Dozens of US gas utilities, serving more than 35 million customers, offer builders and contractors incentives to keep fossil fuels in buildings, the Guardian has found.
Washington state’s NW Natural offers builders $2,000 for each new single-family home they equip with gas appliances, while Texas’s Corpus Christi Gas offers $1,000. And in Minnesota, CenterPoint Energy participates in a program that offers paid vacations to builders who outfit homes with gas.
Meanwhile, gas utility trade groups are training members to sell builders on the continued use of the planet-heating fossil fuel, including through trainings at conferences and webinars. “Stress the lifestyle benefits that come with a natural gas home,” one instructor said in a recording of a training session heard by the Guardian.
The initiatives are part of gas interests’ decades-long effort to capture builders, contractors, and real estate agents—trusted figures to homebuyers and developers—according to an investigation by the Guardian. It’s part of a larger influence campaign that dates back to collaborations with esteemed chefs like Jacques Pépin, newly unearthed archival documents show.
The longstanding relationship between gas interests and the building sector could be a major impediment to decarbonizing buildings, which account for roughly one-third of US greenhouse gas emissions.
“For decades, the gas utility industry has been deeply aware of the significance of the role of builders, contractors, and developers in their bottom line,” said Karlee Weinmann, research and communications manager for the pro-electrification organization Energy and Policy Institute, which provided research and documents to the Guardian. “It is very effective for them to capture the middleman, so they don’t have to deal with convincing consumers.”
Methane gas—called “natural gas” by industry interests—is used for space and water heating, cooking, and drying clothes in roughly 60 percent of American homes. It is also 80 times more planet-warming than carbon dioxide in the short term, and its use in the home has been linked to childhood asthma and an array of other health issues.
Utilities are facing mounting pressure to leave the fuel source behind. This year, US regulators suggested a potential eventual nationwide gas stove ban, though Biden later ruled out such a policy. Heat pumps, an all-electric alternative to fossil fuel heat, outsold gas furnaces for the first time last year— a win for the Biden administration, which aims to quadruple their usage in US homes by 2030. And more than 100 municipalities have taken action to halt gas expansion in recent years.
“For a gas utility, electrification is an existential threat,” said Leah Stokes, utilities researcher and political science professor at the University of California, Santa Barbara. “If people suddenly stop building new buildings with gas, that means they don’t have new customers. It’s even worse if people start removing gas from buildings and they have a shrinking base.”
The Guardian has found that:
At least 27 utility programs serving 17 states offer incentives to builders and contractors for installing gas appliances in buildings.
Gas interests offer training programs for builders and realtors, focused on the purported benefits of installing gas appliances.
Gas interests target builders each year at a large international construction trade show, including by offering free meals.
These tactics build on ties between the gas industry and the building sector that date as far back as the 1960s.
In February, a group of builders will fly to Punta Cana, an idyllic beach destination in the eastern Dominican Republic. Airfare and hotel costs will be covered, and guests will enjoy free meals and cocktail parties.
To qualify, participants will have to accumulate more than 98,000 points through Builders Club North. The program offers 300 points for every home installed with gas air and water heating; an additional 25 points for the installation of a gas fireplace, stove, clothes dryer, grill, or garage heater; and the ability to earn 1,000 points by displaying gas-friendly marketing materials in homes.
Builders Club offers other incentives, too, including sports and plane tickets, hotel stays, and invitations to local outings.
“It’s a valuable way for suppliers to say, ‘Thank you!’ to builders and remodelers for their business loyalty and prompt payments,” the program’s website says.
One of those suppliers is CenterPoint Energy, a massive, multi-state gas utility company, which uses the program to incentivize builders in Minnesota to install gas appliances.
The Energy and Policy Institute uncovered CenterPoint’s participation in the program last year. The research raised the alarm for officials in the city of Minneapolis, which has made ambitious climate pledges.
Reached for comment, Joshua Solis, spokesman for CenterPoint Energy Minnesota, said the utility was working to cut its emissions, including by “developing a goal to strive for net-zero by 2035” and offering energy efficiency programs.
“Natural gas remains a cost-effective and more affordable option for Minnesotans’ appliances, according to the US Energy Information Administration,” he said, adding that gas infrastructure was reliable and resilient to extreme weather.
Builders Club North did not respond to the Guardian’s request for comment.
In February 2023, city officials called on CenterPoint to discontinue its use of Builders Club rewards, arguing it hampered local electrification efforts.
“We would appreciate CenterPoint discontinuing Builders Club incentives to contractors who install gas appliances,” they wrote in a memo.
CenterPoint offers a separate incentive program for builders who install gas water heaters and other appliances, which hinges on the idea that gas is the most cost-effective way to heat water. In February 2022, Minnesota’s attorney general also rebuked the claim in a filing, stating: “The lowest-cost and highest-efficiency water heaters available today are electric heat pump water heaters.”
Other utility companies offering builders incentives for installing gas appliances have flown under the radar.
The Energy and Policy Institute and the Guardian found 27 of these programs, from Florida to Ohio to California. Awards ranged from $50 for installing a gas stove in Georgia, courtesy of Austell Gas, to $150,000 for outfitting multifamily developments with gas appliances via SoCalGas in California.
In Washington state, NW Natural offers up to $2,000 for each new single-family home built and equipped with eligible natural gas appliances.
David Roy, senior communications director for the utility, said the program, which will come to an end this month, was created in response to the state’s building codes, which NW Natural found “problematic,” in part because they do not account for emissions from the production of electricity, “which from a climate perspective is a nonsensical position to be taking.”
But studies show efficient electric appliances are less emissions-intensive than their gas-powered counterparts, and environmental advocates, including in Washington state, have long paired electrification policies with attempts to decarbonize the grid.
NW Naturals’ Roy added that the utility objects “on behalf of our customers” to the attempt to remove gas from homes, “when our polling shows overwhelming support for energy diversity.”
Stokes said it should come as no surprise that utilities have created these incentive programs. “Gas interests are big opponents of clean energy,” she said, noting that they had also created front groups to fight policies that threaten their business models and, as her work has found, promoted climate misinformation despite their knowledge of the climate crisis.
“The stakes are higher for the industry now than they’ve ever been,” she said. “They’re like a wounded animal. They’re gonna fight back.”
Gas utility interests are also training representatives to encourage builders and realtors to push the continued use of planet-heating fossil fuel. The lessons, recordings of which were heard by the Guardian, offer advice on how to coach builders to promote gas.
One 2021 webinar addresses the “challenge” of increasing public concern about the climate crisis, suggesting utilities advise builders to tell homebuyers “how natural gas is good for the environment”.
The trainer urged representatives to tell builders that carbon emissions are decreasing and that the switch from coal to methane gas is a key reason why. “They can share with their clients that natural gas is part of the solution; we are not part of the problem,” she said.
But greenhouse gas emissions are actually increasing and gas usage still accounts for the vast majority of CO2 emissions from buildings—and experts agree that gas use must be swiftly curbed to avert climate catastrophe.
The training session was hosted by Energy Solutions Center, an advocacy group whose membership includes some of the nation’s largest utilities. The group has links to the American Gas Association, a trade association representing more than 200 US gas distributors. The two organizations share the same Washington, DC, address, and Energy Solutions Center’s former director was listed in American Gas Association tax documents as a compensated employee, the Energy and Policy Institute found.
“The natural gas utilities have invested heavily in reducing emissions, making methane leak reduction a top priority,” said Sonia Vahedian, executive director of Energy Solutions Center, in an email.
In another training session from 2018, the same trainer admitted that homes with natural gas appliances were more expensive than electric ones on average. She advised her audience to redirect concerned buyers’ attention.
“What you have to stress to the realtors is all the fun things. Remind them all the fun things that their clients can have with natural gas,” she said. “Stress the lifestyle benefits that come with a natural gas home.” She rattled off a list of gas-fired appliances builders could mention, including a “beautiful gas fireplace” and gas-powered lights, fire pit, and patio heaters for the outdoors, but did not mention that electric versions of each appliance are available.
A third Energy Solutions Center course from 2020 aims to equip trainees with “talking points about the advantages of natural gas appliances in the home”.
“Besides the fact that gas is good for the environment, it’s important for builders to know that homebuyers prefer to have natural gas in their home,” the trainer said. The latter claim is based on a survey designed by Energy Solutions Center.
The group also offers its utility members videos to use in their marketing. One, called Hard Sell, depicts a realtor who is unable to find buyers for homes that have electric appliances. “Natural gas sells homes so choose natural gas,” a banner reads at the end.
“Builders and contractors are key decision makers on the issue of building decarbonization,” said Weinmann of the Energy and Policy Institute. “Consumers are relying on them to help inform decisions that they’re making about electrifying or not…and they probably don’t know that the information they’re being given is coming directly from the industry.”
Another key strategy for the gas industry: targeting builders at trade shows, including the annual International Builders’ Show. Convened by the National Association of Home Builders, a trade group representing home builders, developers, and contractors, the conference convenes tens of thousands of people in the construction sector each year.
Energy Solutions Center has solicited funding from utilities to maintain its presence at the event. And members host their own events there, too.
In 2018, five utility companies in the US south—Atmos, DTE, Duke, Spire, and Southern—collaborated on a reception for builders, complete with a swanky meal and tickets to a show, they say in a recording heard by the Guardian. An Atmos Energy representative admits to spending $7,000 a year on such efforts. Duke Energy recommends making reservations far ahead of time, “especially for a large party in a nicer restaurant.” And Piedmont Natural Gas, a business unit of Duke Energy, suggests reaching out to a local home builders association to see lists of attendees and inviting them to these dinners.
In recent years amid stronger electrification policies, the group appears to have ramped up efforts to push the building sector to promote gas.
“Instead of choosing a pathway of innovation and constructive evolution, they are choosing to dig in their heels,” said Weinmann. “They somehow convinced themselves that more of the same is actually a viable option.”
In its official conference event listing this year, for instance, Energy Solutions Center said its event presence with the American Gas Association had experienced increased interest from builders due to new policies aiming to curtail gas usage. “Now more than ever, it is critically important that the natural gas utility industry maintain a presence at the show,” the organization said.
From 2020 to 2021, the American Gas Association increased funding for the International Builders’ Show, slides viewed by the Guardian show.
Reached for comment, Karen Harbert, president and CEO of the American Gas Association, said: “The natural gas industry has long committed to collaboration with policymakers, regulators, and various industries to help achieve our nation’s ambitious climate and energy goals.”
She added that gas utilities had cut their emissions since 1990, and were promoting “inclusive” solutions rather than “a one-size-fits-all energy policy that would drive up prices without significant environmental progress”.
However modeling shows the sector must reduce its greenhouse gas footprint much more rapidly to align with climate goals, and data shows efficient electric appliances can actually save consumers money. What’s more, experts say many of the industries’ favored climate fixes are risky and may not lead to serious emissions cuts.
Vahedian, of Energy Solutions Center (ESC), said the group supports utilities “in their efforts to strategically market sustainable energy solutions appropriate for evolving 21st-century energy markets”.
“As part of our mission, ESC empowers its members to increase value by providing strategic information and education on natural gas and other low-carbon, sustainable energy solutions,” she said. “Our training materials focus on and support our members in building awareness and energy value through deploying sustainable energy technologies.”
She did not directly address questions about the scientific consensus that gas must be phased out in order to avert the worst consequences of climate breakdown.
The redoubled efforts come as part of a decades–long gas industry campaign to win the building industry’s support, archival materials reviewed by the Guardian show.
A 1964 issue of AGA Monthly, the American Gas Association’s publication, for instance, outlines a 12-step “battle plan” to ensure high-rises opt for gas over electricity, placing importance on forging close relationships with builders and developing “economically sound and carefully planned programs designed to make initial installation of gas lines, regulation, and metering equipment competitively attractive”.
“These tactics aren’t dissimilar to the ones we see today,” said Weinmann of the Energy and Policy Institute.
Officials have raised the alarm about these practices. In 1969, the US House’s small business subcommittee published recommendations about public utilities’ promotional practices—including offering incentives to builders—after holding hearings on the topic.
“The whole system of payment to third parties, such as builders, smacks of venality,” the representatives wrote.
The American Gas Association acknowledged the scrutiny, with AGA Monthly subsequently publishing a summary of the recommendations.
The American Gas Association also enlisted celebrities in its attempt to sell builders on the supposed benefits of gas. A 1979 issue of AGA Monthly shows that Jacques Pépin made an appearance at a home builders show that year, giving four one-hour gas cooking demonstrations. (Juliana Pesavento, spokesperson for the Jacques Pépin Foundation, confirmed the appearances, but said Pépin “has no current relationship with the American Gas Association”.)
The paid appearance came as part of a celebrity-focused program the American Gas Association launched in the 1970s after the association had reportedly conducted its own research into the health dangers of gas appliances. After finding a link between gas stoves and indoor air pollution, the trade group sponsored shows hosted by Pépin’s frequent collaborator Julia Child, as well as actors Mary Tyler Moore and Doris Day, Rebecca Leber recently reported. (The industry still includes celebrity restaurateurs in its pro-gas campaigns.)
The American Gas Association continued to promote gas to builders in the 1980s and 1990s—the decades when the American public gained awareness of the climate crisis. The trade group directly funded the National Association of Home Builders, while participating in construction conferences and placing ads in industry publications, financial audits show.
“The gas industry has done an exceptional job of marketing [its] product to us,” said Stokes, “to keep it in our homes… where we eat, sleep, live.”