Oil and gas well on a ridgetop in Eastern Ohio. These wells engage in the controversial practice called fracking to extract oil and natural gas. Getty Images.
The author of an Ohio amendment that would classify natural gas as “green energy” said he hopes the legislation can help companies meet ESG investing standards.
ESG refers to environmental, social and governance practices. ESG investing generally limits financing choices to companies or funds that meet certain criteria for those categories. The practice has been around for decades but recently has become a political boogeyman for conservatives who denounce it as “woke capitalism.”
Ohio state Sen. Mark Romanchuck, a Republican from Ontario, told the Energy News Network he hopes having the “green energy” language in Ohio law might help large users of natural gas meet ESG standards.
“I don’t know if it will work,” Romanchuk added. The Ohio House passed the bill Tuesday, sending it to the desk of Ohio Gov. Mike DeWine.
Romanchuk said he doesn’t think there is “anything magical” about using the word “green,” and there is uncertainty about its potential legal impact. Unlike an earlier version, the amendment to House Bill 507 specifically says it would not allow natural gas projects to qualify for renewable energy credits.
That hasn’t quelled criticism from climate and clean energy advocates, who say the vague legislation — approved by the state Senate last Wednesday without any public testimony — could have wider implications for the way natural gas is marketed and regulated in the state.
“In terms of how the ‘green energy’ amendment might impact regulatory decisions and investments, I think everyone is still trying to fully understand that,” said Neil Waggoner, who leads the Sierra Club’s Beyond Coal campaign in Ohio. The Senate moved “quickly and foolishly,” he said, in a way that prevented opponents from offering any testimony on the proposal.
The Ohio Senate Agriculture and Natural Resources Committee last Tuesday tacked the proposal and other amendments onto an unrelated bill about rules for poultry farmers regarding baby chicks. Now, along with the “green energy” provision, the bill includes provisions that would require state agencies to open parks and other public lands to oil and gas drilling, plus other amendments.
The bill version passed by the Senate states: “‘Green energy’ includes energy generated by using natural gas as a resource.” It also defines green energy as an energy source that either releases reduced air pollutants or “is more sustainable and reliable relative to some fossil fuels.”
“There’s no baseline,” Waggoner said, noting that some forms of fossil fuel are even dirtier than coal. The reference to reliability is likewise vague.
Romanchuk said his proposal was inspired by a European Union vote last summer to classify certain nuclear and natural gas projects as “sustainable investments” during the transition to renewable energy. The EU classification narrowly survived a vote to reject it in July, and some member countries and environmental groups filed legal challenges.
“We’re undergoing a transition in Ohio, and natural gas has played an extremely important role in reducing our emissions,” Romanchuk said. The shift from coal to natural gas power plants in the state played a large part in reducing Ohio’s greenhouse gas emissions by 50 million metric tons from 2005 to 2015.
But calling natural gas “green” is a misrepresentation, said Nolan Rutschilling, managing director of energy policy for the Ohio Environmental Council. “Natural gas is a fossil fuel and is a major contributor to greenhouse gases and climate change.”
As of 2020, Ohio ranked fifth among the states for energy-related greenhouse gas emissions, Energy Information Administration data show. Framing natural gas as “green” could deter focus from its share of those greenhouse gas emissions and other environmental impacts from pollution.
“It changes the context,” said Sarah O’Keefe, Cleveland’s director of sustainability and climate justice. The Energy Information Administration reports that natural gas combustion accounts for about a third of the United States’ energy-related carbon dioxide emissions, with methane leaks and other emissions releasing additional greenhouse gases.
The latest step
HB 507 is the latest in a series of attempts this year to reclassify natural gas as “green energy.” U.S. Rep. Troy Balderson, a Republican from Zanesville, Ohio, introduced a resolution in May for Congress to label natural gas as green energy. An anonymously funded, pro-natural gas group called the Empowerment Alliance has also encouraged Ohio counties to pass similar resolutions. At least two counties — Hocking and Jackson — adopted them this fall.
“If it was considered green and was used more, then I feel that it could help our country,” said Sandra Ogle, a Hocking county commissioner, on why she supported the natural gas resolution.
Romanchuk said he spoke with representatives from the Empowerment Alliance several months ago, but that he wrote the amendment himself. A spokesperson for the group said it would have no comment until after the legislation passes.
The Empowerment Alliance has multiple links to the gas industry, said Dave Anderson, policy and communications director for the Energy and Policy Institute. The dark money group also created the Affordable Energy Fund PAC, which spent more than $1 million on Republican candidates for this year’s elections, his research shows.
The Empowerment Alliance’s Form 990 for 2019 lists lawyer Eric Lycan as its treasurer. Lycan was also previously treasurer of Generation Now, an organization that pled guilty in the federal government’s bribery case related to House Bill 6, which is at the heart of the largest corruption case in Ohio’s history.
Romanchuk said Senate leadership directed him to attach his legislation as an amendment to the poultry bill, which has since grown into a “Christmas tree bill” on which to hang several unrelated amendments. “A lot of things get done this way in the Assembly in lame duck,” Romanchuk said.
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