Until recently, Autumn Johnson thought that criticizing utilities that were putting more dirty energy on the grid was all in a day’s work. “As an environmentalist, it is my job to be calling attention to doubling down on fossil fuels when we’re in the midst of a climate crisis,” she said.
But earlier this month, when she began publicly criticizing a recent decision by the Salt River Project (SRP), one of Arizona’s largest utilities, something surprising happened: Someone at the utility, she said, complained to her employer. Johnson’s experience isn’t unique, and highlights how utilities, some of the countries’ biggest decision-makers on energy policy, can also be some of the most sensitive players in the energy space, prone to shutting down valid criticisms or concerns about their policies and decisions—especially ones posted on social media.
At the end of August, SRP announced it wanted to build 16 new gas units at one of its generating stations, adding a whopping 820 additional megawatts of fossil fuel power to the grid. SRP has also claimed that that gas power would, incredibly, help the utility meet its sustainability and renewable energy goals. Natural gas is a major source of methane, a greenhouse gas 80 times worse than carbon dioxide. This seemingly last-minute plan riled up renewable energy advocates, environmentalists, investors, and the community at-large in Arizona.
As part of what she thought was her job at Western Resource Advocates (WRA), a nonprofit dedicated to conserving the Southwest’s land, water, and ecosystems, Johnson began tweeting about the project. She said that her “reason to take to Twitter and media broadly” is that average people have “no other avenues to push back” on utility decisions.
Johnson’s tweets about SRP are pretty innocuous. Since the utility’s announcement, she’s tweeted questions about SRP’s planning process and other alternatives it may have considered before deciding on such a large gas expansion, as well as comments about hoping for coal plant closures. Johnson isn’t alone in her opposition to the new plant: One of the links she shared was for a petition from the Sierra Club against the project.
SRP, apparently, took issue. Johnson said she was told the utility was upset her tweets were “trashing SRP.” Johnson said she was told that her activity was “potentially in conflict” with her organization’s social media policy and she was “being advised to tone it down.” She later tweeted about the incident.
Earther has reviewed internal WRA correspondence that confirms a representative from SRP “flagged” Johnson’s tweets for WRA. A spokesperson for SRP said in an email that the company was “not aware of any complaints made to an employer,” adding that it “respects individuals’ rights to free speech” and “welcomes public comment.” When I asked WRA about the incident, a spokesperson said the company had “looked into this matter, and [Johnson]’s tweet is inaccurate.”
Johnson is not an elected official, nor a member of the Arizona Corporation Commission, which regulates utilities in the state. I asked her why she thought SRP was so offended by her Twitter feed in particular.
“Good question—I don’t know,” she said. “I am a small fish. They gave me a much bigger platform than I ever had before. I don’t know if they’ve done this to other people and they haven’t spoken out or if I was singled out. There are certainly more aggressive tweets about this project that you can find on social media.”
It turns out Johnson is far from alone in being snitched on by a powerful utility. Keith Kueny, who is based in Portland, Oregon, was until recently a ratepayer advocate in Oregon, a role he held for seven years. His job was to advocate for the rights of lower-income customers at utility commission meetings. Last fall, Kueny recalled, smaller utilities began to push for resuming service shutoffs for customers who couldn’t pay their bills, even as the pandemic was still raging and winter was approaching. Kueny brought up the fact that many of the utilities’ board members had ties to commercial and industrial businesses at a meeting with the governor’s policy advisor and representatives from Mid-State Electric, a private, nonprofit utility, to discuss the issue of shutoffs. That led to what he said was a tense exchange with that utility’s representative.
The representative “kept saying, ‘we’re democratically elected, we’re democratically elected,’” Kueny recalled. (Members of Mid-State Electric are allowed to vote on the board of directors, although Kueny said that board members mostly run unopposed and, in his opinion, are essentially allowed to pick their successors and fellow board members.) “I said in the meeting it’s more like a banana republic. It was like I’d shot somebody.”
Shutoffs resumed after the meeting, Kueny told me. “I heard of a family from an agency I represented getting disconnected for 37 cents, in the winter, in a pandemic,” Kueny said. “I was pretty pissed off.”
Kueny took to Twitter, sharing an article about monopoly utilities, which, he said, represented the “moral rot of capitalism.” Later, Kueny was told by his supervisor that Mid-State Electric and the Oregon Rural Electric Cooperative Association, an industry group, had sent a letter to his employer stating they were unable to work with him anymore and asking for him to be fired, citing his tweet and his comments during the meeting. (Kueny kept his position, but, in a compromise, he said, he deleted the tweet. We’ve reached out to Mid-State Electric and the Oregon Rural Electric Cooperative Association for comment and will update this piece if we hear back.)
Meredith Connolly, who is also based in Oregon, serves as the state’s director at the nonprofit Climate Solutions. The group is focused on electrifying transportation, buildings, and other sectors. In 2019, Connolly said, she was tweeting generally about electrification and natural gas as part of a week to raise public awareness. Shortly afterward, she received an email from an employee at NW Natural, a publicly traded utility and natural gas distributor headquartered in Portland.
“It said something like, ‘Somebody slid me some copies of what you’re posting, would love to talk about where we see eye-to-eye and where we don’t,’” Connolly said. “I was, like, ‘that’s strange.’”
The NW Natural employee asked to meet for coffee, and Connolly agreed. At the meeting, “I was presented with printouts of tweets of mine,” she said. “They’d been forwarded by someone at NW Natural, so someone was clearly checking my Twitter feed to see what I was saying.”
Connolly remembered one of her tweets referencing a 2018 natural gas explosion in Massachusetts that killed one person and injured 22 others as being of particular concern for the employee.
“The conversation started, like, ‘We think we’re part of the energy solution,’ and then the conversation evolved to, ‘By tweeting this out you’re making light of safety, and we take that really seriously,’” she said. “It struck a personal chord for me because we had a block blow up in Portland a couple years ago from a gas leak on Northwest 23rd. I’d been on maternity leave walking with my two-month-old down that street, and the next day it exploded.”
Connolly said she refused to delete the tweets “I told [the employee] that this is part of the product—it’s not making light of it, it’s building awareness.” (Earther has reached out to NW Natural for comment and will update this post if we hear back.)
Connolly said that utilities flagging what they deem problematic tweets is not a rare occurrence: Her boss has gotten calls before from utilities raising concern about tweets that critique their policies. But having printouts of her tweets physically handed to her asking for edits—which isn’t even possible—was “bizarre,” she said.
“It made me just wonder—what are they saying or asking of elected officials, if they have this attitude to a climate advocate?” she said.
There is one way to figure that out: follow the money. David Pomerantz, the executive director of the Energy and Policy Institute, pointed out in an email that utilities across the country have consistently used their charitable donations to intimidate politicians and local groups into doing what they want.
“Monopoly utilities have a long history of using their virtually unlimited pots of money, collected from customers with no choice in the matter, to buy off or silence any opposition to their plans to build fossil fuel plants,” Pomerantz said. “While I can’t get inside the heads of utility executives and lobbyists at Salt River Project or other utilities, I suspect that history leads them to think that any critic is someone they can bully or buy.”
As with most jobs, it’s understandable that nonprofits would expect their employees to use discretion on social media. But utilities that are providing energy services to entire regions of the country—many of which function as near-monopolies with little to no competition—should get a healthy dose of criticism and scrutiny. There are valid criticisms of policies that will impact millions of people and products that damage the climate and can endanger lives like natural gas. Outside advocates shouldn’t be bullied by big companies into keeping those criticisms quiet given the stakes.
“In some ways, it’s surprising that utilities still react with such thin skin, given that environmental and consumer advocates have been criticizing them for years,” Pomerantz said. “But maybe it shouldn’t be: monopolies don’t have to face competition like normal businesses do, and I think that in many corners of the industry, that’s bred a lot of arrogance.”
Johnson has a similar sentiment. Even though WRA had asked her not to tweet further, she’d decided to go the opposite route and publicize her interaction with SRP. (And despite SRP’s alleged concern that Johnson’s tweets would harm their image, the board narrowly decided Monday to allow the Coolidge expansion—amid widespread criticism from the larger environmental community in Arizona.)
“If utilities can get away with stuff like this, it emboldens them to try and silence and intimidate other people,” she said. “I don’t think that’s acceptable.”
Correction 9/15/21 4:58 P.M. ET: This piece has been updated to correct the spelling of David Pomerantz’s last name.