Gas Light Attribution: Mike G., courtesy of Flickr creative commons
“The Partnership (for Energy Progress)…[spent] $2.8 million in 2020 convincing consumers that ‘natural gas is part of a clean energy future…’” — Susie Cagle, climate reporter for The Guardian
In the 1970s, when ExxonMobil’s internal assessment showed that the continued burning of fossil fuels would warm the planet by at least 0.2ºC each decade, the oil giant had a choice: it could warn the public about its findings and begin using its enormous financial resources to develop emissions-free energy sources, or it could continue doing business as usual. It chose the latter.
In subsequent decades ExxonMobil, along with virtually all other major oil and gas companies, sabotaged efforts to combat climate change by lobbying Congress to defeat environmental laws — and by going into “gaslighting” mode, hiring PR firms to spread misinformation about the veracity of climate science and “message” that fossil fuel producers were at the forefront of combatting climate change, while in fact they were just growing their “core” fossil-fuel businesses and profits.
The term “gaslighting” — a particularly apt description of the industry’s ongoing campaign to tout the virtues of fossil gas— is derived from the classic, 1944 cinematic psychological thriller Gaslight, where a murderer uses deception to try to drive his young wife insane so he can steal her inheritance. Set in the year 1875, when gas lights were common in homes, the husband would cause the gas lights to flicker, but tell his wife that he didn’t see any flickering — that it must be her imagination. Eventually, she began to doubt herself, and think she had lost touch with reality.
Today, gaslighting means attempting to control the perception of reality, for nefarious purposes, by spreading misleading information and/or through outright lying. Gaslighting can be aimed at an individual, a group or the public at large, and can be quite effective.
However, despite all of the fossil-fuel industry’s gaslighting, in recent decades scientists and environmentalists have increased the public’s awareness of the reality and causes of climate change, and nature itself has made us aware of its effects with some truly frightening “messaging” of its own. One result of this growing awareness, in America, has been the recent passage of the Inflation Reduction Act (IRA), with its prodigious, robust incentives to quickly eliminate most fossil energy use.
Sadly, instead of responding to the IRA as an unprecedented opportunity to invest in our common future, and to change their business models and become zero-emissions energy producers, most fossil energy companies have chosen, once again, to look for more opportunities to drill for oil and step up their gaslighting campaigns.
Meanwhile, a battle over the use of fossil gas (AKA “natural gas”) for heating buildings and for cooking has been raging throughout the country. Intense campaigning began on January 1, 2020, when Berkeley, California, became the first U.S. city to ban gas hookups in new construction. Gas banning spread quickly to 50 other cities in California, including Los Angeles, and then to New York City and Denver, Colorado. Eugene, Oregon, and other cities have since followed suit.
In response, gas companies sprang into action. They paid social media “influencers” to produce cute videos of themselves cooking on gas stoves. Southern California Gas publicists set up and funded an AstroTurf (phony grass roots) “citizen’s organization” to protest gas bans by claiming that they interfered with customer choice. The protestors, some paid, carried signs, wrote letters and frequented city council meetings.
In 2020, a well-financed organization called the Partnership for Energy Progress was formed in the Seattle area, and quickly recruited Northwest regional partners including pipefitters unions, barbeque business associations, the Oregon Dairy Farmers Association (to promote methane from cows?) and of course other gas utilities including Oregon’s Northwest Natural (formerly Northwest Natural Gas). The organizations’ avowed purpose is to “promote gas and prevent or defeat initiatives that would reduce or prohibit its use.”
How could those aims be achieved? By amplifying the same tired gaslighting tropes the industry has been pushing for decades, namely that gas is natural, safe and reliable, produces less emission than coal, etc., etc.
This spin is designed to trick us into continuing to harm the planet and ourselves by burning highly polluting, often unsafe fossil gas. But just like the fossil-fuel industry’s attempts to gaslight us about the causes and effects of global warming, its efforts to obscure the truth about fossil gas will fail if we debunk this misinformation with facts and effective messaging of our own, the subject of an upcoming post in this series on methane.
Editor’s Note: A version of this article appeared previously in other publications as part of an ongoing series called “Your Ecological House,” written by Philip S. Wenz, the publisher of Firebird Journal.