At first glance, a local news station in San Diego seemed to be airing a soft news piece helping viewers achieve their new year’s resolutions. The host for San Diego Living, a CBS8 program that sometimes airs sponsored content, said their next guest, a celebrity TV star, would deliver fun facts about healthy living and showcase some recipes.
Then, they dove in. The next four minutes were indistinguishable from an ad, paid for by the propane industry. The show’s host made a brief disclosure at the beginning, but after that, viewers would have had to read the tiny fine print on screen that the chef Dean Sheremet was there on behalf of the Propane Education & Research Council (PERC). By the time it aired in February, Sheremet had already taken to multiple local programs touting the benefits of cooking with gas and propane.
For both the propane and gas industries, stoves serve the same purpose: They are an important tool to turn opinion against climate campaigners trying to electrify buildings, so that eventually they’re powered by solar and wind. It drives a wedge for people who would otherwise likely support these climate solutions, warning them they’ll lose their beloved stove if they support climate activists.
For years, gas groups have hired influencers to help ward off gas bans in cities. Recently, the strategy has changed. Their pitch used to focus on arguing that gas was the superior fuel for cooking. Now they are instead pushing back squarely on air-quality concerns. Influencers are helping the industry argue to the public that it’s really the individual who’s the problem, not the product. They ignore that the product itself produces carbon monoxide, nitrogen dioxide, and benzene by combusting fossil fuels, instead arguing that chefs are simply using the wrong cooking oils or heating food at the wrong temperature.
The shift in rhetoric is a signal of just how worried the industry is that its most reliably popular appliance is losing ground. No other appliance captures the American imagination quite like the gas stove. But as important as public opinion is to the fate of the stove, it’s also more fickle than the industry’s stronghold on lobbying. So when the fossil fuel industry tries to take its case directly to the consumer, it has often relied on paid influencers to deliver the message.
The industry is blaming the cook for the gas stove’s problems
The face of the propane industry’s recent campaign is Dean Sheremet, a celebrity chef who is also known for his divorce from the singer LeAnn Rimes. He stars in a Fox show called My Kitchen Rules and has had appearances on a number of other networks.
His latest business venture has been with the Propane Education & Research Council (PERC), a trade association made up of propane companies. Propane is a petroleum gas, a slightly distinct category from natural gas, and the smaller fuel source of the two used in just 5 percent of homes. Otherwise, propane and natural gas share the same characteristics as any kind of fossil fuel combustion.
PERC in the past has hired other TV personalities, like HGTV’s Matt Blashaw and science communicator Emily Calandrelli, to appear in sponsored ads on propane used for home heating and school buses. PERC confirmed to Vox that it “engaged with Dean Sheremet to educate consumers about the benefits of cooking with propane and to share best practices for cooking indoors.”
Appearing in a kitchen equipped with a ducted range hood and a propane placard propped in the background, Sheremet responded directly to the ongoing storm over indoor air quality. “I love propane,” the influencer said in multiple scripts. “They are absolutely safe.”
In the CBS San Diego segment, Sheremet said, “as a father of a 4-year-old, indoor air quality and just health in general is paramount for me.” He went on to advise viewers to turn on their hood or open a door for ventilation, but also “making sure we’re cooking with the proper oils at the proper temperature. You’re not just reaching for that bottle of olive oil, chucking in the pan and cranking it up and creating a bunch of smoke and fumes inside your home kitchen.”
On another segment aired on Everyday Northwest, a Portland-area program on KOIN, he noted, “there’s been a lot of misinformation and hysteria in the news and there’s been a lot of competing studies and I know that there’s further review that’s going to be needed. But for me as a chef, I want to teach people how to effectively cook and realize no matter what cooking source you’re using, you’re going to impact your interior air quality.”
In this segment, Sheremet’s relationship with PERC wasn’t disclosed at all. When Vox reached out for comment from the station, the show host and producer Ashley Howard replied, “This was not a sponsored piece for us. We do not have knowledge of the working relationship between Dean Sheremet and the Propane Education & Research Council.”
Sheremet did not respond to Vox’s requests for comment. PERC confirmed it did not pay Everyday Northwest for the segment, which was set up by a PR company.
At least seven of these segments aired on local stations after the recent controversy over gas stoves, several of them in markets where cities are considering phasing out gas and propane in new construction. Meanwhile, other segments did not clearly disclose Sheremet’s connection to PERC. The Hampton Roads Show notes his sponsorship in fine print. At no point in the interviews did Sheremet volunteer that he was working for PERC, aside from a small placard in his kitchen saying “propane.”
The blurry world of sponsored content, expert opinion, and faulty claims could pose legal and ethical problems for the propane and gas industry.
Gas stove influencers blur the lines of what’s ethical and legal
Gas stove influencers have been around for years. What’s new about Sheremet is the abrupt shift in content. “Previously we’ve seen influencers hired to talk up the benefits of cooking and the performance of stoves, and we’ve seen influencers on TikTok and other social media platforms discussing why they love cooking with gas,” said Charlie Spatz, a researcher with the fossil fuel watchdog group Energy and Policy Institute.
What’s especially new here, Spatz explained, is an influencer blaming the user. Earlier influencer campaigns by the American Gas Association and American Public Gas Association promoted stoves as stylish, accessible, and cool. Influencers often didn’t have the recommended range hoods that even the industry says is necessary to promote safe indoor air quality. Industry leaders often preferred to stay away from the indoor air quality debate entirely, like Sue Kristjansson, now president of Berkshire Gas, arguing in a 2021 email, “If we wait to promote natural gas stoves until we have scientific data that they are not causing any air quality issues we’ll be done.”
The calculus has clearly changed. Air quality was at the forefront of Sheremet’s recent appearances, but his emphasis is on user error rather than the appliance. For example, Sheremet noted in multiple appearances that all cooking produces emissions, and the type of cooking oil matters more. This is not true. While all cooking can produce some particulate matter, fossil fuel combustion adds emissions that would not be there if the appliance was induction.
“It’s a misdirection to blame the consumer for indoor air-quality problems when it’s the product itself that creates combustion emissions, including nitrogen dioxide, carbon monoxide, and benzene,” Spatz said.
The gas industry has had a problem on its hands as public awareness shifts to realize these consequences. Gas utilities and propane companies alike are dependent on selling gas to millions of Americans, and their future survival depends on expanding that base.
Gas utility trade groups like the American Gas Association (AGA) have had their own influencer campaigns that use the gas stove to gain favor with the public. The propane industry has had its own initiative fighting back.
Both PERC and AGA get their funding for anti-electrification efforts from companies that pass those costs along to consumers. Trade associations are supposed to use these fees for education and safety campaigns, but there is little oversight of their activities by the Department of Justice. Environmentalists have called into question whether promoting the gas stove’s health impacts should qualify.
“PERC takes its mandate from Congress to support the safe use of propane, provide for research and development, and educate consumers very seriously and does not use funds to influence legislation or elections,” PERC’s senior vice president of communications Erin Hatcher emailed Vox.
The PERC campaign also raises questions about whether it’s running afoul of Federal Trade Commission guidelines for advertisers and deceptive marketing around greenwashing. Earthjustice’s climate senior attorney Hana Vizcarra noted Sheremet’s assertion that propane leads to a “healthier lifestyle” and puts “less CO2 into the environment versus traditional electric cooking,” a claim that has no basis in data.
“At a minimum, I think they are veering into the deceptive practices territory, possibly violating guidance about how to be straight with your consumers around who is speaking on whose behalf, and truthful in what you’re saying,” Vizcarra told Vox.
PERC in particular faces scrutiny for its advertising practices. Following a New York Times investigation into PERC in January, four Democratic senators and one representative called on the Department of Energy to “exercise its statutory oversight responsibilities” to ensure funds collected by PERC are being used appropriately.
PERC maintained, “All of PERC’s sponsorships are in compliance with federal regulations identifying PERC as the sponsor. Stations are fully aware of their guests’ sponsors.”
The industry messaging will continue to shift as regulators and politicians take a closer look at the stove. The Consumer Product Safety Commission recently opened for comment on how to proceed on gas stoves’ health concerns, even though it has already taken any outright ban on new appliances off the table. Cities like Portland and states like New York are already considering regulations that would phase out gas pipelines to new buildings. Gas utilities and propane companies have been trying to influence that debate. “The gas industry’s clearly experiencing a lot of anxiety,” Spatz said.
But while the stoves are the battleground, there is far more on the line. Most of the industry’s profits come from gas used by larger appliances, including furnaces, water heaters, and, in some households, dryers. The gas stove is just the most visible and popular of these fossil fuel appliances — one that the industry is committed to defending to maintain an important mental foothold with the public.