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Fossil fuel 'influencers' add new twist to old game of paid promotions
Plus, the age of the massive EV trucks has arrived. So has the controversy.
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Made in the shady: The fossil fuel industry’s ‘influencers’
Ever since I first heard it, I’ve been both fascinated and repelled by the word “influencers.” As a skeptical journalist who hopes he’s not easily persuaded, the moniker has an ickiness about it that leaves one with the impression that many people are gullible.
The term appeared on the scene a few years ago and usually meant some beauteous celebrity or social media star pushing a particular perfume or party dress. OK, not such a big deal, even when, as my son does, you spend hundreds of dollars annually on sneakers touted by one hotshot or another.
But now the somewhat insidious salespersonship has come to the matter of climate change, with millions being paid to influencers to promote fossil fuels. And it turns out it’s a shady business in more ways than one.
For instance, according to a report in The New York Times, a natural gas industry group is paying prominent DIY figures to promote propane and oppose building electrification using funds the General Accountability Office (GAO) has repeatedly warned is not permissible.
Based on information from the Energy and Policy Institute, a non-profit watchdog, the Propane Education and Research Council (PERC) uses part of the $40 million it raises annually as a federally-sanctioned trade association to pay influencers hundreds of thousands of dollars to promote its product as part of its planned $13 million 2023 anti-electrification campaign, the report says. The GAO has repeatedly warned that PERC, which also spent nearly $900,000 to support a campaign against electrification in New York state, is misusing its funds and may be violating statutory prohibitions on lobbying.
One of those influencers is Matt Blashaw, host of HGTV’s “Professional Grade,” “Yard Crashers” and “Vacation House for Free,” who will reportedly receive part of the $600,000 PERC is allocating to celebrities of various prominence.
He’s certainly not failing in his side job: Appearing on a recent interview segment for a local CBS station, Blashaw waxed lyrical about this favorite fuel: “When I think of winter,” he said, “I think of being inside. I think of cooking with the family, of being by a roaring fire — and with propane, that is all possible. That’s why we call it an energy source for everyone.”
What everyone did not know was that the hunky handyman had been paid handsomely for his patter.
No wonder the word “influencers” gives me chills that even propane cannot cure.
You wouldn’t want to be hit by one of these monsters
This past weekend, I went to kick the tires at several auto dealerships. The reason: With my current car reaching 18 years on the road and 170,000 miles on the clock, I’ve been looking at new vehicles in case my old faithful Honda HMC 0.00%↑ CR-V decides to call it a day.
In particular, I was looking at small cars — EVs, hybrids and old-fashioned fossil-fueled — something zippy and maneuverable to better navigate the crowded streets of New York City (and fit into tight parking spaces).
All good. And then I heard about a recent Washington, D.C., speech made by National Transportation Safety Board Chairwoman Jennifer Homendy. “I’m concerned about the increased risk of severe injury and death for all road users from heavier curb weights and increasing size, power, and performance of vehicles on our roads, including electric vehicles.”
She was talking in particular about General Motors’ GM 0.00%↑ Hummer EV, which was introduced in 2020 as one of the company’s first electric vehicles and began production in 2021. Weighing it at almost 9,500 pounds, it can develop 1,000 horsepower and reach 60 mph in just three seconds. At 2,923 pounds, the battery alone is heavier than the Honda Civic.
The hugeness of the Hummer and other EV leviathans — the just-introduced Ford F 0.00%↑ F-150 Lightning pickup truck (6,500 pounds) and the soon-to-arrive Tesla TSLA 0.00%↑ Cybertruck and Chevrolet Silverado EV are other examples — has some up in arms.
“The revamped Hummer no longer emits tailpipe emissions, but it’s still an environmental and societal disaster,” wrote David Zipper, an urban mobility analyst, in a recent op-ed for Fast Company. He cited data showing that the Hummer is dangerous to pedestrians and cyclists, adding that the battery is so large that the vehicle’s emissions exceed those of a gas-powered sedan when the emissions to generate the electricity are factored in.
And Leah Shahum, founder of the Vision Zero Network, a nonprofit that aims to redesign cities to make the streets safer for pedestrians and cyclists, told E&E News that she is “distraught we’re missing this opportunity to tie issues of climate health with literal safety on the roads.”
Mmmm. I might put that tiny Chevrolet Bolt EV I inspected lower on my list.
In New York, what seems like a super plan probably isn’t
I’m lucky enough to live in a classic 1920s apartment building on Manhattan’s Upper East Side. (We couldn’t afford it now, but it was relatively inexpensive during a property downturn in the early ‘90s.)
When we moved in, it was fueled by oil. Every so often a tanker truck would park outside — blocking the street, much to the annoyance of motorists — and fuel would be pumped into a subterranean tank. Later, with oil prices up, the building converted to natural gas, with the building’s board also congratulating themselves for using a cleaner form of fuel.
Not clean enough, according to New York’s governor, Kathy Hochul, who, in her state of the state speech last week, said she wants existing residential buildings to be fossil fuel-free by 2030 if the equipment needs to be replaced (and 2035 for commercial buildings). Meanwhile, she touted rules requiring new residential and commercial buildings to be all-electric by 2025 and 2030, respectively.
Similar proposals have already faced severe opposition, with a couple of bills dying in the state legislature last year, reports E&E News. In addition, the fossil fuel industry — hiding behind the euphemistic title of New Yorkers for Affordable Energy — has been howling, with the organization’s executive director, Michelle Hook, predicting that Hochul’s and similar plans would “send energy bills through the roof” and urging state lawmakers to “start paying attention to the majority of New Yorkers who want to keep their lights on and heat working through our cold winters.”
Trouble is, Hook may have a point. If you’ve ever lived through a Northeast winter in an electrically heated house — as I have — you will know that the utility bills can be crushing. So imagine heating a big apartment building with electricity.
In other words, electricity prices — presumably powered by renewable sources if there is not to be a transfer of greenhouse gas production from buildings to power plants — are going to have to come down considerably. And fast.
Sorry, Gov. Hochul, but the horse is a long way from the cart in this particular case. Better to push the production of cheap renewable energy; then, like my building, consumers will follow the money.
(A native of England, veteran journalist Matthew Diebel has worked at NBC News, Time, USA Today and News Corp., among other organizations. Having spent much of his childhood next to one of the world's fastest bodies of water, he is particularly interested in tidal energy.)