Man's face and hazy skyline

The Columbus Dispatch ran an op-ed by Tim Ryan — the former Ohio Congressman now employed at a fossil fuel industry-backed organization — on July 24. Ryan asserted that expanding our use of natural gas is necessary for accelerating progress toward climate goals. If we care about a livable future on this planet, we will heed the warnings of nature over the false claims of the fossil fuel industry.

Before assessing the content of Ryan’s piece, it’s important to consider the source. Ryan’s organization, Natural Allies for a Clean Energy Future, is dedicated to rebranding natural gas as “clean energy” and is supported by at least six major fossil fuel companies. An expose in the Guardian reveals that the organization’s mission is pitched directly at improving the gas industry’s embattled image to maintain political support. Internal strategy documents indicate that the organization views its goal as “redefin[ing] the role of natural gas in fighting climate change” in order to “protect the social license to operate.” Through this organization, the gas industry cynically aims to “message to the left and the Democratic base of Black and Latino and age 18-34 voters as effectively as we have messaged to the right.” The organization’s efforts began in 2020 in New York and Pennsylvania. Ryan’s new career there began in January of this year, marking Natural Allies’ further march westward through states gripped by the fracking industry.

Ryan’s op-ed begins with a sentence that is incontestably true: “Climate change is real, and it’s a global problem that demands the utmost urgency.” Indeed, evidence of this growing urgency is all around us — including in the very air we breathe. So it is unfortunate that Ryan immediately descends into outrageous distortion of the facts in the next two sentences: “As we race against the clock, the argument shouldn’t just be over fuels, but what achieves our climate reduction goals as quickly as possible. Natural gas has proven it can be deployed quickly to break the world’s addiction to coal and drive down global emissions.”

In reality, if we are committed to climate targets, there is no argument to be had about which energy sources deserve a future. The primary internationally recognized climate goal is to halt global warming at 1.5 degrees Celsius above the pre-industrial average temperature, a target established nearly a decade ago in the 2015 Paris agreement. 1.5 C is not just a number — it is a threshold past which destructive climate impacts start to become potentially catastrophic ones. While years of inaction have rendered this goal nearly unattainable, expert consensus indicates that getting anywhere close to it is incompatible with any new fossil fuel development whatsoever — including natural gas.

A 2022 report by the International Institute for Sustainable Development found a “large consensus” across all published studies that developing new oil and gas fields is “incompatible” with the 1.5 C target. An earlier 2021 report by the International Energy Agency, a body historically criticized for downplaying the potential of renewable energy, found no place for oil and gas development in its pathway to 1.5 C. Although burning gas may emit less carbon than coal (not a very high bar to clear!), switching from coal to gas still emits too much for our weakened climate system to bear without radically destabilizing effects. As if this weren’t enough reason to ditch gas, some studies also suggest that much of its purported reduction in climate emissions are wiped out by leakage of methane during the production process.

This is enough to close the climate case against natural gas, but Ryan’s other arguments don’t hold up to scrutiny either. It’s true, as he writes, that we currently lack the supply chain and electricity transmission infrastructure necessary for a power grid based around wind and solar. But the buildout of this infrastructure can be dramatically accelerated through public investments like the Inflation Reduction Act, which Ryan himself voted for in Congress. 

Ryan also argues, ironically, that natural gas reduces America’s vulnerability to foreign rivals because renewable energy requires rare earth minerals produced in China. It’s important to address this because “energy security” is a common gas industry talking point. This belies the fact that natural gas leaves American households even more vulnerable to the whims of petro-states like Russia. This was demonstrated recently by the major spike in residential energy bills caused by American gas producers rushing to sell to more profitable European export markets in the wake of bans on Russian gas during the invasion of Ukraine. No particular energy source can totally protect a country from vulnerabilities to the volatile capitalist world system. What separates natural gas from renewable energy in this regard is not a reduced vulnerability to international tensions, but the fact that the American gas industry is able to exploit international crises for huge profits.

Indeed, this is just how we should see gas industry promotion like Ryan’s — a desperate cash grab that targets a world in crisis. The fracking technology used by the American oil and gas industry has historically failed to turn any profit, resulting in a steady wave of corporate bankruptcies. Now, after nearly a decade of heavy losses and debt, Russia’s invasion has enabled American oil and gas producers to finally start paying back their investors. But these companies understand just how tenuous their newfound success really is. They face threats from the impending depletion of viable shale oil and gas reserves, competition from cheaper and cleaner wind and solar power, and growing levels of public concern about climate change, particularly among young people. They sense their days are numbered, and they are going on defense.

Since the advent of fracking, oil and gas has long called the shots with minimal resistance in Ohio politics. But its current challenges seem to have spurred it to grow a politically liberal public face on the other side of its conservative one. In January, Governor Mike DeWine signed legislation that required fracking in state parks and falsely redefined natural gas as “green energy” — legislation pushed by a shadowy national gas industry campaign to improve its image for investors, which comes with the bonus of newly accessible gas reserves. Widespread outrage and opposition from the public and environmental organizations ensued.

Now Ryan’s article, pushing the same “green energy” line, comes just weeks after companies have entered the first bids for fracking leases in parks and wildlife areas. With this, Ohioans are provided the assurance that the coming ecological destruction of our state and the planet will take place in a bipartisan fashion. We should not take this as cause for comfort.

Joseph Glandorf writes from Marble Cliff and works in the nonprofit sector in Columbus. He can be reached via email at