This story has been updated.
The American Gas Association, or AGA, the gas industry’s most powerful trade group, says it supports energy efficiency. The AGA frequently advertises how much its member utilities spend on energy efficiency programs.* The group has made a public commitment to “encourage and support energy efficiency” as part of its climate change strategy. “One of the most effective means to reduce emissions is through energy efficiency and our industry is doing its part,” AGA CEO Karen Harbert wrote in an op-ed for Earth Day this year.
But in federal rulemakings, the AGA is fighting the prospect of getting more efficient natural gas heating equipment on the market. Recent comments that the industry group submitted to the Department of Energy argue against new efficiency standards for gas-powered boilers.
Increasing the adoption of appliances, cars, and industrial machinery that use less energy is a key strategy for cutting emissions over the next decade, according to the International Energy Agency’s recent roadmap to net-zero. Efficient appliances save customers money and can potentially save lives by reducing strain on the power grid during fatal heat waves and cold fronts. And since the odds of passing strong climate legislation through Congress are not looking good, the Department of Energy’s mandate to set efficiency standards is one of the few climate tools at President Joe Biden’s disposal.
The federal government is required to review efficiency standards for certain appliances and equipment every six years and decide whether to raise the minimum bar manufacturers have to hit to put a product on the market. In March, the Department of Energy took the first step in that process for boilers, which burn natural gas to generate steam or hot water for heating, by issuing a public request for information on raising the standard.
Boilers have been around for more than 100 years, but modern boiler efficiency varies considerably. Comments submitted by the Appliance Standards Awareness Project, a coalition of groups that works to win stronger standards, show there are dozens of models that are at least 10 percent more efficient than the existing standard. And since these appliances last for decades, every inefficient boiler sold locks in more emissions.
“If someone’s going to install a gas appliance, you want it to be as efficient as possible,” said Andrew deLaski, executive director of the coalition, “because it’s going to be around for a long time.”
But in a joint comment submitted to the Department of Energy with the American Public Gas Association, which represents publicly owned utilities, and a Missouri-based gas utility called Spire, the AGA argued that new federal efficiency standards “do not appear to be economically justified,” and could even be illegal.
“There appears to be a big difference between these organizations’ public declarations of support for energy efficiency and their less-publicized lobbying against more ambitious energy standards,” said Alex Cranston, an analyst with the corporate watchdog InfluenceMap.
AGA told Grist that its comments were “based on current natural gas pricing information projections,” and that “it is unlikely new standards would be determined economically justified and consumers will receive less value from efficiency improvements.”
However, some of AGA’s member utilities, like Pacific Gas and Electric in California, submitted comments supporting higher efficiency standards, arguing they would “yield significant cost and energy savings for end-users.”
Ultimately, if the Department of Energy proceeds with a rulemaking, it will determine whether or not a stricter standard is cost-justified as part of that process.
The AGA’s stance is not new. In 2018, it worked with the same partners to petition the Trump administration to issue a rule that essentially prevents future administrations from adopting new standards.
The legal strategy behind that petition centers on a technological quirk: The most efficient furnaces and boilers on the market use “condensing” technology, which allows them to capture heat from the appliance’s exhaust stream. But installing one of these systems often requires putting in a new exhaust pipe and some plumbing. The industry argues that it would be unlawful to phase out non-condensing products and essentially require people who buy a new boiler or furnace to alter their homes, and convinced the Trump administration to put condensing products in a separate product class.
The Biden administration will have to repeal this so-called “interpretive rule” in order to pass new standards for furnaces or boilers. DeLaski said there haven’t been substantial changes to the furnace standards in decades. The Appliance Standards Awareness Project estimates that a new boiler standard could reduce U.S. emissions by about 3 million metric tons of CO2 per year by 2050, and a new furnace standard could save about 17 million metric tons, since they are more common. The group expects Biden to initiate a process for new furnace rules soon.
DeLaski said the AGA’s comments weren’t surprising, given its history of fighting efficiency standards, but he questioned whether the group could maintain its antagonistic stance to stricter standards if it wants to survive. The AGA has actively fought local climate policies that encourage people to switch to electric heating appliances called heat pumps, which don’t have any direct emissions and can run on renewable energy. The natural gas industry argues that electrification is too expensive, and that gas heating can be a part of a low-carbon future. But for that to happen, gas appliances will have to actually emit less carbon.
“If they want to control the future they probably should stop just saying no, and work on how to make their products as absolutely energy efficient as possible,” said deLaski.
* An earlier version of this story stated that the AGA was a member of the Alliance to Save Energy, a bipartisan nonprofit that advocates for stronger federal energy efficiency policy. The AGA is no longer an associate member of that organization.