent millions attacking competitive clean energy technologies like heat pumps.
According to internal documents, PERC sees the “Electrify everything” movement as one of the biggest threats to the propane industry.
In the initial strategy Brown laid out in her 2020 email, she said PERC needed to “ensure that propane is viewed and incorporated as ‘part of the solution,’ rather than electricity being viewed as the only viable environmentally-acceptable solution.”
Another internal document reads, “Americans are convinced that electrifying everything now is the only solution to stop climate change.” The goal of the propane industry’s messaging, according to the document, should be to, “challenge the myth of the feasibility of all-electrification movement.”
Over the next few years, PERC’s marketing team developed what one slide deck described as “provocative anti-electrification messaging” in order to do that.
In 2022, the industry trade group paid influencers to go on local TV news stations and tell people that “Electrifying everything isn’t the answer.” On the one year anniversary of the Texas blackouts, PERC paid Jennifer Borget to describe renewable energy sources like wind and solar as unreliable.
In a series of interviews, Borget said a recent study found that “Americans lack the confidence that renewable energy is reliable.” However, she didn’t mention that the study was funded by the propane industry.
The campaign with Borget aired on more than 1,000 TV segments and was viewed more than 10 million times, according to internal documents.
The fossil fuel industry group also spent heavily to convince people in the Northeast that heat pumps are expensive to operate and unreliable in cold climates. In New York alone, they spent $900,000 and reached 2 million people with this message.
But numerous studies have shown that heat pumps are cheaper to operate than propane furnaces in the Northeast. According to a 2017 analysis by the National Renewable Energy Laboratory (NREL), in New York, heat pumps cost $1,352 less to operate than propane furnaces on average. In Maine, heat pumps cost about $1,600 less to operate than propane. A study by RMI concluded that “Propane systems are extremely expensive, due to high fuel costs.” That study found that the average homeowner in the Northeast could save $10,000 over 15 years switching from a propane heating system to a heat pump.
“This content is guised as homeowner advice that people might assume is helpful or objective,” said Charlie Spatz, a researcher at Energy and Policy Institute. “But in fact, it’s a duplicitous effort to keep them from getting more affordable and climate-friendly technologies like heat pumps.”
Spatz, who obtained the documents from PERC, has spent much of his career exposing greenwashing campaigns. He said the propane industry’s latest campaign is one of the biggest he’s ever seen.
He told me that many of the campaigns he’s seen spend $1 to $3 million dollars per year spreading misinformation about clean energy or promoting fossil fuels as environmentally-friendly. By comparison, PERC plans to spend $12.8 million promoting propane as environmentally-friendly in 2023 according to its latest annual budget.
PERC didn’t respond to requests for comment.
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