The natural gas industry bet billions of dollars that it can indefinitely extend its life as a “bridge fuel” away from coal-fired electricity to zero-carbon power sources.
Now that renewables are eating into natural gas’s share of the electricity market, gas companies are trying to barricade themselves inside homes across the United States, hoping that slowing the switch from gas stoves and heating systems to cleaner alternatives will preserve a profit stronghold.
In nearly two dozen states, that has meant successfully lobbying to ban cities from barring gas hookups in new buildings and mandating that developers go all-electric. But in Colorado, the nation’s largest gas-only utility has launched a new front group aimed at waging war against even modest proposals to nudge ratepayers toward electrification.
Coloradans for Energy Access, an industry-run nonprofit that seeks to recast gas companies’ concerns as grassroots activism, is taking aim at a proposal state regulators are considering to end subsidies for new gas lines as part of the Centennial State’s goal to cut greenhouse gas output in half by the end of this decade.
Audio HuffPost obtained of an internal meeting Coloradans for Energy Access held last month revealed that Texas-based utility Atmos Energy is playing a central role in the group.
“Happy to be here on behalf of Coloradans for Energy Access. My full-time job, just so you all know, I work for Atmos Energy,” Jennifer Altieri, Atmos Energy’s vice president of public relations, said in a recording of the Feb. 7 presentation. “We’re the largest natural-gas-only distributor in the nation. That’s all we do.”
Those last four words get to the heart of a widening fissure in the U.S. utility industry, which is the country’s No. 2 source of climate-changing emissions after automobiles. Some companies that sell both natural gas and electricity ― including major utilities in New York and California ― have begun to embrace the reality that decarbonization will mean growing their power sales at the expense of their gas businesses as ratepayers swap gas stoves, furnaces and appliances for electric alternatives.
But gas stalwarts have dug in deeper. Instead of directing money toward building out new, electric-friendly revenue streams, those utilities are investing millions to fight any change to the status quo, despite clear warnings from scientists that doing so dooms U.S. efforts to curb global warming.
“People are beginning to rally around getting gas combustion out of their homes around the nation,” said Rachel Golden, a principal at the nonprofit Rocky Mountain Institute’s carbon-free buildings program. “As fossil fuel companies see this progress, they’re investing millions to form these front groups to fight back and preserve their business.”
Since going live in January with a website and an opinion article in The Colorado Sun, Coloradans for Energy Access has made opposing a proposal before the Colorado Public Utilities Commission to remove subsidies for new gas lines and hasten the state’s shift toward electric appliances its priority. The regulatory body is hosting a hearing on the proposal Monday.
Though gas advocates say failure to subsidize the industry’s expansion will make gas more expensive, supporters of shifting away from fossil fuels say building more gas lines locks customers in to decades more use of a fuel whose pollution and volatile price swings can be easily avoided with modern technology. The concern over the highly technical issue highlights the true nature of the group’s constituency, said Amy Turner, a senior fellow at Columbia University’s Sabin Center on Climate Change Law.
“It’s not a headline issue of a natural gas ban or mandating electric or even net-metering policies,” Turner said. “These are very niche, very in the weeds. Someone had to do a lot of work to identify these policy elements and mobilize opposition against them.”
Atmos Energy, a nearly $16 billion company, partnered in that effort with FTI Consulting, the powerhouse consultancy behind many other fossil fuel industry propaganda campaigns. FTI employees staffed Energy in Depth and Western Wire, two pro-fossil fuel blogs that disguise themselves as journalism outlets.
FTI, based in Washington, D.C., also designed, staffed or even ran a network of fake grassroots groups with such names as Texans for Natural Gas, the Arctic Energy Center and Main Street Investors Coalition that The New York Times, in an investigation of FTI’s fossil fuel work, described as deliberately appearing “to be separate efforts to amplify local voices or speak up for regular people.”
During the nearly 50-minute call in February, William Allison, a senior director at FTI, said Coloradans for Energy Access’s purpose was to “protect and preserve access to natural gas in the state” and “make sure people have that choice and that freedom to choose the energy that suits them the most.”
Xcel Energy, Colorado’s largest utility, is also backing the group, as are a series of unions that work on fossil fuel projects. Some homebuilders groups ― who argue that designing houses and apartments for electric appliances raises costs, despite the fact that retrofitting those buildings to go electric after they’re built costs far more ― are also listed as part of the coalition.
Atmos Energy did not respond to a request for comment. FTI Consulting spokesperson Matthew Bashalany declined to “comment on, confirm or deny client engagements or reports of client engagements” but directed HuffPost to Gary Arnold, a leader at a Colorado pipefitters union that is part of Coloradans for Energy Access.
“Coloradans for Energy Access is a member driven and funded organization that’s focused on educating the public on the critical role that natural gas plays today in lowering emissions and keeping families warm at home,” Arnold, a business manager at Denver Pipefitters Local 208, wrote in an email. “Natural gas ― and the infrastructure that supports it ― provides good jobs [and] keeps [costs] low in homes and the workplace.”
A War With Many Fronts
The launch of Coloradans for Energy Access comes as local gas utilities have found increasingly crafty ways of disrupting policies to promote electrification, which advocates say is critical to not only eliminating the 13% of U.S. emissions buildings spew but also reducing the damage indoor air pollution from gas stoves and furnaces does to human health.
Late last year, Oklahoma Natural Gas, the state’s largest gas provider, urged regulators to allow it to impose an “exit fee” on ratepayers who quit gas service to go electric, forcing them to pay off up to $1,400 of the company’s debt.
St. Louis-based Spire Energy, a $3.5 billion gas firm, last month tried to torpedo a proposal in the next set of generic U.S. building codes to expand electric vehicle charging in commercial structures. The move came nearly three years after gas utilities teamed up to gut a series of pro-electrification provisions from the last set of U.S. building codes.
On the call, Atmos’s Altieri boasts that the company has helped pass pro-gas legislation in Texas, Louisiana, Mississippi, Tennessee, Kansas and Kentucky, which she described as “beautiful future states.”
“It’s been very successful,” she said, but noted that Colorado’s “intricacies” show “the dire need for a coalition like this to not just have one voice, the gas utilities out there or just propane, it has to be multiple voices that are out there protecting our products.”