Author: Maxine   Joselow       Published:  6/21/2023      Washington Post

That’s about to change in three states — Colorado, Connecticut and Maine — that recently passed laws to prohibit this practice.

Proponents of the measures, which garnered bipartisan support, say they will prevent customers from footing the bill for political activities they might oppose, including lobbying against climate policies. They acknowledge the measures

“What we’ve seen in the last few months is a real turning point, where public officials have become aware and alarmed — appropriately — that utilities are forcing their customers to pay for their political operations,” said David Pomerantz, executive director of the Energy and Policy Institute, a utility watchdog group.

While federal and state regulations already bar utilities from spending ratepayer funds on lobbying, they often use a very narrow definition of lobbying and are full of “loopholes,” Pomerantz said.

Big money in Maine

Some utilities spend millions of dollars annually to influence legislation, ballot initiatives and other policies. Maine offers a prime example.

In November, Maine voters will weigh a ballot initiative aimed at buying out the assets of Central Maine Power and Versant, which distribute 97 percent of the state’s electricity, and replacing them with a new not-for-profit utility. Already, the parent companies of Central Maine Power and Versant have spent $18.4 million fighting the initiativeFloodlight News and the Portland Press Herald reported.

Maine state Sen. Mike Tipping (D), who sponsored the new legislation, said he understands why it passed last week on a bipartisan basis, with three Republican lawmakers in each chamber voting yes.

“I think folks on both sides of the aisle have seen some of the problems here,” Tipping said. “I mean, Maine is not a big state, and when these monopoly utilities spend tens of millions of dollars, it’s pretty obvious.”

Central Maine Power testified in February that it was “neither for nor against” the legislation. Spokesman Jon Breed said in an email that the utility already complies with regulations preventing the use of ratepayer money for political spending, despite advocates’ concerns about loopholes.

Trade groups

Many utilities pay dues to trade groups that also spend big on political activities.

In fact, the Edison Electric Institute, the main trade group for investor-owned utilities, paid for Facebook ads urging people to oppose the legislation in Connecticut and Colorado.

Steve Fenberg, president of the Colorado state Senate, said he thinks it’s “ironic” that the ads claimed the bills would raise costs for customers, even though the cost of the ads was potentially passed on to customers.

Brian Reil, a spokesman for the Edison Electric Institute, said EEI’s political ads can’t come from consumer dollars and said the trade group has provided a “careful accounting breakdown” in its annual lobbying and advocacy report. He also defended the ads and EEI’s broader engagement with policymakers.

“These misguided state policies are driving up costs for customers at a time when electric companies are hard at work trying to keep costs down,” Reil said in an email.

“Increasingly, we are seeing environmental groups and dark money groups masquerading as environmental ‘watch dogs’ that believe they are the only ones that policymakers should be allowed to speak with, which is absurd,” he added.

Karen Harbert, president and chief executive of the American Gas Association, which has lobbied state lawmakers across the country to prohibit local governments from banning natural gas in new buildings, also criticized the legislation.

“Efforts to silence the voice of the American Gas Association … could undercut the industry’s ability to access the very services that directly benefit their customers and communities,” Harbert said in an email.

The impact

So just how much money can residents of Maine, Colorado and Connecticut expect to save on their energy bills in the coming months? The bills’ backers acknowledge that the financial impact might be small — but they say the impact on transparency might be greater.

In addition to barring utilities from spending ratepayer money on political activities, the bills require utilities to better disclose these activities in the first place. In Connecticut, for instance, utilities will be forced to file annual disclosures to the state Public Utility Regulatory Authority with itemized lists of expenses starting next year.

Meanwhile, the bills’ backers hope the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission takes similar action at the national level. In 2021, the commission said it would consider preventing utilities from charging customers for trade association dues in response to a petition from the Center for Biological Diversity.

“The states have the power to do this themselves, but the good thing about FERC acting would be a uniform standard across all states,” said Howard Crystal, legal director of the center’s Energy Justice Program.

Update: This story has been updated with EEI’s response to Fenberg’s quote.

Climate in the courts
The EPA’s power to tackle coolant smuggling was just cut down
Customers shop in the frozen foods section of a Costco store in Louisville. (Luke Sharrett/Bloomberg News)

A federal court yesterday limited the Environmental Protection Agency’s ability to phase out hydrofluorocarbons, or coolants that significantly contribute to climate change and are typically used in air conditioners or refrigerators, Bloomberg’s Jennifer Hijazi reports.

The U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit ruled that the EPA can continue to set strict limits on HFCs, but the agency can’t require refillable, coded containers that make those limits easier to enforce. The decision, which was written by Trump appointee Justin Walker, comes after Congress last fall ratified the Kigali Amendment to the 1987 Montreal Protocol, a treaty aimed at slashing the global use of HFCs.

On the Hill
House Republicans probe League of Conservation Voters
President Biden speaks during the League of Conservation Voters’ annual dinner on June 14. (Bonnie Cash/UPI/Bloomberg News)

Republicans on the House Natural Resources Committee yesterday sent a letter to the League of Conservation Voters expressing concern that the environmental group potentially violated the Foreign Agents Registration Act.

The lawmakers wrote that they are concerned about LCV’s “potential funding by foreign nationals.” They noted that since 2016, the Swiss billionaire Hansjörg Wyss has donated $245 million to the Sixteen Thirty Fund and the New Venture Fund, which in turn have contributed to LCV. The Wyss Foundation also issued a grant of $210,000 to the League of Conservation Voters Education Fund in 2020.

Under the Foreign Agents Registration Act, foreign nationals such as Wyss are prohibited from contributing either directly or indirectly to domestic political campaigns. The Republican lawmakers asked LCV to provide a tranche of documents, including communications between its employees and representatives of the Wyss Foundation, by July 15.

Asked for comment on the letter, LCV spokesman David Willett said in an email: “LCV & related entities comply fully with the law. We will review the letter to determine our appropriate response.”

Pressure points
Buying renewable energy doesn’t mean what you think
Illustration by Hailey Haymond/The Washington Post. (Illustration by Hailey Haymond/The Washington Post)

Thousands of households, companies and cities purchase renewable electricity credits to meet their climate goals and bolster sustainability claims. But buying those credits doesn’t actually mean they’re running on clean energy, The Post’s Shannon Osaka and Hailey Haymond report.

In theory, a company in West Virginia might use 25 megawatt-hours of electricity a year that’s primarily coming from coal. But the company could buy renewable credits from a wind farm in Texas — which supplies the local power grid there — and claim that its electricity is entirely pollution-free.

That company “could report publicly that its emissions have gone to zero,” said Michael Macrae, a senior manager at the World Resources Institute. “But does the Earth see less emissions?”

When the renewable energy sector was just getting started, such credits were meant to help get fledgling wind and solar farms off the ground. But now, as renewables become cheaper and more accessible, the credits seem more like a way for companies to claim to be green without doing much.

One possible solution, experts said, is realigning renewable credits with the needs of the electricity grid by requiring companies to buy credits for each hour that they operate and on their own state’s grid.

In the atmosphere