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Op-Ed | The American Prospect | March 25, 2024

Tim Ryan’s Natural Gas Advocacy Makes a Mockery of Public Service

Climate and EnvironmentIndustry InfluenceRevolving Door
Tim Ryan’s Natural Gas Advocacy Makes a Mockery of Public Service

The former Ohio congressman is leveraging his prior career for a group backed by fossil fuel and petrochemical industry players.

This piece was originally published in The American Prospect. Read it on the original site.

If meteorologists could gauge the pressure of climate denial with their barometers, they’d surely have picked up on a remarkable atmospheric phenomenon over Houston, Texas. The annual confab of oil and gas industry executives known as CERAWeek—a safe place for fossil fuel aficionados guarded by exorbitant ticket prices and a no-entry policy for environmentalists—has just wrapped.

This year, Biden surrogates came bearing bad news for fossil fuel company executives: Climate change is real, and the energy transition is inevitable. The main target of industry ire was the Energy Department’s pause on permitting new liquefied natural gas (LNG) exports while the department conducts a public-interest review of LNG expansion.

The administration’s representatives were feeling the heat. Energy Secretary Jennifer Granholm reassured the room full of oil and gas executives that by this time next year, the pause would be “well in the rearview mirror.” Of course, that ominous signaling was hardly enough to appease her audience. The same week, 16 Republican attorneys general sued the Biden administration over the pause.

When Houston Mayor John Whitmire welcomed the conference attendees, he made a remark that could be taken either as naïve or markedly pointed. “I truly believe each and every one of you here today is a public servant,” he said. “And I think someday we’re going to be judged: What did you do with your public service?”

The former public servants at the helm of one natural gas advocacy group that held court at CERAWeek are a case study in just how far that crowd has strayed from the public interest. The group calls itself “Natural Allies for a Clean Energy Future,” and its aim is to sell Democratic constituencies and leadership on natural gas, a potent climate pollutant, as a “clean energy solution.” Its seven-figure budget comes primarily from a dozen-odd fossil fuel companies and trade associations, and it spends nearly all that money puffing up the wonders of natural gas.

Natural Allies is chaired by former Ohio Rep. Tim Ryan, who lost his Senate bid to J.D. Vance in 2022; former Louisiana Sen. Mary Landrieu, who lost her Senate seat to Bill Cassidy in 2014; former Florida Rep. Kendrick Meek, who lost his Senate bid to Marco Rubio in 2010; and former Philadelphia mayor Michael Nutter. The co-chairs, all moderate to conservative Democrats, wield their status as former public servants to lend credence to the policy arguments they’re paid by private interests to make. Natural Allies paid hundreds of thousands of dollars to Landrieu and her colleague, former Sen. Heidi Heitkamp (D-ND), in 2022 for their natural gas PR work. We’ll have to wait for the release of the group’s 2023 tax filings to know how handsomely Ryan, Meek, and Nutter are being paid.

The group has come out loudly against the LNG pause. This should be unsurprising, as every single one of the group’s fossil fuel company funders, from Williams and EQT to TC Energy and Enbridge, is involved in the LNG industry. But the sinister effectiveness of these types of organizations’ advocacy work comes from the former politicians they hire to make their case. By stacking their leadership council with former elected officials, the narrative can be spun as “Democratic leaders raise alarm” about the LNG pause, and not “advocacy group funded by LNG industry players calls for expanding LNG.”

After the Biden administration implemented the pause, Tim Ryan wrote an op-ed for The Wall Street Journal calling the pause “atrocious politics for Democrats,” framing it as “a political challenge I know personally.” The Wall Street Journal identified Ryan as a Democrat and former U.S. representative from Ohio, as well as a senior adviser to the incongruously named Progressive Policy Institute’s Campaign for Working Americans. There was no mention of his role as co-chair for a natural gas advocacy group funded by natural gas companies. This is why the revolving-door phenomenon is so pernicious; people still associate Ryan with his previous job as a former representative from Ohio even though his job now is “industry hired gun.”

It might be surprising for some to see Tim Ryan on the leadership committee of a fossil fuel organization, after once signing a pledge to take no fossil fuel money. (He did go on to break that pledge.) But Ryan’s recent career arc attests to the power of oil and gas money in politics. He went all in on natural gas to try and win the Ohio Senate seat, but the oil and gas industry poured millions into Vance’s campaign in pursuit of a Republican Senate majority. Now Ryan is working for the industry’s interests outside of Congress, while Vance is working for them inside Congress. The winners? Certainly not Ohioans.

To use but one example: Last year, we saw the devastating consequences of a train carrying hazardous chemicals derailing in East Palestine, Ohio. In the wake of that disaster, both Ryan and Vance lambasted the Biden administration for its handling of the cleanup. But both Ryan and Vance are closely aligned with the chemical industry players speaking out of both sides of their mouth on railway safety. (The chemical industry is inextricably tied to the fossil fuel industry via the over $500 billion petrochemical market, and there is major overlap in the policy priorities and trade associations of each industry.)

Tim Ryan was the number one recipient of chemical industry money in the House of Representatives in 2022. Some months after he joined the leadership council of Natural Allies, two major chemical industry lobbying groups joined Natural Allies as funding members: the American Chemistry Council and The Fertilizer Institute. Both of those groups were lobbying at the same time to delay the phaseout of the less safe models of tank cars carrying hazardous liquids.

As Julia Rock reported for The Lever, Sen. Vance “quietly amended his own legislation to delay the tank car change by years, at the request of rail supplier and chemical industry lobbyists.” After the amendment passed, “Vance touted the American Chemistry Council’s support for the bill—without mentioning that the lobbying group had backed the change to the tank car rules.” The American Chemistry Council (ACC) spent over $17 million on lobbying in 2023 on dozens of different issues, including several rail safety bills. The Fertilizer Institute (TFI) was also on board with this lobbying blitz, spending over $1.7 million in 2023 lobbying on rail safety legislation along with other issues. And TFI’s far more powerful member Koch Industries has spent nearly $200 million over the past decade lobbying against rail safety provisions.

Back in 2008, TFI and ACC pushed for longer compliance timelines for upgrading tank cars with toxic-to-inhale cargo. In 2014 and 2015, both groups advocated for a narrower definition of a high-hazard flammable train that excluded many hazardous chemicals, a definition which the Obama administration obligingly narrowed. The Trump administration further weakened the rule by rescinding the part requiring trains carrying hazardous chemicals to upgrade their braking systems. As a consequence of that narrow definition, the train that derailed in East Palestine wasn’t regulated as a high-hazard flammable train, and didn’t have an electronic braking system.

Over the past several years, industry lobbyists have repeatedly won concessions from regulators on the kinds of safeguards that could have prevented the disaster in East Palestine. It should not be ignored that both the Democratic and Republican candidates who vied to represent Ohio in the Senate in 2022 are currently aligned with the industry players who fail to take their responsibility to prevent such disasters seriously.

Now Tim Ryan and his fellow co-chairs are pushing Democrats to “get in line” behind liquefied natural gas, which also has a propensity to explode in the middle of communities. As Ella Nilsen reported for CNN last week, inadequate regulatory oversight of LNG terminals makes the massive vapor cloud explosion from a terminal in Freeport, Texas, two years ago a recurring nightmare for frontline communities.

While Biden administration energy regulators consider whether further LNG expansion is in the public interest, they would do well to remember that they, at least, remain public servants, and that history will judge them according to that service.

This photograph of Tim Ryan taken by Gage Skidmore is licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 2.0 Generic license.

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