Texas Gas Companies are Pulling Strings in Local Green Energy Policy

By Amy Lupica, ODP Staff Writer

In the wake of one of the largest power losses in United States history, the conversation about green energy in Texas is back in the headlines. Emily Holden and two other investigative reporters collaborated on a story that ran in The Guardian, The Texas Observer, and San Antonio Report exposing how the Texas Gas Service was successful in significantly watering down a plan by the city of Austin to reduce the use of natural gas there in the future. The reporters uncovered that the gas company “drafted line-by-line revisions to weaken the plan, asked customers to oppose it and escalated its concerns to top city officials” in Austin.  Likewise, they found in San Antonio that CPS Energy paid for “the city’s plan-writing process, replacing academics with its preferred consultants and writing its own ‘Flexible Path’ that would let it keep polluting.”

Why This Matters: The oil industry has spent billions to manipulate the national conversation around green energy. Over the last 30 years, five of the nation’s largest oil companies have spent $3.6 billion on advertisements alone, not including public relations or campaign donations. In these ads, the industry touts natural gas as a greener alternative to coal and oil, but the ads don’t tell the full story of leaking methane, water pollution, and even earthquakes caused by fracking. This trio of investigative reporters has shown how the gas company was able to heavily influence city policies designed to reduce carbon emissions. The same thing is likely happening in other cities, which are now on the leading edge of climate change policy innovation.

What Went Down In Texas

The city of Austin’s plan to shift away from natural gas was an “existential crisis” for the Texas Gas Service, the state’s third largest natural gas distributor. The original plan included eliminating nearly all natural gas in new homes by 2030 and in existing homes by 2040. Based on that plan, all homes would undergo “electrification” and run on electricity for heat, hot water, and stoves. But Texas Gas Service wasn’t having it. The company went line by line, broadening language and offering “help” to the city by suggesting plans to implement strategies that would remove carbon from the air while allowing them to continue burning fossil fuels. In one case, it replaced the term “electric vehicles” with “alternative fuel vehicles” to ensure that natural gas was still on the menu.

The worst part? It worked. The new draft of the plan extends the company’s window to sell natural gas and allows for the offset of carbon emissions in place of actually eliminating them. It turns out this method is tried and true.  In San Antonio, Texas, electricity and gas companies spent money to sponsor the city’s plan-writing process, strategically placing “preferred consultants” in positions to write policy favorable to fossil fuels.

In Austin, the city is reconsidering its plan after facing backlash from activist groups. But gas company meddling doesn’t end there. Lawmakers in 12 states have proposed bills that would prevent cities from banning natural gas use in buildings both old and new. In keeping with linguistic strategies used by Texas Gas Service, many of these bills are promoting “energy choice.” But now, Texans have experienced the consequences of choosing natural gas, privatized energy grids, and large corporations. Now, they’ll have to fight to keep those “choices” out of green energy policy.

To Go Deeper:  Read the full story — including the trail of documents — in The Texas Observer and San Antonio Report.

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