NW Natural has contributed nearly $950,000 to a campaign to overturn Eugene’s limit on natural gas use in new construction.
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Oregon’s largest gas utility has funneled nearly a million dollars of cash and in-kind contributions into a campaign to overturn a new electrification mandate in the state’s second-largest city.
Just days after the Eugene City Council voted on February 6 to ban gas hookups in new low-rise residential construction, a group named Eugene Residents for Energy Choice was registered with the Oregon Secretary of State.
Its materials frame the group as a grassroots coalition pushing back on Eugene’s electrification policy. “Our voices need to be heard,” its website states. “We encourage everyone who supports energy choice and who believes that the Eugene City Council ignored the will of the people to join us.”
But the group appears to be more astroturf than grassroots. As of late February, NW Natural appears to be its sole funder. Between February 10 and February 24, NW Natural gave close to $950,000 to the new group, including cash donations totaling $875,000 and in-kind contributions of $51,401 and $22,679. The group has since paid an outside company to gather enough signatures to put the law on November’s ballot.
“The notion that this is some kind of independent coalition is just a little bit nonsensical,” said Danny Noonan, a strategist at the Breach Collective, a Eugene-based climate justice organization.
Slowing Eugene’s Energy Transition
Eugene’s move to reduce use of methane gas has been long in the making. The city and NW Natural began talks about cuts to carbon emissions as part of a franchise agreement in 2019. Negotiations broke down in 2021, however, and the city has since held multiple public hearings on banning gas connections in new residential construction.
Climate advocates say such mandates are a common-sense step towards cutting carbon pollution. Residential and commercial buildings account for about a third of Oregon’s total greenhouse gas emissions — largely the result of burning gas for heating and cooking.
There have been steady efforts to foil Eugene’s move towards electrifying new buildings. In 2022, a newly-established group called Eugene for Energy Choice billed itself as “a collaboration with named partners and NW Natural.” Its website, which posted content opposing Eugene’s electrification push, closely resembled a separate NW Natural-sponsored site.
The website has since disappeared, and its address now reroutes to the website for Eugene Residents for Energy Choice. While the name has slightly changed, the new site contains similar content, tweaked to present a more grassroots feel, and there are no references to NW Natural. “We are a group of local Eugene residents working to refer the low-rise residential gas ban ordinance to the ballot,” the website states.
According to spokesperson Anne Marie Levis, there are 14 organizations in the group’s coalition, including NW Natural, the Eugene Chamber of Commerce, and Travel Lane County, as well as unions and agriculture organizations.
At a late November 2022 public hearing on the prospective gas ban, a large number of people showed up wearing coordinated buttons and stickers with slogans opposing the measure. The designs resembled the banner and logo that now appear on the Eugene Residents for Energy Choice website.
“The branding popped up overnight. They had green umbrellas and these green stickers saying ‘Energy Choice’ and ‘No Gas Bans,’” said Noonan. “It’s all stuff that we had not seen on the ground in Eugene until the November 21 public hearing on the ordinance.”
During a February hearing, City Councilor Matt Keating said, “I find it baffling that there is so much advocacy and enthusiasm to protect the interests of a fracked gas monopoly.”
Group Hires Anti-Gas Canvassers
Eugene Residents for Energy Choice appears to have one main purpose at the moment: getting the recently approved prohibition on new gas hookups onto the public ballot.
On February 7, a Newman Lake, Washington-based signature gathering contractor called Initiative & Referendum Campaign Management Services (IRCMS) posted job ads seeking canvassers in Eugene. “Along with Eugene Residents for Energy Choices [sic] and Northwest Natural Gas, we are actively reaching out to and educating our fellow citizens of Eugene on the positive aspects of being able to choose natural gas as an energy source in their home,” the ad stated.
On February 17, Eugene Residents for Energy Choice sent $350,000 to IRCMS, and an additional $155,000 on February 24. IRCMS did not respond to questions from DeSmog.
On February 21, Levis told KTVL News 10 that the group had collected more than the 6,500 signatures necessary to mount a ballot measure challenging the electrification law. In a February 28 email, the group stated that it had topped 10,000 signatures.
Once the city recorder has confirmed that enough signatures are valid, Eugene’s partial gas ban will qualify for the November ballot.
In late February, three Eugene residents represented by Earthjustice filed an appeal in the Lane County Circuit Court, asking to have language added to the ballot measure that explains how the electrification ordinance is necessary for the city to achieve its climate goals.
NW Natural has been pushing back on electrification efforts for several years. As DeSmog reported last year, the utility has engaged in lobbying, polling, and advertising campaigns aimed at turning public opinion against electrification and in favor of gas.
In 2021, NW Natural targeted children by offering gas-friendly activity booklets in English and Spanish to schools. Environmental groups criticized the booklets as industry propaganda.
In August 2022, citing DeSmog’s reporting, a coalition of more than two dozen Oregon community groups and environmental organizations called on Oregon’s attorney general and Department of Justice to investigate NW Natural’s record of misleading advertising.
Group Is Linked to Eugene PR Firm
In media appearances, Levis has described Eugene Residents for Energy Choice as a coalition of Eugene residents and businesses united in opposition to the gas ban.
Levis herself is the president and creative director of a Eugene-based PR firm called Funk/Levis & Associates, and sits on the board of the Eugene Chamber of Commerce, another foe of the city’s new gas ordinance.
Campaign finance records for the earlier group, Eugene for Energy Choice, list Levis as its director, and its mailing address as the Funk/Levis business address.
DeSmog asked both Eugene Residents For Energy Choice and Funk/Levis about the nature of their relationship, and their connections to NW Natural. Neither responded.
Noonan believes that based on the available information, Funk/Levis was hired to mount an opposition campaign against the gas ban. “All indications are they’re getting paid,” Noonan said, referring to Levis and Funk/Levis. “I don’t think it’s a personal crusade.”
David Funk, who founded Funk/Levis in the mid-1980s and left after selling his stake to Anne Marie Levis in 2008, told DeSmog that during his time as CEO, “as a matter of philosophy, we didn’t work with any industry that we felt was injurious to its employees or the environment, or created products or services that were shoddy or harmful.”
Funk said in an email that he has no knowledge of the company’s current operating philosophy or clients. “I can tell you that if I were still there, there would be no way we’d work with NW Natural,” Funk said. “On the contrary, we’d probably have worked with the opposition.”
NW Natural Bets on “Magic Bullets” to Address Climate
Oregon’s Climate Protection Program requires fossil fuel suppliers to cut their greenhouse gas emissions in half by 2035, and 90 percent by 2050. This presents a particular challenge to NW Natural, which sells only methane gas.
The utility says that it will cut its carbon by rolling out hydrogen, “renewable natural gas,” and gas-efficient appliances, plans that make “dangerous assumptions about alternative fuels” and bets on yet-to-be-developed “magic bullets,” according to the Oregon Citizens’ Utility Board (CUB), a utility watchdog group.
As DeSmog has previously reported, hydrogen technologies are expensive, scarce, and pose safety risks. Nearly 40 peer-reviewed studies looking at the viability of using hydrogen for heating buildings have found that it is very unlikely to play a significant role in the energy mix.
NW Natural nonetheless cites these speculative technologies to justify an ongoing expansion of its gas infrastructure and sales. Oregon CUB says this expansion will lead to higher carbon emissions, and threatens existing ratepayers by saddling them with ballooning costs for the gas utility’s proposed alternatives.
“Planning resources around continued growth is dangerous for customers that are left tied to the gas system either by choice or circumstance,” Oregon CUB analysts wrote in January.
The Stakes Are High for NW Natural
In November 2022, health officials in Multnomah County — the state’s most populous county, encompassing Portland and several of its suburbs — issued a report recommending that households transition away from gas appliances, highlighting the ample research showing that gas stoves and appliances emit a range of hazardous air pollutants that can contribute to asthma, cancer, heart disease, and other ailments.
Since then, The New York Times has exposed that NW Natural hired a toxicologist named Julie Goodman to downplay the health hazards of gas stoves at a public hearing about the report. Goodman has done similar work for other gas companies, according to The Times.
Eugene’s city council cited the health dangers of gas-burning appliances as a significant reason to transition to electric appliances. At the February 6 hearing, City Councilor Keating said that the new gas ban would be an important step in protecting renters from those hazards in future residential construction. “These are homes that do not yet exist. More than 80 percent of new homes are built with natural gas — fracked gas — hookups, in our community,” Keating said. “It’s our job in a representative democracy to do the right thing. I fundamentally believe this is one of a myriad of steps that are needed from a climate perspective, from a public health perspective, to do the right thing.”
Growing regional moves toward electrification represent a major risk to NW Natural’s revenues. According to a recent Sierra Club analysis, electrification mandates are either under consideration or established in 55 percent of NW Natural’s service territory in Oregon and the State of Washington. This includes 12 percent in Washington, which is about to begin requiring most new construction to use electric heat pumps for water and heating.
Noonan believes that NW Natural’s strategy is “to try and present a slower, more expensive, more speculative pathway for decarbonizing the fracked gas system through renewable natural gas, through different types of hydrogen, through offsets and other sorts of accounting tricks, to try and present that as somehow being equivalent or superior to electrification.”
Utilities Ramp Up Opposition to Gas Bans
Industry opposition to electrification is spreading nationwide, and so are industry-funded campaigns to stop it. In one case, Xcel Energy — a utility that sells both electricity and gas — has been connected with a front group campaigning against electrification in Colorado. An array of utilities, pipeline companies, and the American Petroleum Institute have also spent millions to foil similar efforts in New York.
National gas lobbying groups have been helping gas utilities craft greenwashing strategies, which include establishing astroturf organizations. In a recording of the American Gas Association’s March 2020 Leadership Conference, obtained and published by the Energy and Policy Institute, an AGA executive talked about the need for gas companies to set up such front groups because they come off as more convincing messengers to the public than the gas companies themselves.
“Again, we keep hearing from our message testing, the industry talking about industry isn’t effective. We really need our end users like AARP, the restaurants, home builders, laborers, and agricultural farmers specifically, are the more effective voices for us out there,” Sue Forrester, an AGA vice president in charge of public relations, told the conference.
AGA has used these groups to testify in front of city councils and legislatures, Forrester said, and that AGA intended to broaden its outreach “so that we have more friends on our side willing to talk about how great natural gas is.”
The American Gas Association is fighting electrification efforts across the country
One way it does that is by advising their members, gas utilities, to set up front groups
“Build a local and/or state consumer coalition to serve as the spokesperson for the natural gas industry” pic.twitter.com/P7JTGEpVdh
— Joe Smyth (@joesmyth) February 28, 2023
Climate advocates who see this strategy playing out in Eugene are concerned that NW Natural and its affiliates may spend enormous sums to convince the public to overturn the mandate.
“Just like when the tobacco industry saw the writing on the wall, NW Natural is throwing everything into a dirty and deceptive campaign to stop progress on public health and climate in its tracks,” wrote Dylan Plummer, a senior campaign representative of the Sierra Club and Eugene resident, in a blog post.
Aya Cockram, Coalition Coordinator for the Fossil Free Eugene Coalition, said in a statement that her group is “extremely concerned to see a multi-million dollar corporation with a state-guaranteed monopoly getting ready to spend untold amounts of money to roll back meaningful climate policy in our town.” Cockram is one of the three Eugene voters petitioning to add contextual language to the ballot measure.
“Utilities have a duty to act in the public’s interest,” said Cockram, “which is absolutely not being served by NW Natural’s aggressive campaign to attack our local leaders, run misleading advertisements, and undermine city policy.”