One of the world’s largest gas industry groups appears to have quietly created a public messaging playbook to combat an “active global debate” around climate change and push back against a “potentially existential” threat to its worldwide operations, documents show.
Describing itself as “the spokesperson for the gas industry worldwide,” the International Gas Union (IGU) is made up of more than 150 members, from household fossil fuel giants like Shell and ExxonMobil to the Canadian Gas Association (CGA) — a national group representing companies like FortisBC, Enbridge and TC Energy. Together, the IGU says it represents 90 per cent of the global gas market.
The previously unseen documents, produced between 2017 to 2021 and gathered while temporarily posted to the IGU’s website, were released in a report late Wednesday from the climate research group InfluenceMap. They show how the IGU has sought shape the narrative that gas plays in a world increasingly pushing toward decarbonization.
“Climate action poses an existential threat to this industry. They work by causing climate change. So they are fighting back,” said Kathryn Harrison, a climate policy researcher at the University of British Columbia.
One 2021 IGU strategy document raises concerns around the global movement to address climate change following the Paris agreement to keep global warming to well below two degrees Celsius above pre-Industrial levels — the threshold beyond which scientists say the world will face catastrophic damage.
“This debate could be potentially existential for the global natural gas value chain,” reads an IGU document.
Regulatory changes “could have highly damaging effects to the industry,” and so it’s in the IGU’s interest, it added, to “find a positive message to defend and enhance the role of gas in the global energy dynamic.”
According to the the IGU's “messaging architecture,” members should support the Paris agreement, while framing natural gas as a necessary ingredient in transitioning to a decarbonized global economy. On the other hand, the IGU plan urges members to “challenge short-sighted, binary approaches toward energy” and balance messaging on the impacts of climate change with energy security and affordability.
In a written statement, a spokesperson for the IGU reiterated many of the points laid out in the strategy documents, including describing gas as a “balancer of the power system” that will help scale renewable energy.
The group advocates for gas, wrote IGU’s Tatiana Khanberg, “because switching from coal to natural gas now reduces climate warming greenhouse gas emissions…”
“The IGU calls for a constructive dialogue between all key actors and stakeholders,” she added.
Khanberg, who used to work as a policy advisor to the Ontario government, according to her LinkedIn profile, did not directly respond to questions around how IGU has run a coordinated messaging campaign, or how its Canadian members have used its playbook.
InfluenceMap's Faye Holder, who helped author the report, said that, like the rest of the world, the documents show “Canadian regulators and the public are finding themselves the target of coordinated gas industry disinformation.”
“This has included advocating for the expansion of LNG on account of its 'lower emissions' and the need for energy security, as well as attempts to weaken the government’s oil and gas emissions cap,” she said.
Latest in a long line of fossil fuel disinformation
This isn't the first time the fossil fuel industry has had its internal plans to create its own narrative revealed to the public.
Starting in the 1970s, ExxonMobil’s own scientists found compelling evidence that the burning of fossil fuels was transforming the planet’s climate. That didn't stop them from waging a decades-long disinformation campaign to discredit scientific consensus on climate change.
“That was remarkably successful. Even today, we see much lower levels of public confidence that climate change is caused by humans compared to the near unanimity among scientists — even in Canada,” said Harrison.
Then, in 1990, there came the first of six comprehensive reports on the state of climate change from the United Nation's Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change; with each release, the gold standard of climate science declared with growing certainty and alarm that fossil fuels cause climate change.
The latest trove of internal documents from fossil fuel industry insiders represents a new phase of disinformation, one where fossil fuel companies are looking to re-frame themselves as a solution, said Harrison. In recent years, new arguments from industry have sprung up, she added, some suggesting one country couldn't take action without all countries' support, others furthering the idea that humanity should wait for new technologies to show up, such as carbon capture and storage.
“Initially, the strategy was to deny the science — to oppose any and all policies,” said Harrison. “Now, what we’re seeing is most of these companies accept the consensus, but they argue for more time, more public funding.”
More recently, she says industry has made calls to allow companies to offset their emissions, made proposals for emissions reductions contingent on public subsidies, or argued that a transition to gas is a climate mitigation strategy.
After years of delay, Harrison says meeting Paris agreement targets will now require “significant reductions in consumption of all fossil fuels, including gas.”
“The problem is that we’ve wasted so much time,” she said.
Playbook lines up with Canadian Gas Association messaging
The Canadian Gas Association did not respond to Glacier Media's request to comment on whether it has deliberately used the talking points outlined in the strategy documents.
The group is listed as playing a role in the creation of the internal documents alongside Shell and the Russian fossil fuel giant Gazprom, among others. And many of the communications strategies revealed in the IGU documents appear to have been replicated in public messaging from the CGA.
The IGU documents, for example, highlight social media campaigns as a major avenue to target “stakeholders.”
“The true power of social media is influence,” reads one document.
The group also recommends members target several media outlets, including Bloomberg, Reuters and The Wall Street Journal. The goal: “to increase social acceptance of natural gas as distinct from other fossil fuels” and to “promote positive sentiment toward, and broader definition of, gas amongst key media and influencers.”
In November 2022, Canada’s Competition Bureau launched an inquiry into the CGA's “Fuelling Canada” advertising campaign after it allegedly ran “false and misleading” claims promoting LNG as a clean fuel source.
The complaint, filed by members of the Canadian Association of Physicians for the Environment, lists several advertisements CGA placed across social media, on its own website, and in a national newspaper.
In one Facebook and Instagram ad, the CGA touts the “efficiency” of natural gas; in another, the industry group says it’s “leveraging innovative tech to become cleaner than ever.”
“Clean energy for all Canadians,” another claims, echoing a talking point highlighted in the IGU strategy documents.
The Competition Bureau has yet to render a decision on the case.
Key industry talking points appear to be repeated by B.C. gas utility
The release of the IGU documents come at a time when British Columbia’s energy future sits at a crossroads: in a 2020 report, FortisBC outlined an alternative vision for the province to reach its climate goals — one it says would save $100 billion by mid-century but includes the continued burning of gas.
As B.C.'s largest gas utility, FortisBC is a member of the Canadian Gas Association, itself a charter member of the IGU. Fortis has faced pushback from some local jurisdictions over its plans to play a continued role as a gas provider. In the City of Vancouver, where burning natural gas to heat buildings releases roughly 54 per cent of all greenhouse gas emissions, local government has moved to phase out natural gas in new homes by 2030.
Earlier this year, FortisBC filed an application with the BC Utilities Commission so every newly built home that wants a gas hookup would automatically receive renewable gas — a catch-all term which can include a combination of hydrogen; gas pulled from the gasification of coal, plants or wood; or methane emissions siphoned off manure, landfills, or wastewater plants that, once processed, are largely indistinguishable from fossil natural gas.
In a social media feud with BC Hydro last fall, the gas utility claimed a renewable gas furnace would be cheaper to power than a heat pump.
“Did you know that heating your home with natural gas contributes to climate change?" BC Hydro tweeted in response.
"Did YOU know that by using 100% Renewable Natural Gas your home furnace could be carbon-neutral and still about $140 dollars cheaper a year than using an electric heat pump?" responded FortisBC.
Casting LNG as a cheaper alternative to electricity is one of a handful of strategies outlined in the IGU documents.
Often described by advocates as a “bridge fuel” to wean the world off coal and oil, LNG produces about half the carbon emissions at the point of combustion than coal. The B.C. government has cited that fact in its decision to back the construction of the LNG Canada terminal, a major gas processing plant in Kitimat, and a pipeline to feed it with fuel from fracked gas fields in the province’s northeast.
In the past, environmental groups have criticized fossil fuel companies such as FortisBC for a coordinated marketing campaign that emphasizes the role of natural gas as a bridge fuel as the world works to decarbonize.
The IGU documents outlining its public messaging strategy suggest those concerns may be founded.
“The bridging argument might have made sense 30 years ago. Now, we’re running out of time,” said Harrison.
In an email, FortisBC spokesperson Sean Beardow said the company is committed to a “diversified pathway to a lower-carbon future that benefits from the electric and gas systems working in concert.”
When asked whether FortisBC directly adopted IGU’s public messaging playbook, Beardow said any similarities were “because they have reached similar conclusions as we have.”
“That transitioning to a lower-carbon energy landscape will take a range of low-carbon energy options and practical solutions,” the FortisBC spokesperson said.
Tailored messaging for every corner of the world
The documents break down a messaging playbook for every region of the world, tailoring messaging around the promotion of gas based on the “environmental-consciousness” of the market.
In Europe, the narrative includes promoting the “greening of gas” by redefining it to include other alternative gases — such as renewable gas — without a fossil fuel background.
In South America, Africa and parts of Asia, IGU suggested a public narrative that focuses on using the UN Sustainable Development Goals to “broaden the terms of the energy and climate debate” and focus on energy poverty and clean air.
The North American playbook, meanwhile, includes messaging stating Canada and the U.S. will become exporters of LNG and that gas will become more affordable than electricity as prices climb.
Overseas, the IGU says its North American members should advance the idea that LNG exports “must grow” to provide electricity to millions of people while significantly reducing GHGs and deadly air pollution. Canada is highlighted as playing a key role in developing new LNG production alongside other major producers like Russia, the U.S., Iran and China.
For the domestic North American market, the IGU recommends members should tout gas’s “essential” role in ensuring energy security and “balancing the intermittency of renewables.”
Members should also highlight methane reductions programs, increased efficiency and new technology that will help the gas industry “play a vital role delivering a cleaner environment to the region,” suggest the documents.
Unlike gasoline or oil, however, LNG can inadvertently vent into the surrounding environment without combusting. When it leaks into the atmosphere, the methane-heavy gas produces a greenhouse effect more than 80 times more potent than carbon dioxide over a 20-year period.
Methane emissions have steadily risen across the planet since 2007. By 2020, nearly 7.5 per cent of Canada’s greenhouse gas output came from fugitive methane emissions in the oil and gas sector, according to a national inventory.
But those numbers could be way off. One recent report found errors in the way fugitive methane emissions are being tracked and suggests current estimates are under-reported and should be over 90 per cent higher.
Through those fugitive emissions, even renewable natural gas could prove "climate intensive,” one 2020 study suggests.
Russian playbook replicated after invasion
A 2021 IGU document shows the industry group predicted and tried to prepare for what they describe as a “black swan event upending (the) global political agenda” between 2022 and 2025.
Before February 2022, InfluenceMap says IGU’s global playbook framed LNG from Russia as a source of “secure energy” that would reduce air pollution.
Then Russia launched a full-scale invasion of Ukraine, and in the months after, Europe scrambled to find alternatives to Russian fossil fuels so it could power its factories and heat its homes. That’s when InfluenceMap says it tracked the IGU applying the same narrative it had suggested to promote Russian gas — only this time, for the entire global LNG industry.
To advance the gas industry's secure energy narrative, the IGU strategy documents suggest targeting key global institutions, such as the United Nations, World Bank and the International Monetary Fund, among others.
These organizations, note the IGU documents, are “critically important, as they can be influential in the fuel choice that countries make.”
Harrison says the arguments about gas as an emissions reduction strategy for North America sound like “ancient history” since the passing of the U.S. Inflation Reduction Act, a climate bill she said is driving the country's markets away from gas.
Still, she says, coal, oil and gas are fighting to defend their businesses, using whatever arguments resonate in a given context.
“In Canada, it’s LNG doing the world a favour and, lately, that Canadian LNG can replace dictator energy from Russia,” said the climate expert.
But there are two big problems, she added: one, gas production and the operation of LNG terminals will significantly increase emissions in Canada, and two, the projects are predicated on a level of global gas consumption that assumes the Paris agreement will fail.
“The industry never talks about what level of global warming corresponds to the level of global consumption they’re counting on,” Harrison said.
Even with all its lobbing history, however, Harrison says she did not expect the level of industry coordination shown in the documents.
“In some ways, it's not surprising. We’ve seen the oil and gas industry fight with whatever they can,” she said.
“These documents suggest they may actually have a playbook.”