April 29, 2021

Listener Mail: Is Renewable Natural Gas a Scam?

by How to Save a Planet

Background show artwork for How to Save a Planet

It’s listener mail time! This week, we’re digging into a mysterious email one listener received from their utility about renewable natural gas. Can natural gas actually be renewable, or is this just a marketing scheme? We also take a look at Venn diagrams sent by listeners after our episode, "Is Your Carbon Footprint BS?" to see what kind of climate actions you’ve got planned!


Calls to Action

  • Check to see if your city has a building electrification effort you can support – the Building Electrification Institute has a list of some here.
  • Check out Environment America’s resources for electrifying your college campus.


Learn More


Check out our Calls to Action archive for all of the actions we've recommended on the show. Send us your ideas or feedback with our Listener Mail Form. Sign up for our newsletter here. And follow us on Twitter and Instagram.

This episode of How to Save a Planet was produced by Anna Ladd The rest of our reporting and producing team includes Kendra Pierre-Louis and Rachel Waldholz. Our intern is Ayo Oti. Our senior producer is Lauren Silverman. Our editor is Caitlin Kenney. Sound design and mixing by Peter Leonard with original music from Emma Munger. Special thanks to our guests this week, Tom Cyrs and Matt Vespa.

Where to Listen

Transcript

Dr. Ayana Elizabeth Johnson: Welcome to How to Save a Planet. I'm Dr. Ayana Elizabeth Johnson.


Alex Blumberg: I'm Alex Blumberg. And this is the show about what we need to do to address climate change, and how we make those things happen.


Ayana: So we're gonna answer some listener mail this week.


Alex: Listener mail, did you say?


[singing: It's listener mail time!]


Ayana: It's that "bong" at the end that, like, really does it for me.


Alex: This week, we're looking into a mysterious email a listener received from his utility about something called "renewable natural gas."


Ayana: And then something I've been looking forward to, we're going to take a look at some of your climate action Venn diagrams that you sent us. And we'll see what kinds of action you all have been taking based on the things that you love, like pizza and playing the trombone.


Alex: It's all coming up after this break.


Ayana: Hello, Anna Ladd.


Alex: How to Save a Planet producer Anna Ladd.


Anna Ladd: That's me.


Alex: Hello! You're gonna talk us through the listener email in question?


Anna: I am going to do that. So today, we're gonna answer a question from our listener named Sean, who got a weird email from his gas utility. And if you're like, "What's a gas utility? My electricity and gas all come from the same place," depending on where you live, there can be separate gas and electric utilities. Okay, here's Sean's question.


Sean: Hi, How to Save a Planet. I received an email today from my natural gas provider about the option to purchase a block for $5 to reinvest in renewable natural gas. I've never heard of renewable natural gas. I'm curious if this was something that would actually help reduce carbon emissions and fight climate change. It seems to me that any natural gas would continue to add carbon to our atmosphere. Thanks for your help.


Alex: Okay.


Ayana: I'm a little suspicious of this.


Alex: Uh-huh.


Ayana: It's got, like, some pretty strong, "clean coal" kind of vibes.


Alex: Clean coal?


Ayana: You know, when they try to talk about coal as something that could be a clean energy source, which is, you know, not a thing, But, you know, there are also technologies that use gas created by landfills or maybe agriculture or other things to make energy, which seems like that could be okay. So I guess I just want to know more about, like, what's behind this letter that Sean got in the mail.


Alex: Yeah. I'm also curious, like, they say it'll cost $5 for a quote "block" of renewable gas. Like, what's a block?


Ayana: Yeah, like a chunk? What's a block of gas?


Alex: [laughs] We have lots of questions.


Anna: And I will answer them all. But first, I figured the best place to start would just be to talk about what regular natural gas is, so that we can compare the two.


Ayana: Okay.


Alex: All right.


Anna: Hundreds of millions of years ago, there were plants and animals on the Earth.


Ayana: Oh, you're going all the way back!


Anna: [laughs]


Alex: [laughs]


Ayana: Here I was, I had no idea we were taking a time machine today. I thought we were just going to, like, talk about what's happening now. All right. I'm in.


Alex: [rewind sound]


Ayana: Oh, my gosh. I love your rewind sound so much! [laughs] Okay. All right, Anna Ladd, you've got some stuff to tell us.


Anna: Hundreds of millions of years ago, there were plants and animals on the Earth. And those plants and animals died.


Alex: Uh-huh.


Anna: And for hundreds of millions of years, they have been decomposing underground.


Alex: Right.


Ayana: Mm-hmm.


Anna: Combined with heat from the Earth's core, pressure from layers of rocks above, it turns it all into fossil fuels.


Alex: Got it.


Anna: So this gives us coal, this gives us oil. And this is also what gives us natural gas, which is mostly methane.


Ayana: Mm-hmm.


Alex: Which I sort of knew, but had sort of forgotten. Like, I've heard of methane, and I've heard of natural gas, but I'd forgotten that natural gas pretty much is methane.


Anna: Right.


Ayana: And methane, Alex—thank you for pausing on this—is a very potent greenhouse gas. It's around 28 times more potent than carbon dioxide. And that's something a lot of people don't know. Americans actually have a positive association with natural gas as compared to other fossil fuels. And it turns out that has a lot to do with calling it "natural." So there are these other terms for natural gas, like "methane gas," or "fossil gas," or "fracked gas," that remind us of what natural gas actually is. It's a fossil fuel, often extracted via fracking, and it's mostly methane. So there's a lot of people who are advocating for switching the name so we don't sort of like, see natural gas through these rose-colored glasses.


Alex: Right.


Ayana: Kind of an important thing to keep tabs on.


Anna: Yes. So fossil gas—or natural gas—is mostly methane when we take it out of the ground. But when we burn it to use it, it breaks down into regular old carbon dioxide, so still very much a greenhouse gas, but not as potent as letting all that methane out into the air.


Alex: Got it.


Anna: Though there are some direct methane emissions associated with natural gas, which are called fugitive emissions. So that's the methane that escapes when drilling for it or when transporting it through a pipeline.


Alex: Okay.


Ayana: Yeah, and there's even more of these fugitive methane emissions than we previously thought, it turns out. Especially with the huge boom that's happened in fracking over the last decade. And now around 40 percent of US electricity is coming from fossil gas. There's a new report from the United Nations that says reducing methane emissions in particular will be vital in ensuring we reach the goals of the Paris Agreement. So clearly, expanding fossil gas, natural gas use is incompatible with those goals.


Anna: And on top of all of that, regular natural gas, or fossil gas, is not renewable. We will eventually run out of it.


Alex: All right, got it. That's regular natural gas.


Ayana: But you're telling me there's another form of natural gas.


Anna: I am. So renewable natural gas is also mostly methane. The two are pretty much chemically indistinguishable from each other. but renewable natural gas comes from a completely different source, which is organic waste.


Alex: I've heard that term used before as a euphemism for poop. Are we getting this gas from poop?


Anna: Some renewable natural gas is indeed coming from poop.


Ayana: And you thought s*** wasn't worth s***.


[rimshot]


Alex: [laughs] Drop the mic, Doc!


Anna: [laughs] But yes, renewable natural gas comes from organic waste. And not organic waste that's been decomposing underground for hundreds of millions of years, but fresh organic waste from manure on a farm, or food waste at a landfill, wastewater treatment plants, that kind of thing.


Ayana: Uh-huh.


Anna: When bacteria break down that waste, it creates something called biogas, which can be used for energy. So some landfills will produce biogas from the waste at the landfill, and that biogas can be used to generate electricity.


Alex: Okay.


Anna: Though biogas can also go another step and be processed and purified into biomethane. Otherwise known as renewable natural gas.


Alex: Ding, ding, ding, ding, ding! Okay, so that is what our listener is writing about is this renewable natural gas.


Anna: Yes. And this is the one that is completely indistinguishable from regular natural gas. You can use it in all of the same places. So you can use renewable natural gas to heat your home or light your stove.


Ayana: So it comes from a different source, but functionally has the same end uses?


Alex: Yeah.


Anna: Yes. And I have to say that this does not look as cool as I thought it was going to look. Like, I thought that ...


Ayana: You thought that this was gonna look cool?


Anna: I thought that this was gonna be like a futuristic dome with a bunch of pigs inside of it or something. It's not. It looks like a black tarp on the ground, and beneath that tarp is a pond of manure.


Ayana: That is not very cool looking.


Anna: But basically to recap, renewable natural gas is capturing methane that would've been released directly into the atmosphere and turning it into a usable fuel.


Ayana: Mm-hmm.


Anna: And when we burn that fuel, it takes the methane—which is a potent greenhouse gas—and breaks it down into carbon dioxide, which is a less-potent greenhouse gas.


Alex: Got it. Okay. This seems like plus column information for renewable natural gas. Maybe, Ayana, you were judging too soon.


Anna: There is a con column.


Ayana: Give it to me. Give us the dirt.


Anna: The concerns for renewable natural gas are pretty much the same as they would be for regular natural gas. So first, there are greenhouse gas emissions from burning the gas, which we'll get back to in a minute.


Ayana: Uh-huh.


Alex: Okay.


Anna: There are also concerns about leaks, like, from the pipelines when the gas is being transported.


Ayana: Right.


Anna: Because again, it's basically methane. So when it leaks, that's a very potent greenhouse gas escaping into the atmosphere.


Ayana: Not good.


Anna: We don't want that. And then there's the fact that when we burn natural gas in our homes, like, on our stoves, that is not very good for indoor air quality, and can have health impacts like increasing asthma rates.


Ayana: Mm-hmm.


Anna: And it's a pretty big increase. Children in homes with gas stoves have a 24 percent increase in lifetime risk for being diagnosed with asthma.


Alex: Wow! That's crazy.


Ayana: Yeah, that's been papered over.


Anna: And there's also concerns just about locking in natural gas infrastructure and using these plants as a way to, like, maintain harmful agricultural practices. Like, do we want to put a Band-Aid on the giant manure ponds we see in industrial animal agriculture? Or do we want to get rid of our giant manure ponds?


Alex: [laughs] Right. Exactly.


Ayana: Yep.


Alex: Okay. So those are all the issues. I get it. I have a very basic question though, Anna.


Anna: Uh-huh?


Alex: What about the carbon emissions from renewable natural gas? Like, you're still burning it. That releases greenhouse gases into the atmosphere. Doesn't that mean it has the same or similar carbon footprint as normal natural gas, the kind that you have to dig out of the ground?


Ayana: This is an excellent question, Alex.


Alex: Thank you.


Ayana: The question on everyone's mind. Anna Ladd, give it to us straight.


Anna: So yes, you do still need to burn renewable natural gas to use it, and that has a carbon impact. But what utilities are saying is that, in producing renewable natural gas, they're capturing more methane emissions at the source—so at the landfill or on the farm—than they are releasing carbon emissions when the gas is burned.


Ayana: Hmm.


Anna: So when a utility is saying that renewable natural gas is net zero or net negative, that's what they mean. They're sort of weighing those two things out.


Alex: If the landfill was just sitting there emitting its methane, it would be releasing more greenhouse gases into the atmosphere than if we were capturing the methane, turning it into natural gas and then burning that natural gas.


Anna: Right.


Alex: Okay.


Ayana: Gotcha.


Alex: So the top line is it's better than regular natural gas when it comes to emissions, but it's not exactly clean.


Anna: Right.


Alex: Got it. So what's this program now that's on his bill? Who's trying to get this guy to pay $5 for this thing?


Ayana: I will say I've made a lot more expensive mistakes. So, like, if you paid this $5, regardless of the outcome of this investigation conducted by Anna Ladd, don't feel bad. But we will get to the bottom of this for you.


Anna: It also does math out to be quite a bit more expensive than $5. So here's how this particular program works: to sign up for this, you would have to select that you want renewable natural gas, and you are paying for it in what the utility calls "blocks."


Alex: Mm-hmm.


Anna: Which would be replacing a chunk or a block of your monthly natural gas supply with renewable natural gas. And one block is an extra $5 a month. So for an extra $60 a year—which would be one block per month—you can replace seven and a half percent of your natural gas with renewable natural gas. Or the most they're offering would be to replace 75 percent of your natural gas with renewable natural gas for 10 blocks a month, or an extra $600 a year. And that's not $600 for all your gas bills for the year, that's $600 on top of your regular gas bill.


Alex: Whoa!


Ayana: That's not nothing.


Alex: Is that worth it?


Anna: I talked to Tom Cyrs from the World Resources Institute to try and figure that out. He's been looking at the potential of renewable natural gas, and where it could best fit in our climate strategy. And I asked him, like, if you got an email like this, what are some things that you would be looking out for? And the first thing he told me is that he would want to know where the renewable natural gas is coming from.


Tom Cyrs: Does it come from a local farm or food manufacturing facility? Or, you know, do I live in Illinois, and this RNG actually comes from a dairy farm in upstate New York or somewhere else across the country? The farther away a RNG project is from where fuel is ultimately being consumed, there is potentially more chance for leakage along the way.


Alex: Mm-hmm.


Ayana: The carbon footprint of moving natural gas around.


Anna: And then there's also two other things that he said he would want to know, that your utility should be able to answer.


Alex: Mm-hmm.


Anna: So the first one is, what are the full life-cycle emissions of this renewable natural gas, which would mean how many methane emissions are they capturing at the source? And how does that weigh out against everything that's emitted when the natural gas is burned? And for this to be worth it, you would want the capture to be more than what happens at the end of the cycle.


Ayana: Yeah, you gotta have a net benefit.


Anna: Right. And then the other thing you should ask is: does this renewable natural gas require building any new fossil fuel infrastructure? And if it does, that would be also a big no.


Alex: Got it.


Ayana: Mm-hmm.


Anna: So if we're looking at our listener Sean's renewable natural gas program through these three criteria ...


Ayana: Mm-hmm.


Anna: First, is the renewable natural gas coming from nearby?


Ayana: Right.


Anna: This program is offered in two neighboring states, and they have an renewable natural gas project on pig farms in one of those states.


Ayana: Uh-huh.


Anna: So that's good. But the website says that if they can't source enough renewable natural gas locally, that they'll purchase it from wherever it's available.


Ayana: That's a significant caveat. Okay.


Anna: Next? Total life cycle emissions. This particular in-state project does capture more emissions from the farms than it releases when it's burned.


Ayana: Mm-hmm.


Anna: But we don't know about all of those other potential sources of it.


Ayana: Right.


Anna: And then as far as new fossil fuel infrastructure, again, this particular project is connected to an existing natural gas pipeline.


Ayana: So does it meet the criteria?


Anna: The main project on a series of pig farms meets the criteria.


Ayana: Mm-hmm.


Anna: But the idea that it could just kind of come from anywhere makes me a little uneasy. You can't vet it.


Ayana: Yeah.


Anna: So if you're Sean, or you are another listener who's gotten this offer from your utility, and you feel like you have satisfactory answers to those questions and you want to sign up, before you go running and doing that, I have a few small caveats for you.


Alex: Those were already a couple of caveats, but then there's caveats on top of the caveats?


Anna: Yes. So if you can meet that criteria and you're like, "Okay, this would be a lower emitting experience for my home."


Ayana: Experience! "Would you like the lower emitting experience?"


Anna: [laughs] The first is, if you're gonna be spending hundreds of extra dollars a year for this to take up, like, a significant chunk of your gas supply, Tom told me you might just want to weigh instead investing some of that into new, efficient electric appliances.


Ayana: Yes.


Anna: Because one big route to decarbonizing homes is electrifying everything in them.


Alex: Right. So instead of getting a slightly cleaner natural gas to use in your stove or boiler, get a different boiler that doesn't take gas at all.


Anna: Right. Partially because it's more efficient, and partially because as we add more renewable energy to the grid, the power gets cleaner and cleaner. So using electric appliances would lower the emissions from our homes.


Alex: Got it.


Anna: And the real big caveat here when we're talking about this is that, if we're looking for a long-term solution for decarbonizing our homes and our buildings, it is literally just not feasible to do that with renewable natural gas.


Tom Cyrs: If you were able to take all of the agricultural wastes that are potentially available for RNG: landfills, food waste, animal manure and so on and so forth, and convert that to RNG, it would still amount to something like, you know, 10 percent of all natural gas consumption in the US. So RNG is not a substitute for electrification, but it's something that can sort of play alongside while we make this transition.


Alex: Got it.


Anna: What Tom told me is that there are uses of renewable natural gas that do make a lot of sense, which is like, using it in sectors that will be much harder to electrify right away, like in heavy industry.


Alex: Mm-hmm.


Ayana: Mm-hmm. So it sounds like RNG—now that I'm hip to the acronym—has some good niche uses, but it's not a long-term solution to decarbonizing our homes and buildings.


Anna: Right. So if you get an email like this from your utility, these are the questions you should ask and the things you should be thinking about if you're trying to make this decision.


Ayana: Great.


Anna: But the story around renewable natural gas is much bigger than this one utility offering.


Alex: Mm-hmm.


Anna: Something that I was kind of worried about when I started originally looking into this is that renewable natural gas is something that the gas industry would use as, like, a political wedge to oppose building electrification efforts or efficiency standards that would phase out natural gas.


Alex: Mm-hmm.


Anna: Like saying, "No, we don't need to do that. We have fun and fresh new renewable natural gas. Why would we want to electrify things?"


Alex: Right. The worry is that they'll take this sort of good, sort of limited idea, and try to use it as cover for, like, "We don't have to get rid of natural gas at all. Because we have renewable natural gas."


Anna: Yes. And maybe it wouldn't surprise you that that is happening.


Ayana: Anna Ladd, I am so shocked.


Anna: And I have one particularly nefarious example of it from a few years ago in California, if we want to dive in.


Alex: A nefarious example to dive into? Please do. Let's go.


Anna: I don't know if you want to make your going back in time noises, but we're only going back a few years in time this time.


Alex: Okay. All right. [rewind sound]


Anna: Okay, so we're in California. It's 2019. The idea of electrifying buildings is really gaining steam there.


Alex: Uh-huh.


Anna: Berkeley has banned natural gas hookups in new construction, and other cities in California are considering doing the same.


Alex: That's very Berkeley, by the way.


Anna: Yes.


Alex: Out ahead.


Anna: The state is setting these, like, super high efficiency targets that are essentially saying like, eventually, we're not gonna be using any more gas.


Alex: Mm-hmm.


Anna: And out of nowhere, this group called Californians for Balanced Energy Solutions pops up.


Alex: Hmm.


Anna: And they're campaigning for cities in California to not pass resolutions that ban gas in new construction, but continue to allow gas, pointing to renewable natural gas as a viable alternative to electrifying buildings. Shall we take a look at their website?


Ayana: Let's please do that.


Anna: So here's Californians for Balanced Energy Solutions.


Alex: "Do you want the state of California to protect your rights to use natural gas for home cooking and heating?"


Ayana: "Do you want other energy options besides electricity for California households and businesses?"


Alex: "Do you want California to continue to use renewable natural gas derived from landfills, agriculture and wastewater treatment plants? If you are like most Californians, you answered ...


Alex, Ayana and Anna: Yes!


[ringing bell]


Alex: "Yet there are powerful organizations that are working to take away your right to choose affordable, natural and renewable gas."


Ayana: "For them, it's electricity or nothing."


Anna: So one of the people who caught wind of this group when it first formed was Matt Vespa, who's an attorney for Earth Justice.


Alex: Mm-hmm.


Anna: And he told me that this website very much did not strike him as something set up by a grassroots coalition of Californians who really love natural gas.


Alex: [laughs]


Matt Vespa: You look at groups like this, and it's just like a red flag for a front group. There's these sort of antiseptic words like "balanced," "affordable," "fairness." Who calls themself that? Like, what legitimate Californian is going to some kind of rally with a sign that says "I'm for balanced energy solutions." Like, what does that even mean? I mean, you could almost just, like, put these random words in a bag, pick them and that's your front group name.


Anna: So Matt had a hunch that Californians for Balanced Energy Solutions might have something to do with the gas utility in the area: SoCalGas, who might see all of these building electrification efforts as a threat to their gas business. So Matt started doing a little digging, and he put in a public records request for emails between the Californians for Balanced Energy Solutions board chair, who was a public employee in California, and SoCalGas.


Matt Vespa: Lo and beyond, you know, there's recruiting emails from a SoCalGas employee, bringing him on. There's attachments associated with that email that has all of their sort of objectives, their goals of the group. You know, it's all clearly been manufactured already when they're inviting him.


Anna: So SoCalGas had something to do with the creation of the group, but what he wasn't able to tell at that point is if they had funded it.


Ayana: Mm-hmm.


Anna: Until the California Public Utilities Commission, who regulates SoCalGas, opened a proceeding on building decarbonization. So the commission invited interested parties to come discuss the new policies and offer input on how to proceed.


Alex: Right.


Anna: And Californians for Balanced Energy Solutions put in a motion to become one of those parties for that proceeding, so that they could weigh in on how building decarbonization was progressing.


Alex: Got you. Okay.


Anna: And when they joined that proceeding, that meant that the consumer watchdog group for the utility commission was able to find their funding sources.


Ayana: Uh-huh!


Anna: And they found that all the work a PR firm did to set up this group, the website, the board, the weird messaging ...


Matt Vespa: All of this was being paid for by SoCalGas. In fact, they had originally billed this to customers. So your gas bills are paying for these front groups. I mean, they can't do that. So basically the idea here is, you know, SoCalGas is getting regulated by this agency. They then form and finance a front group that can amplify its interests to the same regulator that regulates SoCalGas.


Alex: If you're SoCalGas and you're getting regulated by a regulator, like, don't you already—like, I would assume that you would be able to say to the regulator, like, "Hey, I think this regulation is bad for this reason, this reason, and this reason. Let's talk." Right? Like ...


Anna: Yeah. They were one of the parties in that proceeding. They were already a party.


Alex: It's not like they don't have a voice, right? They have a pretty big voice, I would assume. Yes.


Anna: When it came out that SoCalGas had funded this group, lots of other stuff came out about this group as well. So, like, beyond just trying to be involved in the proceeding and trying to influence city decisions on gas use, the PR firm SoCalGas had hired to create this group was even going on Nextdoor, the neighborhood social media site, pretending to be someone who lives in the neighborhood and warning the people there that California was coming for their gas stoves. So this is someone from the PR firm that they hired posting on the Culver City Nextdoor page.


Alex: The headline is, "Culver City banning gas stoves?"


Ayana: And the message says, "Has anyone heard of the city's consideration of reach codes to ban natural gas in buildings? First time I heard about it, I thought it was bogus, but I received a newsletter from the city about public hearings to discuss it. I heard they held a public hearing today at the Veterans' Memorial Complex. Will it pass?"


Alex: [laughs] "I heard."


Ayana: "I used an electric stove, but it never cooked as well as a gas stove, so I ended up switching back. Here's the info I found on the city's Facebook page."


Alex: Wow!


Anna: So after all of this blows up, there's this big op-ed in the LA Times called "SoCalGas' Sleazy AstroTurf Effort to Keep Fossil Fuels Flowing in California." And a week after the op-ed goes up, Californians for Balanced Energy Solutions withdraws from the proceeding.


Matt Vespa: It was sort of framed as like, "Well, to just, you know, not distract from this proceeding and keep our focus on decarbonization, we're gonna withdraw from this proceeding. And just like, you know, you got busted and you're out. And yeah, they just kind of slinkered away.


Alex: "Slinkered." [laughs] Perfect. Perfect neologism. So most gas utilities, it sounds like, are in a weird spot in that they're on the way out.


Anna: Yeah.


Alex: Like, if what you do is you deliver natural gas and we, as a globe, are saying, like, natural gas, we can't do it anymore.


Anna: Right.


Alex: It is a threat to your existence.


Anna: Yeah. And if I was a utility, I would probably see renewable natural gas as a really attractive option to point to.


Alex: As the sort of one hail Mary hope, a little bit.


Anna: Yeah. Some utilities are looking at this technology that does have some good niche uses, and then trying to sell it as this major new low-carbon energy source for our homes, to make their gas business seem climate friendly. When really, they're just trying to buy more time to sell natural gas.


Alex: Right.


Ayana: And there are some sort of interim uses for this renewable natural gas, like in heavy industry, but this is certainly not a viable way to, like, decarbonize all of our buildings. So all that said, we've gone down the rabbit hole. Are we sure that we have adequately answered Sean's listener mail question, though?


Anna: Shall we recap for Sean?


Ayana: For Sean and everyone else who's getting these weird-ass letters from their utilities. [laughs]


Anna: So if you get an email from your gas provider offering renewable natural gas ...


Alex: For the low, low price of $5 a block.


Anna: Yes. That block will have lower emissions associated with it than your regular natural gas supply.


Ayana: Mm-hmm.


Alex: Okay.


Anna: But before you sign up, there are some questions you should ask your utility. First, where's the renewable natural gas coming from? Is it nearby, or does it have to travel through thousands of miles of potentially leaky pipelines? Second, what are the full life cycle emissions of this renewable natural gas? And does this project require building any new fossil fuel infrastructure?


Ayana: Do you think the customer service hotline will be able to answer all of these questions to your satisfaction?


Anna: [laughs]


Alex: [laughs] Because there's nothing I like doing on a Saturday afternoon than calling my utility.


Anna: "Press 2 for life cycle emissions analysis."


Ayana: "I just have some questions about fossil fuel infrastructure."


Alex: Okay. So assuming you want to, like, go down that rabbit hole and answer those questions, those are the questions you should answer. Okay?


Ayana: Okay.


Anna: So if you feel like you have a good answer to all of those questions, then it's probably worth weighing the financial piece of this.


Alex: Mm-hmm.


Anna: Which is that, for the low, low price of $600 a year, you can replace 75 percent of your natural gas supply.


Ayana: What else might you be able to do with $600 to help the planet besides give it to your utility company for some sort of like marginally okay thing?


Anna: If you want to spend that $600 on sort of climate-y improvements for your home, it might make more sense to invest that in electric appliances.


Ayana: Uh-huh.


Alex: You could insulate your attic.


Ayana: Ooh!


Anna: You could insulate your attic.


Ayana: Shout out to Anthony Leiserowitz. We think of you often and fondly, Anthony.


Anna: And finally, while we cannot all be cool environmental lawyers who expose utility AstroTurfing groups in our leisure time ...


Ayana: That's a pretty good hobby, honestly.


Anna: ... there are ways you can see how your utility is marketing renewable natural gas, and what kinds of energy policies they're supporting to help round out your decision here. And a good place to start if you're not really sure where to look, is by checking out the big gas industry trade groups, which are the American Gas Association and the American Public Gas Association. And you can see on their website if your utility is a member. You can see what kind of marketing campaigns they're doing, what kind of policies they're lobbying for, and if the way they're positioning renewable natural gas is in opposition to building electrification. That's something to look out for.


Alex: Got it. Are they taking this sort of niche but basically good thing, and using it as a wedge to stop other good things?


Anna: Exactly.


Alex: All right, Anna Ladd. That was, like, a really entertaining answer to our listener's question.


Anna: Well, thanks.


Alex: I loved all the sleuthing.


Anna: I love to sleuth!


Ayana: So now that we've gotten to the bottom of that, after the break we'll look at some of your climate action Venn diagrams that you sent into us, including some sixth graders who did this activity while they were on a climate strike.


Alex: Stick around!


Alex: Welcome back, everyone.


Ayana: Welcome back. So for the second half, we're gonna be hearkening back to what we discussed in our episode, "Is Your Carbon Footprint BS?", where we talked about a question that I get asked all the time, which is, "What's the best thing I should do to help the climate?"


Alex: And there's lists of, like, you know, sort of how do you improve your own individual carbon footprint?


Ayana: Mm-hmm.


Alex: But your advice is sort of like, what can you personally do that will have an even bigger impact than just your individual carbon footprint?


Ayana: Yeah. So I like to encourage people to think of it like a Venn diagram with three overlapping circles. So one of those would be, "What are you good at?" Another would be, "What is the work that actually needs doing? What problems do you want to contribute to solutions for?" And the third circle is, "What brings you joy?" So how can we find roles for ourselves within climate solutions that are at the epicenter of that Venn diagram?


Alex: Right.


Ayana: And it's been so exciting to see how many of you drew your own climate action Venn diagrams, and we wanted to talk about some of them.


Alex: Yup.


Ayana: So first up, we have a diagram from Jackie, which looks like it's literally drawn on the back of a napkin.


Alex: Oh, my gosh!


Ayana: No, on the back of a paper bag.


Alex: Recycled paper.


Ayana: And it looks like Jackie probably traced the circles with the bottom of a glass or something. They're, like, really, really circular circles.


Alex: I know. Oh, I love it. "What brings me joy? Cooking and eating, watching television, snuggling my dog, being out in nature, non-narrative immersive performance and dancing."


Ayana: "What am I good at? Singing ABBA as karaoke." These are very specific. "Cooking, baking, fermenting, teaching people about food production, playing the game Set, and pizza." Which was the first thing I noticed on this diagram.


Alex: And then, "What needs doing? Getting people to care about climate change, transforming the food system, electing politicians who will take climate action, fixing/toppling capitalism?"


Ayana: I love that you were the one who ended up reading that. 'Cause that's not your favorite option for what needs doing.


Alex: Toppling capitalism.


Ayana: So—and then in the center, Jackie has a few things to do: "Teach people about sustainable food production." As the daughter of a farmer, I'm extremely excited about this option. "Write a newsletter about food and climate." Also sounds like a good idea. "Get people excited about vegetables."


Alex: Mm-hmm.


Ayana: This is such better framing than, like, yell at people until they turn vegan.


Alex: I know. Get people excited about vegetables!


Ayana: Vegetables are, in fact, worth being excited about. "And normalize composting in Stuart," where they live.


Alex: That's amazing!


Ayana: How do you choose? These are a lot of good options.


Ayana: What do we have next, Alex?


Alex: Okay. Here is one from Karleen West.


Ayana: Mm-hmm.


Alex: Okay? "Enjoy," there is learning and reading.


Ayana: "Good at—exclamation point!" Teaching, organizing and writing.


Alex: And then, "Work that needs doing against climate change," raising awareness and policy change." Okay.


Ayana: And so when I first looked at this, I thought those are very general things.


Alex: Uh-huh.


Ayana: There's gonna be a very general answer.


Alex: But you were wrong.


Ayana: Woe is me to underestimate Karleen, who has some very concrete plans for what this intersection of circles means, which is, "Create a new course on climate change leadership, publish an op-ed encouraging divestment from fossil fuels and develop a curriculum for others to easily teach on climate change." These are very useful things to do.


Alex: Love it. I'm particularly intrigued by the course on climate change leadership, because that sounds like if it's something that, like, works, that could be—that could have a lot of ripples.


Ayana: Totally. And same with an op-ed. That's why I write those. Karleen, send us a link to your op ed when that goes live wherever you publish it.


Alex: Yeah. Should we look at Gil's?


Ayana: Ooh, this one is artsy!


Alex: I know! "Joy: music, creating mobile apps, mindfulness meditation, writing, nature, water, wildlife."


Ayana: What is Gil good at? "Music, trombone and conducting, developing mobile apps."


Alex: Uh-huh.


Ayana: "Teaching/education and writing." This is quite the diversity of skills.


Alex: I know. What needs doing? "Renewable energy, recycling, environmental awareness." All right.


Ayana: And that brings us to the epicenter options here.


Alex: Mm-hmm.


Ayana: "Bringing music groups to support climate events." Ooh! I mean, having just done an episode on climate anthems or the lack thereof, I mean, Gil's speaking our language.


Alex: I don't think there's, like, a public event or a march or protest that wouldn't benefit from some good trombone energy.


Ayana: [laughs]


Alex: It's only a plus.


Ayana: And then Gil is also thinking about developing mobile apps for climate change information, for spending time in nature and for meditation. Cool!


Alex: Love it! Send us the beta.


Ayana: Oh my goodness, this next one is not one but seven Venn diagrams. It looks like—oh, this is a group of middle schoolers who got together and did this as their Fridays for Future climate strike over Zoom together.


Alex: Oh, look at this!


Ayana: There's like a screenshot of their Zoom. They're all holding up their Venn diagrams.


Alex: Oh, I love it! I love it. Let's see. Look, one of the students was like, in the, "What brings me joy?" "Being with people and running meetings." Oh, you!


Ayana: [laughs] A thing I have never, ever thought of as joyful. But, you know, it takes all kinds, as they say.


Alex: We need more people with that passion, because I'm in a lot of meetings and they need somebody who loves running them. That's fantastic. Robotics is another joy, reading and soccer.


Ayana: Chocolate, friends. I mean, this is—count on the kiddos to just give it to you straight. They're like, here's what I actually like: comics.


Alex: Chocolate and friends. In that order. [laughs]


Ayana: Very cool. And they're thinking about actions like making persuasive art.


Alex: Mm-hmm.


Ayana: I love that adjective! Not just, like, informative, but persuasive.


Alex: Right? Writing letters with critical climate change statistics.


Ayana: Give people the data they need.


Alex: Speaking to your heart, Ayana.


Ayana: I do love a good fact. And organizing for a Green New Deal.


Alex: Love it.


Ayana: This is very lovely.


Alex: Thanks to all of you for sending them in.


Ayana: Yeah, keep them coming! And if you make your own climate action Venn diagram, please do send them over to us, we love to see them. Send us a note at howtosaveaplanet.show/contact, or you can tag us on Twitter or Instagram. our handle is @how2saveaplanet—with the number 2. And that brings us to our patented end of episode calls to action section. Anna Ladd?


Anna: That's me.


Ayana: Come on back and help me out with what we should do.


Anna: All right! You can check to see if your city has a building electrification effort that you can support.


Ayana: Mm-hmm.


Anna: The Building Electrification Institute has a list of some that we'll link in the show notes.


Ayana: Great.


Anna: You can also check out Environment America's resources for electrifying your college campus, which we will link as well.


Ayana: Ooh, I like this one. Change up the game at school.


Anna: Yes. And we also share some extra reading and reports on renewable natural gas, and a natural gas influencer campaign in our newsletter that did not make the episode but is very funny.


Ayana: Definitely check that out.


Anna: And you can sign up for our newsletter at howtosaveaplanet.show to see and read all of those things.


Ayana: Thank you, Anna Ladd.


Anna: You're welcome!


Ayana: How to Save a Planet is a Spotify original podcast and a Gimlet production. It's hosted by me, Dr. Ayana Elizabeth Johnson.


Alex: And me, Alex Blumberg.


Ayana: This episode was produced by Anna Ladd. Our reporters and producers are Rachel Waldholz and Kendra Pierre-Louis. Our intern is Ayo Oti. Our senior producer is Lauren Silverman. Our editor is Caitlin Kenney.


Alex: Sound design and mixing by Peter Leonard, with original music from Emma Munger and Peter Leonard.


Ayana: Our fact-checker this week is Claudia Geib.


Alex: Thanks for listening. And we'll see you all next week!