NW Natural pulls from Big Tobacco’s playbook

February 9, 2023 5:30 am

The city of Eugene is the first city in Oregon to ban natural gas in new residential developments. (Ervins Strauhmanis/Flickr)

In a landmark opinion in the 2000s, Judge Gladys Kessler said the following of the tobacco industry’s strategy for denying the health harms linked to smoking: “In short, (the companies) have marketed and sold their lethal product with zeal, with deception, with a single-minded focus on their financial success and without regard for the human tragedy or social costs that success exacted.”

The same could be said about the gas industry today. Big Tobacco may have invented the playbook, but the fossil fuel industry has adopted it with gusto – down to turning to the same doctors-for-hire employed by Big Tobacco to manufacture doubt around the settled science on health impacts from gas stoves.

Nowhere is this playbook on better display than right here in Oregon. As profiled in a New York Times expose this weekend, our state’s largest gas utility, NW Natural, hired Julie Goodman, a toxicologist with a long career defending polluters, to testify at a November 2022 hearing on gas stove pollution. In her testimony, Goodman downplayed the health risks, without identifying her affiliation to NW Natural.

Around the same time, Goodman’s employer, Gradient Corporation, submitted a letter with misleading claims about gas appliance pollution to the city of Milwaukie. The same letter went out to the city of Eugene and the state Legislature – all with the intent of stymying efforts at the local and the state level to protect communities from the health harms from gas by transitioning new construction from fossil fuels to clean electricity.

Goodman’s storied career defending the biggest polluters speaks to the credibility of her testimony. Just a few years earlier, Goodman worked on a testimony defending low tar cigarettes that featured in a class-action lawsuit. Its findings contradicted the surgeon general, the National Academy of Sciences and the National Cancer Institute.

The similarities between Big Tobacco and the gas industry extend past sleazy misinformation tactics – there are also similarities in the health impacts from use of the products themselves. A recent study from researchers at RMI, University of Sydney, and the Albert Einstein College of Medicine found that more than 12% of childhood asthma cases nationwide – or one in eight – can be attributed to gas stove pollution. That’s a similar level of childhood asthma risk as living with secondhand smoke.

That’s not all. A groundbreaking study on stoves in California last year found that they are leaking alarming levels of benzene, a chemical linked to cancer – and in the homes with the leakiest stoves, benzene concentrations were comparable to living with second-hand tobacco smoke.

And then there’s the advertising geared towards children. Big Tobacco places ads in magazines and publications that are popular with children. NW Natural has doubled down on efforts to influence our state’s energy curriculum, including by pushing workbooks on schools that encourage children to associate methane gas with cookies, pizza, and cartoon characters. The utility went as far as to invest more than $100,000 to develop a curriculum centered on “renewable” natural gas – a fuel the industry falsely claims can decarbonize Oregon’s homes and buildings. 

To protect Oregonians from this onslaught of misinformation from our local gas utility, Oregon Physicians for Social Responsibility joined  elected officials and more than 30 organizations in submitting a petition calling for the Oregon Department of Justice to investigate NW Natural for false and misleading advertising. The latest reporting on the utility’s efforts to mislead Oregonians about gas stove pollution only bolsters our calls for a thorough investigation. 

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David De La Torre
David De La Torre

David De La Torre is the healthy climate program director at Oregon Physicians for Social Responsibility. He lives in Eugene and works with health professionals and with other organizations to address climate and environmental justice issues that affect human health.