A gas utility fought to keep two Colorado towns hooked on fossil fuels
MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:
You likely know that cars and power plants can be major sources of the pollution that drives climate change, but another big source is buildings - our homes, our businesses. Some communities are now trying to move buildings off fossil fuel energy. They are running into powerful opponents - local utility companies. Sam Brasch of Colorado Public Radio reports.
SAM BRASCH, BYLINE: Crested Butte is a tiny snow globe of a ski town tucked into the Rocky Mountains. About 1,500 people live here, and Mayor Ian Billick says climate change is a top issue.
IAN BILLICK: We're a tourism-driven economy that really relies upon snow and skiing.
BRASCH: That's why he's showing off the town's newest major construction site. Billick says it's not just a future housing development. It's a climate solution. That's because last year, Crested Butte became Colorado's first community to ban natural gas in new buildings. The fuel is a major contributor to climate change and currently heats most homes in the state. This new development, however, will rely on electricity for heating and cooking so it can run on climate-friendly wind and solar.
BILLICK: We didn't change the regs to say everybody has to convert to electricity. We changed the regs to say new construction have to have electricity. And so this is actually - it seems like a bold step, but it's actually a pretty small step.
BRASCH: But similar policies have hit roadblocks in other communities. One example is just 30 miles down a highway in Gunnison, Colo. - population 6,500. Last year, the city presented a more modest update to its building code to make it easier for future residents to ditch natural gas. That gained the attention of Atmos Energy, the gas provider for both communities and the biggest gas-only utility in the country.
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KEN FOGLE: Good evening, council. My name is Ken Fogle, and I'm the vice president of marketing for Atmos Energy.
BRASCH: The company sent an executive to testify at a city council hearing. It also blasted an email to all of its local customers, warning the plan would boost local energy rates and even increase climate pollution.
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FOGLE: You might find it interesting that today, a home in Gunnison actually produces less carbon emissions than an all-electric home that's connected to the grid.
BRASCH: Local officials found both claims misleading, but Gunnison's council ultimately scrapped the proposal. Gunnison Mayor Diego Plata says that decision came down to potential problems with the local electric grid. Still, he was shocked Atmos went so far out of its way to block the plan.
DIEGO PLATA: It seemed like advocacy work. And for just somebody that's providing natural gas, it falls somewhat outside of what a gas company should be doing.
BRASCH: And this is far from Atmos' only effort to scuttle climate action. In Colorado, the company founded a grassroots group to organize unions and small companies against similar standards, and it unsuccessfully lobbied to block a state-level green building standard. Across the country, utilities from California to New York have taken similar actions, says David Pomerantz. He leads a climate advocacy group called the Energy and Policy Institute.
DAVID POMERANTZ: Right now, gas utilities in particular are some of the biggest obstacles we have to climate action.
BRASCH: And Pomerantz argues that's a big problem because states grant utilities monopolies. That means customers can't switch and the companies have a guaranteed source of income - your energy bill.
POMERANTZ: And that allows them to kind of supercharge their lobbying efforts with, you know, what's essentially public money.
BRASCH: Now, federal rules ban utilities from lobbying with customer dollars, but there are loopholes. Take Atmos' advocacy in Gunnison. A spokesperson didn't respond to emails to clarify if the company classified that as lobbying. Earlier this year, Colorado passed a law sponsored by Democratic state Senate President Steve Fenberg to try to close those loopholes.
STEVE FENBERG: We define lobbying relatively broadly to say if you are trying to influence the outcome of a regulation, a law, an ordinance, that's considered lobbying.
BRASCH: Back in Crested Butte, Mayor Billick says he appreciates the new law but doubts it'll stop companies like Atmos from protecting their bottom lines. The company fought his town's gas ban, too, arguing it would raise costs. But he says it passed anyway after local contractors testified that going electric wouldn't add to housing prices. And if more communities want to electrify, he thinks they'll need to be ready to stand up to their own utilities.
For NPR News, I'm Sam Brasch in Crested Butte, Colo. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.
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