Ahead of the Midterms, Energy Lobbyists Plan for a Republican House

WASHINGTON — Oil and gas industry lobbyists, anticipating that Republicans could take control of the House in the midterm elections, are already working behind the scenes on Capitol Hill to push back against what they consider the Biden administration’s anti-fossil-fuel agenda.

The American Gas Association is helping to lead the charge, taking aim in particular at a program that encourages homeowners to replace furnaces and stoves that use natural gas with electric-powered devices in the name of fighting climate change.

A top lobbyist at the powerful trade association told other gas industry executives at a conference late last month that the organization was preparing to team up with House Republicans to intensify oversight of the Energy Department, recalling Obama-era investigations by Republicans in Congress into Solyndra, a solar panel company that went bankrupt after receiving a federal loan guarantee.

Their hope is to undercut a $4.5 billion program that will give rebates worth as much as $14,000 per household to low- and moderate-income families to install electric-powered heat pumps, water heaters, induction stoves and other devices that would in many cases replace appliances that use natural gas.

The program is intended to improve air quality and reduce carbon emissions from burning natural gas. But the gas industry considers it a major threat that could lead millions of families to drop natural gas as a home-heating source.

The maneuvering by the lobbyists is an early example of how the influence industry is beginning to develop new strategies for the possibility that one or both chambers in Congress come under Republican control after the midterms.

With polling suggesting that Republicans have an especially good chance of capturing the House, trade associations, lobbyists and other special interests are honing plans to shape legislation and oversight to their advantage.

“Republicans are expected to retake the House of Representatives, and they are champing at the bit to do some oversight to try to change the law where they can,” Allison Cunningham, the gas association’s top lobbyist, said at a conference in Minneapolis with other gas industry executives last month, according to a recording of the event.

Representative Bill Johnson, Republican of Ohio and a member of the Energy and Commerce Committee, said in an interview that he had been discussing the issues with the gas industry. He said he was eager to try to elevate them in the new Congress starting in January.

“We are supposed to be looking at energy efficiency, not social re-engineering,” said Mr. Johnson, who represents a part of rural southeastern Ohio that is a major source of natural gas. “This is an attempt by the department to pursue a rush to green agenda under the guise of efficiency standards.”

Nationally, environmentalists and the gas industry are already engaged in an intense confrontation over whether cities and states should take steps to push homeowners to move away from natural gas.

The shift is already underway: Natural gas was a primary source of heating in 46 percent of the nation’s households in the most recent Energy Department survey in 2020, down from 49 percent in 2015.

The natural gas industry has been aggressively fighting back, lobbying in support of legislation passed in at least 21 states that limits local governments from imposing bans on the installation of gas-fueled appliances in new homes, a development taking place in New York City and dozens of communities in California.

Lauren Urbanek, a deputy director at the Natural Resources Defense Council, which has pushed the shift away from natural gas, said she was not surprised the fossil fuel industry was preparing to team up with Republicans in Congress to push back.

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“They are definitely not looking out for American consumers,” she said. “This is really about making sure they continue to exist as an industry.”

Richard Meyer, a vice president at the American Gas Association, disputed the criticism, saying the rebate program is flawed because households can get money simply by buying electric appliances, even if they do not improve energy efficiency in their homes. The industry also argues that gas heat, particularly in very cold regions, can be less expensive on a monthly basis, an assertion that renewable-power advocates dispute.

In addition to the rebate program — which is intended to encourage switching to electric appliances by offering consumers an incentive — the gas industry is challenging a separate Biden administration proposal that would mandate much tougher energy efficiency standards in natural-gas-fueled furnaces.

The proposal, called the Energy Conservation Standards for Consumer Furnaces, would effectively ban new installations of traditional furnaces that wasted a sizable amount of the natural gas they burned when making heat.

Instead, property owners would be required to buy more expensive 95 percent efficient gas-fueled units or switch away from gas entirely by buying an electric-powered heat pump or other electric-powered furnace.

The Energy Department argues that this furnace efficiency rule alone would save consumers $30 billion over three decades and eliminate more than 363 million tons of carbon emissions, which cause climate change, estimates that the gas association says are flawed because of “significant methodological and data flaws.”

The American Gas Association also argues that certain older homes, especially in lower-income neighborhoods, will not be able to accommodate the new vents these high-efficiency gas furnaces require. “The department is unlawfully promoting fuel switching,” the trade association argued in a comment letter sent to Energy Department this month.

The gas association has teamed up with the United States Chamber of Commerce, other gas utilities, landlord groups and even a national barbecue association to try to block the new furnace standards jointly, and it also may challenge them in federal court.

Passing legislation in the new Congress to block either the rebates or the furnace efficiency mandate is unlikely, Ms. Cunningham and Mr. Johnson said.

What is all but guaranteed if House Republicans take a majority, however, is an increase in demands from committees for documents and testimony from Energy Department officials detailing their energy efficiency efforts, including the drive to reduce the reliance on natural gas as a home-heating source, Republican lawmakers said in interviews.

Oil industry advocates are preparing to turn to House Republicans as well to pressure the Interior Department to open up more federal lands in the West for oil and gas drilling, after a major slowdown in leasing in the first nearly two years of the Biden administration.

There is almost glee in their voices when they discuss the possibility of helping draft questions for Biden administration officials, like Interior Secretary Deb Haaland, who if Republicans take control will be called to testify more frequently, and aggressively, in oversight hearings.

“She has managed to dodge questions when she’s been before a Democrat committee chair,” said Kathleen Sgamma, president of the Western Energy Alliance, an oil industry group. “I don’t think she’ll get that same treatment when the Republicans are in charge. She hasn’t really had her feet held to the fire.

House Republicans on the Energy and Commerce Committee, which oversees the Energy Department, have already kicked off this effort by sending two letters this month to Energy Secretary Jennifer M. Granholm asking for information on the agency’s loan programs and other federal funding efforts, which the Republicans again called part of a “rush to green agenda.”

These loans generally focus on much larger renewable-energy efforts, such as new battery factories planned by automakers, not on rebates to consumers converting appliances in their homes. But the Republicans are starting with these bigger-ticket programs first.

“The Republican members of the committee intend to conduct robust oversight,” Representative Frank D. Lucas, Republican of Oklahoma, wrote in a letter to Ms. Granholm this month, with eight requests for information from the Energy Department for details related to the agency’s loan program.

Raising questions about these larger-ticket loan programs is a way to put the Biden administration on the defensive, industry lobbyists said. “They are going to be looking for the next Solyndra,” Ms. Cunningham told the other gas industry executives at the industry conference last month.

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