A chef cracks an egg over a pan on a gas stove.
A gas range in the kitchen at Old Ebbitt Grill. Credit: Darrow Montgomery/file

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In the lower left corner of Washington Gas’ monthly bills, some customers have received colorful illustrations of flowers and a cheery environmental message.

“Natural gas is a clean, efficient, and reliable energy,” the message reads. “Converting an all electric home to natural gas is the equivalent of planting 2.75 acres of trees or driving 26,520 fewer miles each year.”

But that claim likely assumes—without evidence—that all electricity in a home is generated by a coal-fired power plant rather than wind, solar, or nuclear energy, according to Science and Environmental Health Network senior scientist Sandra Steingraber. Washington Gas did not respond to a question about how it calculated the numbers in the ad.

Washington Gas currently provides natural gas to more than 1 million residential, commercial, and industrial customers throughout D.C., Maryland, and Virginia. Since late 2021, environmental and consumer protection groups in D.C. and Maryland have pursued legal action against the company, arguing its advertisements mislead consumers.

In an email, Washington Gas director of strategic communications Andre Francis declined to comment on pending litigation.

According to Steingraber, natural gas is primarily composed of methane gas—itself a greenhouse gas, the driver of climate change. Like carbon dioxide, she says, methane keeps heat in the atmosphere. And though methane dissipates from the atmosphere faster, while it’s there, it traps significantly more heat than carbon dioxide, Steingraber says.

She also says natural gas generally contains carcinogens and is linked to higher indoor air pollution. But because the Environmental Protection Agency doesn’t regulate indoor air quality, gas stoves and furnaces often fall to consumer protection agencies to regulate.

“Just because [natural gas] is invisible, doesn’t mean it’s not sinister,” Steingraber says. “Anyone claiming otherwise is just engaging in disinformation.”

A peer-reviewed study led by the environment-focused think tank RMI, published in December in the International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health, found 12.7 percent of current childhood asthma in the U.S. is attributable to gas stove use. Decades of other research has shown gas’ negative health effects, prompting U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission member Richard Trumka Jr. to suggest a possible ban on gas stoves. His fellow commissioners reportedly don’t share that view, and Trumka Jr. later clarified that regulations would only apply to new stoves, but his comments had already caused a meltdown in some conservative circles.


Patrick Ansah, a Ph.D. student at George Mason University studying climate change communication, calls Washington Gas’ advertising “greenwashing,” a misleading marketing technique that aims to make companies appear environmentally friendly.

Greenwashing “increases public’s perception of such organizations as having environmental competence,” Ansah explains. He says greenwashing can manifest in advertising claims and in accompanying visuals, like the flowers on Washington Gas’ bills.

Matt Casale is the environment campaigns director for the U.S. Public Interest Research Group, whose nonprofit arm, the PIRG Education Fund, is a plaintiff against Washington Gas in the lawsuit filed in D.C. Casale says D.C.’s consumer protection laws have been used to litigate previous cases about greenwashing, but the current case is one of the first to take on natural gas. He argues that the fossil fuel is particularly prone to greenwashing because of the term ‘natural’ in its name.

Washington Gas’ messaging echoes the historical tactics of many companies in the gas industry, according to Steinberger. She says taglines like “Now we’re cooking with gas” show how gas became associated with progress.

This marketing, she says, is partially why the suggestion that the CPSC might ban gas stoves recently drew public outrage and condemnation from conservative politicians.

“The whole gas industry has just been very good, no matter what the end use is—whether it’s a pipeline or a stove or sinking more fracking wells—they’re very good at using language and imagery to make it seem clean and green and [a] bridge to the future,” Steingraber says.


Three advocacy and environmental organizations—the PIRG Education Fund, Environment America Research & Policy Center, and ClientEarth—filed a suit against Washington Gas in D.C. Superior Court in July, alleging the company deceptively marketed its natural gas products as clean and sustainable.

That lawsuit argues Washington Gas’ advertising is illegal under the D.C. Consumer Protection Procedures Act, which bans misrepresentation of goods and services. The groups are requesting the court order the company to stop using misleading marketing materials but are not asking for damages. Washington Gas has filed to dismiss the case, but the court has not yet scheduled a hearing.

“Consumers have a right to know the full impacts of the products that we’re purchasing, including what they’re purchasing for their energy,” Casale says.

In Maryland, utility companies are regulated by the state’s Public Service Commission. In November 2021, the Maryland Office of People’s Counsel filed a complaint before the commission, arguing the ad on some of Washington Gas’ monthly bills doesn’t accurately represent its products.

The Maryland OPC asked the commission to order Washington Gas to stop using the flowery ad on its bills and to impose damages of at least $500,000 against both Washington Gas and its sister company WGL Energy, which would be paid to the state of Maryland. Customers would not receive a piece of court-imposed fines, though Maryland People’s Counsel David Lapp says consumers might be able to pursue a separate case.

Washington Gas and WGL Energy filed motions to dismiss, and last February, the Maryland Public Service Commission granted their request in part because Maryland allows self-certification of advertising claims.

“A complaint against one utility is an inappropriate forum to address the broader issues raised by natural gas and its role in greenhouse gas emissions,” the commission says in its order.

The Circuit Court for Montgomery County rejected OPC’s appeal of the Maryland case. Now, OPC is appealing again to the Appellate Court of Maryland. Lapp anticipates that it will take the appellate court months to make a decision.

While these cases are focused on the specific language on the gas bills, Casale says he hopes they set a broader precedent.

“Let’s stop Washington Gas from using this language and make it so that these residents are getting the truth,” Casale says. “But then just more generally, if this is successful, I would want other gas companies to look at this and think, ‘Well, okay, actually maybe we are opening ourselves up to some liability here if we’re using misleading language.’”

Credit: Aviva Bechky

A 2021 study from the D.C. Department of Energy & Environment found 3,346 surface locations in the District’s residential neighborhoods where methane levels in the air exceeded the naturally occurring background levels. The report verified that most emissions came from the natural gas delivery system. “Leaks from natural gas infrastructure contribute to climate change, damage trees, create potential safety risks, degrade air quality, and waste ratepayer money,” the report says. (Note: The study occurred before D.C.’s recent redistricting plan was approved. The graphic above uses the ward boundaries that existed prior to the redistricting.)


Although methane gas is a fossil fuel, Casale acknowledges that electric heating relies on the energy grid, which may or may not draw from renewable sources.

When a consumer switches from a gas to an electric stove, for instance, the environmental impact of that decision depends at least partially on whether the electricity comes from a renewable source like solar energy or a nonrenewable source like a coal plant. But Casale says that as D.C. works to transition to cleaner energy, electric utilities will become greener—unlike gas-based ones.

“As we integrate more renewable energy into our grid, … as the grid becomes greener, electric buildings become cleaner and cleaner, whereas gas doesn’t,” Casale says.

But even if electric heating became green overnight, moving away from gas still poses substantial challenges. That’s why some groups, like the District of Columbia Sustainable Energy Utility, support low-income D.C. residents in changing to non-gas appliances.

Delores Ford, a Ward 4 resident, says she used to have a gas-fueled furnace, and worried about the health impacts of natural gas in her home.

But through DCSEU, Ford says she got solar panels installed and replaced her gas furnace with electric heating powered in part by the panels.

“I’ve already spoken with my friends and shared the opportunity with them,” Ford says. “I have nothing but positive things to say.”

Brandon Bowles, who has served as both director of operations and the interim managing director of DCSEU, says moving away from fossil fuels like natural gas represents a “major undertaking.” But his group is determined to help residents make the shift.

“Our focus is really on helping to ensure that there’s affordable access,” Bowles says. “As we see this transformation, you know, we also understand that these more vulnerable communities are the ones that are more likely to be left behind.”