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The propane industry attempts to change the perception of their fuel by marketing it as renewable, also known as "greenwashing."
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The propane industry attempts to change the perception of their fuel by marketing it as renewable, also known as “greenwashing.”

This article is a joint publication with Heated.

Members of a propane industry lobbying group strategized to downplay the full climate impacts of propane and market it as “renewable” or “clean energy”, recordings reviewed by the climate newsletter Heated and the Guardian reveal.

According to information gathered by Drilled, a reporting project focused on holding the fossil fuel industry accountable for climate change, the Propane Education & Research Council (Perc), a US lobbying organization, has used approximately $30 million for advertising efforts in the past two years. These advertisements frequently promote propane, which is primarily derived from natural gas or crude oil refining, as a sustainable and eco-friendly energy source.

However, during a public meeting in November 2022 that was recorded by the Energy and Policy Institute, members of the Perc board admitted that the characterization was incorrect.

A field of vegetation with a pro-propane ad superimposed on top of it.

A member of the Perc board, whose identity remains unknown, stated that a significant portion of millennials and gen Z individuals view natural gas as a renewable resource. Although this may not reflect the truth, it is a common belief. We can capitalize on this perception by promoting the use of propane.

According to Perc board member Leslie Woodward, it is not accurate to claim that natural gas is a renewable resource.

The unknown board member reiterated, “Perception.”

According to Erin Hatcher, the senior vice-president of communications and marketing at Perc, it is important for propane to be seen as a form of clean energy. In a recorded statement, she expressed that the company does not want to be associated with coal, but rather to be considered a part of the clean energy category.

According to Hatcher’s comments to Heated and the Guardian, she does not remember making any remarks about incorrectly identifying propane as a renewable source. She also expressed concern about the negative perception surrounding all types of fuel.

The statement reads: “There is no intention to deceive. It is meant to inform, as the common belief portrayed by the media is that there is only one solution for a sustainable future, which we do not agree with.” Woodward did not reply to comment requests, and Hatcher stated she could not name the other members of the board who spoke at the meeting.

A 17-fold increase in ‘greenwashing’ advertising

In order to achieve a stable climate, experts suggest that global energy systems must reach a point where greenhouse gas emissions are completely offset by the year 2050. According to the United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, this will necessitate a significant decrease in the overall use of fossil fuels.

Propane is a type of fossil fuel that is often converted into a liquid for heating and cooking purposes. It is typically derived from natural gas or crude oil processing, but it can also be produced from non-fossil sources such as plant, seed, and animal oils. Currently, only a small percentage (0.04%) of propane is obtained from these alternative sources, according to the EPA and the US Energy Information Administration.

2 emissions from propane combustion will

Unfortunately, both traditional and renewable forms of propane emit carbon dioxide and other harmful emissions into the environment. While propane derived from plants or cooking oil is considered renewable, it still contributes to the release of harmful fossil fuels. The US Energy Information Administration reports that propane derived from fossil fuels emits less carbon than coal or diesel when used as fuel, but more than natural gas. It is estimated that in the year 2022, there will be a significant amount of carbon dioxide emissions from the combustion of propane.2

Propane emissions in the US make up a small portion of total carbon emissions compared to other fossil fuels. However, this is due to the lower consumption of propane in the US, not because propane itself is cleaner.

However, Perc has dedicated a significant amount of money towards a long-term plan to rename propane as a “clean” form of energy, despite its classification as a polluting fossil fuel. As reported by Drilled, Perc’s yearly advertising budget has significantly increased from $1.7 million in 2021 to almost $30 million in 2022-23.

According to data from Drilled, Perc purchased advertisements promoting the potential of propane as a clean energy source on 450 different media platforms in 2022 and 2023. This included spending over $9 million on YouTube channels, including YouTube Kids, $4.7 million on Fox News, $2.6 million on Southern Living, $1.5 million on NBC, $979,000 on USA Today, and $746,000 on ESPN.

According to a spokesperson from Google, the parent company of YouTube, the company prohibits advertisements that reject the reality of climate change or suggest that humans and greenhouse gases have no impact on global warming. However, they clarified that other climate-related subjects, such as promoting different energy sources, are not restricted by this policy.

Requests for comment were not answered by Fox News, Southern Living, NBC, USA Today and ESPN.

Clean energy and misinformation experts are worried about the rise in ad spending, as they believe Perc’s statements, as reported by Heated and the Guardian, are misleading. They state that propane is not a sustainable source of energy and cannot be considered clean energy. Additionally, they argue that the idea of renewable propane as a viable solution to climate change is not feasible or scalable.

According to Wren Montgomery, an associate professor of sustainability at Western University, the fossil fuel industry has excelled at one thing in recent decades: greenwashing. Their latest attempt at this is promoting propane as a form of “clean energy.”

According to Charlie Spatz, the research manager at the Energy and Policy Institute who was present at Perc’s 2022 board meeting, the fossil fuel industry has been attempting to market its products as renewable for a long time. However, Spatz believes that Perc has followed suit with the oil and natural gas industry by promoting their product as renewable, even though it is currently not widely accessible to consumers.

According to Hatcher from Perc, there is no completely clean energy source. She explains that all energy sources involve some level of carbon, whether it be in the production of a solar panel, wind turbine, or dam.

Hatcher clarified that while Perc may refer to propane as “renewable” in their marketing, she does not consider it to be truly renewable energy. She acknowledged that propane is derived from fossil fuels and does not want to misrepresent its source.

When questioned about the environmental impact of propane compared to wind or solar energy, Hatcher responded with a clear “No.”

According to Perc, it is crucial that we win over millennials or we will face difficulties in the future.

In July of 2021, Perc shared a private video expressing concerns about the impact of electrification and promoting the use of propane as a clean energy option for all.

The rebranding was done with the goal of appealing to a different demographic for propane: individuals who are concerned about the climate emergency. In 2022, Perc shared data from market research that showed a considerable amount of environmentally-aware millennials had favorable views towards the fuel.

During the Perc’s annual meeting in November 2022 in Destin, Florida, Hatcher brought up the possibility that some people may not be aware of where propane comes from. She shared findings from a survey of 1,000 adults in the US, which revealed that only 3% identified propane as a fossil fuel, despite the fact that it is mostly derived from fossil sources. When questioned by Heated and the Guardian, Hatcher contested the accuracy of the 97% statistic mentioned in the recording, but did not provide the marketing survey she referenced in her presentation.

The only issue was that, even though propane was generally viewed positively, only 9% of those surveyed by Perc considered it to be a renewable energy source, according to Hatcher. As a result, Perc’s board members deliberated on a plan to promote propane from sustainable sources, in addition to the traditional fossil fuel-derived propane.

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Hatcher stated that once individuals recognize the dual benefits of propane as a low carbon and renewable fuel, it can potentially shift their perspective on this energy source and its positive environmental implications.

Another unnamed member of the Perc board disagreed with Hatcher during the meeting. He stated, “When people search for propane on Google and learn that it is a fossil fuel, almost all of them will be immediately deterred from using propane, regardless of whether it is renewable or not.”

“If we fail to win them over, we’re in deep trouble,” stated Hatcher. “We’re in serious trouble. Therefore, we must persuade them to support us and inform them about the advantages of using propane.”

According to energy experts, Perc’s belief that propane has a lower climate impact than methane gas is incorrect.

According to Nikita Pavlenko, the program lead at the International Council on Clean Transportation, this fossil fuel falls somewhere between natural gas and diesel and is not the least damaging in terms of greenhouse gas emissions.

A man looks at the camera with the text ‘clean, renewable and accelerates decarbonization’

Display the image in full screen mode.

While propane is often considered a “renewable” energy source, it is not completely carbon-free like solar or wind energy. It does still release carbon dioxide, although in smaller quantities compared to propane made from oil or gas. Additionally, it is not as widely available as Perc claims. The EPA reports that the production of “renewable” propane in the US is very low, only about 4.5 million gallons in 2022. In comparison, the US Energy Information Administration states that about 12.7 billion gallons of propane were derived from fossil fuels in the same year.

According to Pavlenko, it is common for companies to make promises about renewable natural gas or renewable propane. However, they rarely have to actually produce it and often take minimal steps to secure a supply.

The current production of propane from camelina, the eco-friendly substitute highlighted in numerous Perc advertisements, such as in the New York Times, is minimal. According to Pavlenko, there are numerous claims about camelina’s potential as a source for biofuel, but very little of it is actually being processed at present. He added, “Camelina is primarily a concept at this stage.” (The small amount of camelina propane produced in the United States is classified as “other” feedstocks by agencies that gather information on alternative fuels.)

The Times representative stated that the paper does not allow intentionally misleading, deceptive, or false advertising. According to media tracking data from Drilled and evaluated by Heated and the Guardian, Perc paid the Times over $163,000 for ads from 2022 to 2023. Hatcher refers to these figures as “estimates”.

According to experts, Perc’s assertions that propane is a “clean energy” source, eco-friendly and crucial in achieving “zero carbon emissions” are merely attempts at greenwashing.

Perc’s goal to change their branding in 2024

However, Perc is intensifying its attempts to redefine propane as eco-friendly by 2024.

According to documents examined by Heated and the Guardian, Perc plans to boost its advertising budget to $12.8m in the upcoming year in order to target new audiences, specifically homeowners who are “eco-inclined.” This reported budget does not include the $6.4m allocated for “environmental campaigns” or $1.3m for “thought leadership.” As part of this budget, Perc will be compensating at least 15 influencers, including popular hosts from HGTV home improvement shows and celebrity chefs. Additionally, Perc will be implementing new marketing strategies, such as advertising during AccuWeather severe weather alerts.

Perc is not only directing this language towards consumers, but also crafting it for legislators who hold the authority to regulate and ultimately eliminate the use of fossil fuels. According to Faye Holder, program manager at InfluenceMap, this approach has been effectively employed by the natural gas industry for many years.

Holder stated that the phrases “clean gas” and “gas is lower emissions” are frequently utilized in marketing and lobbying efforts to sway policy decisions in favor of gas, even though such policies may pose a threat to the gas industry.

According to Holder, this advertisement is highly deceptive to consumers. Labeling fossil gas as a green solution to climate change is false information and therefore should not be believed.

Hatcher expressed annoyance with individuals who do not share Perc’s vision for a future where coal and diesel are replaced by propane, in order to address the issue of climate change. In multiple interviews, she emphasized their goal of being a contributing factor to the solution.

However, if the resolution to addressing climate change entails phasing out the use of fossil fuels completely, as supported by scientific consensus, Hatcher is uncertain about the specific timeframe. “Is it feasible to exist without propane? It is a possibility,” she stated. “When exactly? That remains unknown.”

  • On 26 January 2024, this article was revised to specify that “renewable” propane is a contributor to carbon dioxide emissions.

Source: theguardian.com