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Utility Front Group Spreads Fear Over Natural Gas Ban

SoCalGas has been telling Southern Californians that they will lose natural gas in their homes due to coming state regulations.




natural gas facility
A SoCalGas natural gas facility in El Segundo. (Photo by Mario Tama/Getty Images)

This story was updated 1:40 p.m. PDT, Aug. 21.

For almost a year, representatives of the Southern California Gas Company (SoCalGas) have been traveling the state making presentations to city and county governments, local associations, and chambers of commerce. Using the words “balanced energy solutions,” they advocate for keeping natural gas in the energy mix, at least at the residential level. But there are a few problems with their lobbying campaign, according to regulators and environmental justice advocates. First, the utility has been hiding behind a front group called Californians for Balanced Energy Solutions, or C4BES. And this front group has been telling the public that they will be losing natural gas in their homdes due to coming state regulations — an assertion that’s untrue. Finally, it has been persuading city leaders to support an alternative to natural gas that is still a fossil fuel.

In January, when C4BES applied to participate in California Public Utilities Commission (CPUC) regulatory proceedings on state decarbonization, it claimed to be a consumer coalition and didn’t mention it was created by SoCalGas. The Sierra Club, in a public filing, exposed C4BES as an arm of SoCalGas, and also showed that rate payers were picking up the tab for C4BES’ efforts. The Public Advocate’s Office of the CPUC sees those omissions as deliberate misrepresentations and is recommending that SoCalGas be sanctioned for violating Rule 1.1, which says that anyone appearing before the CPUC agrees “never to mislead the Commission or its staff by an artifice or false statement of fact or law.”

“Utilities are not allowed to misrepresent fact,” says Michael Campbell, with the Public Advocate’s Office at the CPUC. Campbell said SoCalGas “inappropriately amplified their voice through C4BES, which is not a separate company.” That would make it seem like there are two parties presenting SoCalGas’ case when it’s really just one — a party with a financial interest in natural gas. Campbell said it is uncommon for the regulator to file for Rule 1.1 violations, and that SoCalGas can be fined $100,000 per instance of lying.

In an email response to Capital & Main, Christine Detz, a spokesperson with Sempra Energy, SoCalGas’ parent company, said:

“We have been transparent about our role in and financial support to Californians for Balanced Energy Solutions, a coalition of social service organizations, churches, health care facilities and business and labor organizations advocating for both natural and renewable gas to keep energy costs down, maintain customer choice, contribute to a strong economy and help California achieve its environmental targets.”

Detz added that the company’s participation in C4BES is no different than “the role of the Sierra Club and other clean energy advocates.”

“To give them credit, they’re very good at gaslighting us,” said Luis Amezcua of the Sierra Club’s My Generation campaign. “The bottom line is that SoCalGas has been anything but transparent. They denied their central role in forming the organization. It wasn’t until we presented the PUC with clear evidence to the contrary that they shifted to claiming this nonsense about being honest from the get-go.”

Last week, in the wake of the controversy, C4BES withdrew from the proceeding, slamming the CPUC for allowing “pro-electric interests groups to use a regulatory proceeding in such a manner as to ignore the viewpoints of millions of Californians who prefer to use natural gas, renewable natural gas, and propane.”

C4BES Message: They’re Coming for Your Gas

The C4BES site claims the support of three counties and 39 cities that passed resolutions in support of “more inclusive state energy policies that give citizens the right to choose how they want to power their homes and businesses while also protecting the environment.” These resolutions, which are nearly identical, lay out the municipalities’ opposition to any regulations that would ban natural gas in favor of all-electric appliances.

Clean energy advocates say C4BES has been using scare tactics about the state’s plans to electrify, and that they’re preying on low income communities and communities of color with their pitch.

In an op-ed published in the Long Beach Press-Telegram in July, the mayors of the Southern California cities of Diamond Bar, Rosemead, and West Covina, repeat the claim of C4BES. “It troubles us that the California Public Utilities Commission plans to force Californians to eliminate natural gas from their homes and go all-electric.”

Yet the only state laws addressing residential electrification, AB 3232 and SB 1477, signed by Governor Jerry Brown last year, offer incentives to electrify, but no bans on natural gas. So far the only part of California that is banning gas is Berkeley, starting next year, and that’s only for new homes and low-rise apartment buildings.

When pressed, Detz admitted that there was no proposed legislation in Sacramento to ban natural gas for residential use statewide, but said that “the CEC and CPUC have made it very clear, however, in their public comments that they want to electrify the state’s building supply.”

When questioned about whether regulators were considering any statewide ban of natural gas, Michael Campbell of the CPUC said they were not. For existing homes, there may be pilot programs “to encourage some customers to voluntarily switch fuels.” Californians, he said, “can feel safe they’ll get to keep using their gas ranges for the foreseeable future.”

Still, C4BES continues to warn communities that the state will be taking away their energy choices, a threat that is at the very least misleading. In C4BES’ Twitter feed (July 19), it suggests that if other cities follow Berkeley’s lead, consumers will pay the price: “Going full-electric could financially impact CA consumers on average more than $7,200.” The tweet doesn’t source that $7,200 figure.

It appears that C4BES is taking its messages to city and county leaders, not to the public. Capital & Main asked elected officials from seven cities who signed the C4BES resolutions why they did so, and whether there was any public comment period. Baldwin Park’s City Manager Shannon Yauchzee said, via email, that their resolution was a response to the state Legislature, which “has recently introduced various bills that would phase out and eliminate natural gas plumbing and use in future homes and businesses…” Yauchzee echoed C4BES’ contention that alternatives like renewable gas should be considered, and she said that no one spoke in favor or against the resolution.

Nobody spoke out for or against the resolution before it passed in Perris, California, either, according to city spokesperson Stephen Hale. “Objectively, there were no public comments on the topic, nor were there written submissions to the City Clerk’s office stating support or opposition for this resolution. As such, from the City’s perspective, there was no public pressure to pass the resolution.”

Renewable Natural Gas: Methane in a Green Package

In addition to warning communities that the state will take away their gas ranges, C4BES has been touting renewable natural gas (RNG), also called biogas, as a clean energy solution that should be expanded throughout the state. In the Press-Telegram op-ed, the mayors “urge all the CPUC commissioners to consider renewable natural gas to address carbon emissions from homes and businesses.”

RNG is methane generated from degradation of organic waste, from wastewater treatment plants, landfills, and dairy farms, and captured to prevent it from entering the atmosphere. That’s a good thing, because methane is a greenhouse gas. A recent study conducted by the National Resources Defense Council (NRDC) concluded that renewable gas could help in reducing emissions, but given its limited availability and high cost, it is unlikely to be a significant source of power for consumers.

Natural gas emits far less carbon dioxide, a greenhouse gas, than other fossil fuels such as coal, but leakage of natural gas from drilling and transmission releases methane, an element that’s much stronger than CO2 at trapping heat. Communities up and down the state have been saying no to new natural gas infrastructure because it would lead to “stranded assets” as the state decarbonizes by mid-century. The growing understanding that natural gas may be cleaner, but not clean enough to meet California’s climate goals, has created an opening for SoCalGas to promote renewable natural gas.

SoCalGas, through its C4BES reps, claims that it’s a clean alternative to natural gas, at least for residential use. That claim would be true enough if renewable natural gas were as plentiful as natural gas — it is not — and if it had zero emission of methane, which it does not. Despite these omissions, C4BES representatives have wooed many city leaders.

Clean energy advocates point out that while using captured methane is better than fossil methane (natural gas), it’s not a zero emission fuel. Methane can leak from the burning and transport of it. And switching from fossil gas to captured methane would require building new pipes and plants, all potential points of methane leakage, said Andrea Vidaurre, with the Center for Community Action and Environmental Justice. “We would have a chance of leakage and transfer of biomethane, and it locks you in to new infrastructure,” she said.

Panama Bartholomy, director of the Building Decarbonization Coalition, said that C4BES is targeting people who could most benefit from clean energy.

“It is low income and communities of color being impacted by [fossil fuels],” Bartholomy said. “Most of these homes have the worst ventilation. And these will pay the most when other communities get off fossil fuels, which is ironic. The reason is, their gas rates will rise because there are fewer and fewer gas customers as more people electrify.”

There is one county that is so far not receptive to C4BES’ campaign. In early August, the Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors passed a sustainability plan, which requires all new buildings and half of major building renovations to be net-zero carbon by 2025, for 75 percent of major building renovations to be net-zero carbon by 2035, and all major building renovations to be net-zero carbon by 2045. It does not, however, call for existing residents to retrofit their homes to eliminate natural gas appliances.

Before the board voted on the plan, a representative from C4BES made a pitch for renewable natural gas, a pitch that found no receptive audience. Gary Gero, the County’s chief sustainability officer said, “While we agree that by-product biogas should not be simply vented to the atmosphere or flared . . . it should be used in some beneficial way, we do not believe that it is a significant, long-term source of energy for our economy.” He added that renewable natural gas is a source of air pollution and that the L.A. County plan focuses on “real, long-term, achievable, zero energy strategies.”

Copyright Capital & Main

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