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Big Agriculture and Big Oil Join Forces to Lobby for Clean Energy Credits

Companies are working to convince policymakers that so-called “renewable natural gas” should get government subsidies.

Environmental groups warn that if energy generated from burning biomethane gas qualifies for government subsidies, it could prolong dependence on polluting fossil fuels.

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A gas industry trade association has hired a batch of revolving-door lobbyists as it works to convince policymakers that biomethane gas produced by factory farms should be eligible for renewable energy tax credits.

Environmental groups warn that if energy generated from burning biomethane gas qualifies for government subsidies that are now being developed, it could prop up gas company infrastructure and prolong dependence on polluting fossil fuels.

Last month, trade association the Coalition for Renewable Natural Gas hired four lobbyists with the bipartisan lobbying firm Cogent Strategies, according to a Senate disclosure released on January 12. The new hands will lobby on “issues related to sustainable development, deployment and utilization of renewable natural gas.”

Also known as the RNG Coalition, the trade group counts hundreds of member companies, encompassing fossil fuel giants like BP, Chevron, and Shell, as well as gas companies like Air Liquide. Other members include Cargill, the largest U.S. agricultural company by revenue, mammoth utility companies NextEra Energy and Southern Company, and pipeline firms Enbridge and Kinder Morgan.

The term RNG, also called biomethane, refers to gas from organic matter, composed primarily of methane, that is captured from sources like landfills, sewage treatment plants, and manure pits on farms and processed to higher standards. Industry groups like the RNG Coalition and the American Gas Association promote biomethane as a lower-carbon energy source, one that captures methane emissions and that can be integrated into existing gas systems.

Many climate advocates and energy analysts, however, recommend only a niche role for biomethane in decarbonization, as many of its proposed uses—for electricity generation, hydrogen fuel production, and building heat—can be realized with policies that promote wind and solar power. Burning biomethane releases carbon dioxide and its methane leakage rates could be as high as 15%, according to a new report from advocacy group Food & Water Watch. Researchers at the nonprofit World Resources Institute see a limited role for biomethane in decarbonizing industries where electrification poses challenges, like making fuel for heavy trucking, in contrast to the widespread applications envisioned by industry groups.

Some offices in the Biden administration have charted a path to 100% carbon pollution-free electricity. In May, the Department of Energy’s Office of Policy released a report that laid out “ten key all-of-society actions” that would be needed to achieve a renewably-generated power sector by 2035, including transmission and energy efficiency investments.

One of the new lobbyists for the industry group is Cogent managing director Andrew Kauders, who the firm bills as a veteran Hill leadership staffer. Kauders worked in 2006 as executive director of the House Democratic Caucus, a group that develops political and legislative strategies. During the Clinton administration, Kauders worked as the spokesperson for the Department of Agriculture and with the White House Climate Change Task Force.

Another is the firm’s vice president Taylor McCarty Hoover, who from 2021 into mid-2023, according to her LinkedIn profile, worked as communications director for the House Committee on Agriculture. Prior to that, McCarty Hoover was communications director for the Republican House member who now chairs the Ag Committee, Rep. Glenn “GT” Thompson (Pa.). In the 2022 election cycle, when Republicans retook control of the House, Thompson received the most in donations from the agribusiness sector of any House member, according to OpenSecrets, with nearly a million dollars.

What Counts as Low-Carbon

Climate groups like the Union of Concerned Scientists and Earthjustice argue that subsidizing biomethane would undermine the goals of clean energy investment, including by incentivizing factory farms that could end up increasing greenhouse gas emissions.

“Oil and gas companies have been pouring money into biomethane in recent years—and now they’re lobbying to make sure those investments pay off,” said Julie McNamara, deputy policy director with the Climate & Energy program at the Union of Concerned Scientists. “One of their key aims is to secure policy frameworks that establish biomethane as a pollution offsetting scheme, thereby enabling a perpetuation of investments in fossil fuel systems while delaying the need for real, direct reductions in fossil fuel use.”

More than $1.6 billion in investment had gone into biomethane projects since 2017, according to research firm AcuComm in a 2022 article. The importance of captured methane to the fossil fuel industry is a relatively new development: Food & Water Watch’s report found that before 2017, the companies BP, Chevron, and Shell had never used the term “biogas” or “renewable natural gas” in their corporate sustainability reports.

Some industry research holds that at most, processed biomethane could replace 16% of fossil gas used, while Canary Media says other studies have found it to be less.

The gas industry’s rush into biomethane projects was spurred by California’s Low Carbon Fuel Standard (LCFS), a policy that created lucrative tax credits for fuel produced with power that was deemed “carbon-negative” after being captured from dairy farms. The RNG Coalition also regularly lobbies the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), Department of Agriculture, White House Office, and Congress on the issue of the Renewable Fuel Standard. With 31 states offering subsidies for biomethane projects, oil giants and the RNG Coalition have been touting their plans for “RNG” as a “clean, green” fuel.

The Inflation Reduction Act (IRA), enacted in August 2022, established billions of dollars in tax credits to support the production of clean energy, generated with lower greenhouse gas emissions than current methods. According to a blog post by law and lobbying firm Womble Bond Dickinson, the biogas industry “stands to benefit tremendously from the legislation,” in large part because a Section 48 investment tax credit was expanded to include qualified biogas facilities that begin construction before 2025. A much-awaited regulatory proposal that the Internal Revenue Service released last month kicked off a further comment period on the question of how the government will calculate emissions rates around hydrogen fuel produced with RNG energy.

Lobbying for Clean Energy Tax Credits

Since the IRA was signed into law, the RNG Coalition has submitted several regulatory comments to the EPA and the IRS on rules for hydrogen fuel tax incentives. In an August letter, the coalition’s director of federal government affairs, Geoffrey Dietz, urged the EPA administrator to broadly include RNG in its plans to decarbonize the power sector. One section from the letter seeking an expansive definition of energy feedstock used to make hydrogen fuel states, “EPA must make clear that low-GHG [greenhouse gas] hydrogen includes that derived from RNG.” The RNG Coalition’s letter also endorses an accounting method known as “book-and-claim” that would allow companies to purchase carbon-negative offsets from biomethane providers. Many environmental groups have urged the Treasury Department to exclude “book-and-claim” accounting from the tax credit program.

McNamara emphasized that biomethane sources like factory farms bring environmental harms to nearby communities that extend beyond simply capturing methane emitted. “When it comes to policies around the use of biomethane, the very first priority should be avoiding the practices that lead to its creation in the first place, and the second should be avoiding unintentionally incentivizing more of it,” McNamara said.

Dylan Chase, an RNG Coalition spokesperson, told Sludge, “While the urgency of climate change prompts many to frame policy issues from an ‘us versus them’ perspective, RNG Coalition is in fact aligned with most climate and environmental groups on a shared vision of a future far less dependent on fossil fuels. Regrettably, however, RNG’s climate benefits are sometimes overlooked by those advocating for an electrification-and-nothing approach.”

Chase pointed to a 2021 report from California’s Legislative Analyst’s Office stating that all projects in the Dairy Digester Research and Development Program are estimated to provide “significant GHG reductions,” though the report states that the estimated reductions “likely are overstated.” Climate and environmental groups recently panned the state’s rules for its double- or triple-counting of offsets, while carbon dioxide from fuel generated is still being released into the atmosphere.

Chase said that the RNG Coalition’s members also include more than 20 universities, dozens of independently-owned biomethane developers, and companies in the energy, food and beverage, and waste management industries.

“Considering that RNG can replace fossil gas anywhere it is used, debate over best end uses may continue, but our industry is focused in the short-term on fighting for policies that incentivize the capture of methane emissions to which everyone in society contributes,” Chase said. “Long-term, as our gas system compresses amid softer demand and widespread electrification, bio-derived methane can also be routed responsibly toward hydrogen and numerous other end uses in hard-to-decarbonize sectors.”

In the regulations now being finalized, a major focus of comment from climate groups is that subsidizing biomethane projects could bolster fossil fuel industry incumbents and waste public funding on polluting infrastructure that leaks methane. McNamara said that the proposed regulations released in December 2023 by the Treasury and IRS look to align with the goals of generating energy free of carbon emissions and scaling up renewable electricity sources.

“In the recently proposed implementation guidance for the clean hydrogen production tax credit, the Biden administration raised numerous questions and concerns about the appropriate treatment of biomethane, including how best to design safeguards to defend against perverse outcomes as well as how best to implement the policy to ensure accuracy of emissions accounting,” McNamara said. “This is a critical step by the administration, rejecting an outright acceptance of fossil fuel industry calls for setting biomethane up as a pollution offset. The key now will be to ensure the administration holds the line as it finalizes the policy in the time ahead.”

The RNG Coalition’s revenue jumped to a new high in 2022, according to its tax return, surpassing $9.9 million. Of the more than $600,000 that the trade association reported spending on lobbying that year, some $370,000 was at the federal level, according to records compiled by OpenSecrets, leaving the remainder at state and other levels of government. In California, the RNG Coalition retains lobbyists at the prominent Sacramento firm Sloat Higgins Jensen, whose other clients include Chevron and utility PG&E.

The coalition’s hires at the end of the year replenished the trade group’s lobbying corps, after a dip in its federal lobbying spending in 2023. Since 2017, one of the RNG Coalition’s lobbyists in D.C. has been Anne Steckel, a principal at Ardent Strategies, who was formerly chief of staff to Rep. Mike Thompson (D-Calif.), a member of the conservative Blue Dog Coalition. Steckel’s other lobbying clients include the Pilot Flying J chain of gas stations and the industry group Low Carbon Fuels Coalition, whose members include Boeing, American Airlines, and UPS.

Another trade group, the American Biogas Council, is on pace to spend a record high amount on federal lobbying this year, according to OpenSecrets. The group’s leaders include employees of Air Liquide, BP, Cargill, Enbridge, and Shell. The American Gas Association (AGA), a trade group with tens of millions of dollars in annual revenue, ramped up its federal lobbying spending in 2023 over the year before. In several filings last year, the AGA lobbied Congress, the Treasury, and the IRS on the implementation of hydrogen fuel policy and tax credits from the IRA.

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