At the end of April, the Twitter account for Eversource, the biggest utility in New England, posted an upbeat video on the utility’s clean energy goals full of rich stock footage of windmills and solar panels and set to a rousing gospel-style song.
“We’re building a #cleanenergy future by investing in offshore wind, solar, battery storage, and electric vehicle charging projects while working toward our goal of being #carbonneutral by 2030,” the accompanying tweet read.
But behind the scenes, there’s much more panic around the future of fossil fuels than the utility seems to be letting on. Documents obtained by E&E News and published Monday demonstrate how a natural gas consortium that included Eversource as a co-leader as recently as last month is scrambling to regroup and go on the attack against challenges to its product.
“Natural gas (fossil fuel) in for fight of it’s [sic] life,” reads one bolded bullet point in the slides E&E News obtained that are authored by Energy Solutions Center, a nonprofit gas advocacy group. “How can we take advantage of power outage fear?” reads another slide.
The Energy Solutions Center is an independent arm of the American Gas Association, the industry’s biggest trade group, and presented the slides at a natural gas conference in Boston in mid-March. Eversource, which recently paid $1.1 billion to acquire a natural gas company, has tried to distance itself from ESC after its affiliation with the group became public. A spokesperson for Eversource told E&E News that “the company does not and will not support any efforts that conflict with the company moving our gas business toward a cleaner energy future for our customers” and that “the affiliation to this effort was not supported by Eversource Gas leadership.”
Despite Eversource’s distancing, the list of 15 other consortium members named in the ESC presentation includes utilities from all over the country, including regional giants like Exelon, SoCalGas, and Washington Gas. The group also includes the gas distribution arm of Enbridge Inc, the Canada-based company that operates the controversial Line 3 pipeline that has become a hotspot of protest in recent months.
These companies have reason to fear for the future of their product. After Berkeley, California became the first city in the world to ban natural gas hookups in new buildings in 2019, dozens of cities across the country have followed suit in rapid succession. Many of these bans are in California, but Massachusetts, where Eversource is based, has become a particular hotspot after the city of Brookline took up a prolonged fight to ban natural gas hookups in new buildings. The state also has a goal of reaching net zero emissions by 2050, which includes focusing on eliminating emissions from heating and cooling homes and buildings—where natural gas plays a big role.
And the industry’s drive to “take advantage of power outage fears” mentioned in the slide here echoes themes playing out in Texas following February’s catastrophic blackouts. Despite the fact that natural gas availability was a large part of the grid’s failure during the storms earlier this year, Texas lawmakers have leaped to the industry’s defense, claiming that natural gas is the only “reliable” form of power. In Texas, this has translated over to legislative action. Earlier this year, lawmakers passed a bill banning any local action banning hookups like the ones that have played out elsewhere in the U.S. The bill’s original authors amended the original text to provide post-blackout justification for natural gas as a reliable source of power.
This Texas bill is not unique; it has got siblings all over the country. The American Gas Association has already taken action to lobby for dozens of bills in statehouses across the country to prevent more Berkeleys from popping up. In February, the Washington Post reported that SoCalGas—which again, is listed as an ESC consortium member on the slides obtained by E&E News—has a front group to fight against gas bans that “makes no mention of the gas company or the group’s industry links.” And some of the lobbying has worked: At least five states have adopted bans on bans, while 10 more are considering their own version.
Even without slides leaked to E&E News, it’s clear that the natural gas industry is on its heels. The trick will be distinguishing fact from spin as they amp up their campaigns against electrification.