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About this blog: Climate change, despite its outsized impact on the planet, is still an abstract concept to many of us. That needs to change. My hope is that readers of this blog will develop a better understanding of how our climate is evolving a...  (More)

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Your Palo Alto utility payment funds this gas lobbyist

Uploaded: Aug 23, 2020
Every now and then I mention the influence of the oil and gas lobbies in California, most recently on the design of cap-and-trade. It turns out that the City of Palo Alto Utilities has been a contributing member to one of these lobbying organizations, the American Public Gas Association (APGA), to the tune of around $20,000 a year. (1)

Your utility payments are going to an organization that fights against efficiency standards, fights against lower-emission buildings, and actively promotes the benefits of “clean natural gas”. Here are a few examples.

Fighting efficiency standards
In 2016 the Obama administration finalized new efficiency standards for large equipment (e.g., commercial boilers) that would save a substantial amount of money and emissions. The Trump administration pushed back in court, arguing that the word “will” meant “may”, and therefore they didn’t have to publish the new standards. After 3.5 years and a lawsuit, the appeals court ruled unanimously that “will” means “shall”, so the standards need to be published. (Yes, this is how our tax dollars are being used…) But APGA just a few months later filed a lawsuit to overturn those standards.

Opposing lower-emission buildings
Buildings represent about 25% of California’s greenhouse gas emissions, so we need to clean up our power and replace gas heating with efficient electric appliances (e.g., heat pumps). APGA understandably views this as a threat to the gas industry and is opposing these efforts. In 2018 our state assembly was considering bill AB 3232, which asked the California Energy Commission to come up with policies to reduce building emissions by 40% below 1990 levels by 2030. It was supported by a wide range of organizations, including: Efficiency First California, Physicians for Social Responsibility, the California American Lung Association, Natural Resources Defense Council, the Sierra Club, Earthjustice, and Fossil Free California. In opposition? APGA and other gas industry advocates: California Renewable Gas Association, Western Propane Gas Association; the California Natural Gas Producers Association. (2)

Similarly, APGA is opposing city legislation to require new buildings to be all-electric, such as we’ve seen in many local cities, including San Jose. As the now-CEO of APGA put it: “We're also concerned that as California goes, does that ... spread east? Does it go to Massachusetts? Does it go to Pennsylvania?" (3)

Promoting gas appliances
APGA has been working to promote gas appliances and help people see them in a favorable light, particularly millennials and others looking to buy homes or appliances. Their guidance for promoting natural gas barbecues: “Yes, it is about better grilling, but it is even more about how natural gas helps provide good times together.”


Source: Style Guide for APGA's “Natural Gas. Genius” campaign

Joining forces with climate deniers
APGA is not a particularly large organization, so it understands that it needs to leverage work done by others to get the message out. “Winning the communications war is essential to our survival as an economically viable segment of the energy industry going forward.” Here are some of the organizations it aspires to get content from.


APGA aims to use content from some of the most prominent climate-denying organizations. Source: APGA Media and Public Outreach Campaign (2018)

If you are not comfortable with your utility payments going to APGA, please reach out to the City of Palo Alto Utilities (650-329-2161 or [email protected]) and/or email our Utilities Advisory Commission at [email protected]

I reached out to both the utility and the commission for comment several days ago, but have not heard back.

Notes and References
0. Thank you to Matt Vespa, staff attorney at Earthjustice, for background on APGA and a link to their 2018 Media and Public Outreach Campaign.

1. This post was inspired by a recent article in The Guardian that mentions Palo Alto and APGA, and talks more generally about how the gas industry fights climate efforts.

2. AB 3232 did pass and was signed into law by Jerry Brown in 2018.

3. Incredibly, due in part to the influence of the fossil fuel lobby, four states (Arizona, Louisiana, Oklahoma, and Tennessee) have recently passed laws banning any city in those states from passing an electrification law for new buildings.

Current Climate Data (July 2020)
Global impacts, US impacts, CO2 metric, Climate dashboard (updated annually)

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Comments

 +   5 people like this
Posted by Neighbor, a resident of Fairmeadow,
on Aug 23, 2020 at 12:00 pm

Neighbor is a registered user.

Thank you for another informative post. I just emailed the Utilities department to ask why our money is going to the APGA.


 +   7 people like this
Posted by jc, a resident of another community,
on Aug 23, 2020 at 3:00 pm

jc is a registered user.

Better to ask council members why the city manager included this in his annual budget. The city manager has complete control of budget decisions in this cost range.


 +   1 person likes this
Posted by Sherry Listgarten, a Almanac Online blogger,
on Aug 23, 2020 at 3:33 pm

Sherry Listgarten is a registered user.

Thanks for the comments!

@Neighbor: Let us know if you hear anything. I would like to know what the value is that the city gets from their membership, and if they have pushed back at all, perhaps with other APGA members, against APGA's lobbying and marketing activities.

@JC: Good point, though I'd rather the utility reconsider their contribution to APGA than go around them and ask the city manager to micro-manage this aspect of the utility budget. It's also not clear to me that our city manager would be more inclined to review this than our utility. Our utility is very aware of and committed to reducing the impact of natural gas on global warming.

I will update this post if I hear back from the utility or any members of the Utilities Advisory Commission.


 +  Like this comment
Posted by Robin, a resident of Cuesta Park,
on Aug 24, 2020 at 4:18 pm

Robin is a registered user.

How did you find that information, Sherry, about the $20K donation? I wonder if Mountain View makes similar donations. I looked on the City of Mountain View website and in the 2020-21 budget, and there was no specific discussion of anything similar. But there are multiple vague expenditure categories in the budget, so it may be masked.
Thanks,
Robin


 +   1 person likes this
Posted by Sherry Listgarten, a Almanac Online blogger,
on Aug 24, 2020 at 4:40 pm

Sherry Listgarten is a registered user.

@Robin, great question. Palo Alto's membership was reported in a few places, such as this Guardian article. Two friends asked me about it, and attorney Matt Vespa (at Earthjustice) sent me copies of checks going a few years back, which he got via a public records request. The Climate Investigations Center has also done a bunch of digging on oil and gas trade associations, including APGA.

APGA is only for municipal utilities. Mountain View and Menlo Park both get their gas from PG&E, which is a member of AGA (American Gas Association). A good place to start looking at what marketing/advocacy activities AGA engages in is here.


 +   1 person likes this
Posted by Steven Nelson, a resident of Cuesta Park,
on Aug 25, 2020 at 3:27 pm

Steven Nelson is a registered user.

PA has a municipal-owned public utility. The CITY COUNCIL is the final decider of PA Public (Utility) Policy. The City Manager and all the departments (including Utilities) is under the utter and complete control of the Council.

Adopted Policy and year-to-year annual Budget adoptions: ANY BUDGET (line item) may be 'amended by a motion of a Council member' when it is on the Council 'floor' for adoption: simple majority for adoption.

Start with COUNCIL first!

This is a Public Policy mater. Utilities may have their own 'agenda" / not nefarious but just based on their own backgrounds and professional friendships. It doesn't matter. And in Mountain View - we buy the gas directly from PG&E.


 +  Like this comment
Posted by Steven Nelson, a resident of Cuesta Park,
on Aug 25, 2020 at 3:48 pm

Steven Nelson is a registered user.

Sherry, here is a good - GAS related question. Is it better that I heat-my-house with electricity / natural gas / or renewable cellulose pellets (CO2 in&out of the atmosphere via trees).?

I know you have posted about heat-pumps. With the current 'mix' of wind-solar-?? electricity how do the numbers payout/playout (just heating). In my (2) 1950s subdivision blocks, we are starting to see 2X replacement housing. All of it has air conditioning! So summer electricity use goes WAY up. There have been (2) 1,200 Volt / to 120 Volt transformer replacements in the last months (these serve 7-10 old houses). One a heat-load blowout and another an 'upgrade capacity needed'.

HVAC (heat) and cooking (stovetop/grill) seem the viable near-term reasons to use gas. Or: should I use 'pellet stove' heating and charcoal (fla'emergency' me) grills? (we have an "all electric" oven! / bless us). I have no medical need for a natural gas powered automatic electric generator.


 +   1 person likes this
Posted by Neighbor, a resident of Fairmeadow,
on Aug 25, 2020 at 6:16 pm

Neighbor is a registered user.

Hi Sherry, I got a response from the city. They said they would post it on the website but I don't see it there so the full message is below:

The City of Palo Alto is committed to combatting climate change. The City has been a leader in reducing emissions in its electric supply and now provides 100% Carbon Neutral electricity from wind, solar, hydroelectric, and landfill gas. It recently adopted an Energy Reach Code mandating that all new residential construction be 100% electric. The City's Sustainability and Climate Action Plan sets the City a goal of reducing emissions 80% from 1990 levels by 2030, and envisions extensive electrification of buildings and vehicles. These efforts will greatly reduce or eliminate natural gas use in Palo Alto. However, as long as homes and businesses in Palo Alto remain connected to the City's natural gas distribution system, the City still must continue to operate its gas utility safely and reliably for the health and welfare of its customers.

The City belongs to industry groups like the American Public Gas Association (APGA), American Public Power Association (APPA), and American Water Works Association (AWWA) primarily to gain access to resources that enable small utilities like the Palo Alto's to safely and reliably operated their systems. Each of these organizations provides critical resources to enable us to manage our systems. APGA, for example, provides tools for managing system integrity according to best practices and promote public awareness of best practices for underground construction to avoid damage to gas lines. They also facilitate industry-wide sharing of information about the safety and reliability of different pipeline materials used in the gas system. Lastly, they represent small utility interests with the Department of Transportation and ensure regulations are formulated in ways that small utilities can comply with. Large gas utilities with large workforces are able to staff all of these different activities internally, but small utilities like Palo Alto require collaborative industry associations like APGA to operate safely and reliably.

The City is aware of APGA's advocacy efforts and has expressed concerns about the AGPA's positions. APGA staff is aware that Palo Alto does not share its positions. However, while APGA has commented in California proceedings related to building electrification, it is hard to see it as a strong political force in California. Of over 700 APGA members, only about 20 are located west of Denver, Colorado. Only five of those are in California. Of greater impact are pro-gas advocacy groups based primarily in California and funded from sources within the state. Palo Alto does not support, fund, or partner with these advocacy groups. On the contrary, Palo Alto partners with strong sustainably-minded advocacy groups in California such as the Northern California Power Agency (NCPA) and the California Municipal Utilities Association (CMUA) that have worked constructively with the State on sustainability issues for a long time. Municipal utility members of NCPA and CMUA have made enormous contributions to energy efficiency and renewable energy construction in California.

APGA's advocacy is an issue that has prompted extensive internal deliberation and soul searching within the City of Palo Alto. In the end, however, CPAU staff believe the safety and reliability of the gas system needs to be prioritized. We will continue to make our objections known to APGA, but believe that continued membership continues to be in the community's best interests at this time.


 +   1 person likes this
Posted by Sherry Listgarten, a Almanac Online blogger,
on Aug 26, 2020 at 10:35 am

Sherry Listgarten is a registered user.

@Steven, thanks for the question. It sounds like you are wondering which home appliances are best for the environment, and what to do about power outages.

First of all, as far as pellet stoves for heating go, I'd avoid them. Biomass is questionable from an environmental perspective. It basically trades off additional emissions now (from burning wood) for saving emissions in 30-50 years (from growing trees). But since we need to save emissions now, it's not a good trade. There is a good writeup on pellets at Inside Climate News. I also liked one from Energy News Network. There's also The Guardian, Yale 360, and NPR...

That out of the way, keep in mind that most of our home emissions come from heating. Cooking is smaller. If you do go with an induction stove, which people seem to like, you can use a camping stove as backup, or a grill, or just eat out or forego cooking.

For heating, about 2/3 of our emissions are from space heating and 1/3 from water heating. I did a post on electric vs gas heating about a year ago. We should all be replacing our water heaters with heat pumps in the next few years, ideally before our water heater breaks (because at that point we're in a rush). The tanks retain heat pretty well, so only a prolonged outage would lead to a bracing morning shower...

For space heating, I'd start with making sure you have decent insulation (especially the roof) and a good thermostat. Then consider a heat pump (for heating and cooling) when you want to update your HVAC. By using it when solar power is plentiful, then using less power in the evenings, you can avoid needing it when outages are more likely, as well as save money once time-of-use rates kick in.

That new construction you mentioned is well insulated and should have good thermostats, so ideally would be doing this...

Since you live in Mountain View, you can find more guidance and potential rebates here. Hope this is somewhat helpful.


 +  Like this comment
Posted by Sherry Listgarten, a Almanac Online blogger,
on Aug 26, 2020 at 10:37 am

Sherry Listgarten is a registered user.

@Neighbor, thanks for sharing that. One possibility would be to ask APGA to split out the marketing and advocacy fees. Another would be to get gas safety information from elsewhere, and/or for Palo Alto to encourage the formation of a more forward-looking (or at least not backward-looking) "clean energy" trade association that doesn't advocate for dirty energy.


 +   6 people like this
Posted by SI, a resident of Fairmeadow,
on Aug 26, 2020 at 10:49 am

SI is a registered user.

Just before the fires started, we were asked to conserve electricity in our homes. That is common in California. Tesla drivers were asked not to recharge. This is what it looks like to have an all electric home. No cooking, no cooling, no heat, no hot water, and no washing machines or dryers.


 +   5 people like this
Posted by Online Name, a resident of Embarcadero Oaks/Leland,
on Aug 26, 2020 at 11:01 am

Online Name is a registered user.

Worrying about a $20,000 donation when Palo Alto Utilities has been levying a $20,000,000 "surcharge" aka over-charge each and every year for the last several years seems a bit of an overreaction.

How about some consumer protection for a change?

And maybe stop the rush away from cheaper and more reliable gas appliances until the state has its act together on renewable energy by not selling solar energy out of state when it's needed at night and not rushing to decommission gas plants right before the usual summer heat wave?

Just a common sense question that's been asked by most of the major US business press.


 +   2 people like this
Posted by Sherry Listgarten, a Almanac Online blogger,
on Aug 26, 2020 at 1:45 pm

Sherry Listgarten is a registered user.

@SI and @Online, thanks for your comments, they are important! A couple of things here, but feel free to rebut...

@SI: The Friday/Saturday blackouts should not have happened. (They were mistakes.) But Monday and Tuesday blackouts did not happen because we were asked to shift our evening use to earlier in the day, and to conserve during the 3-10pm period.

Are you saying that it was bad that we were asked to do that? Would you prefer if we spent the money and raised our taxes and/or utility rates so we have capacity to meet these rare peak events while running our appliances at full power?

Not me.

Power outages are something else. They are not new, with one exception (see below). They are generally short and unplanned (errant balloons, gnawing rodents, etc). Lights, routers, refrigerators and heat go off (most gas furnaces also need power). Garage door openers don't work. Medical devices don't work. We've learned to deal with them, and utilities try to keep them few and short. Does it make it that much worse if dryers go out? Not in my book. (Many already do anyway.) The stove? Not for us, we can just eat sandwiches. The shower? The water will stay warm for a pretty long while, and a rare cold shower isn't the end of the world.

So, honestly, I don't see it. These happen, we get over them. Yes, they should happen less, and we should have much, much more transparency about them, both in aggregate and when they are happening. (I think this is inexcusable, honestly, because much of the anxiety around blackouts comes from uncertainty.)

I think the bigger deal are the public safety power shutoffs. Those are planned but they are longer duration (days). They don't generally hit us here, but I do think they reveal a need for local microgrids (e.g., solar + battery) and other alternatives to diesel generators in those areas, with power that remains available.

I'd be curious to hear, though, what for you has been most inconvenient about the blackouts we've had in recent memory, or what you would worry about most if you didn't have gas at your home. There is no doubt that if every home had solar plus battery, or other access to local power, all of this would matter less.

@Online: Yes, we should manage our imports better, and we should have more storage, though I think the fastest/cheapest/cleanest thing to do is get better with flexible-demand. I am *all for* conserving during the scarcer times, and think it's an important form of consumer protection (keeping a lid on our bills and taxes).

Again, thanks for your comments, and do keep sharing your thoughts. It does seem harder to contemplate an all-electric future in the face of these sporadic outages.

On the other hand, at least for me, it is much more difficult to contemplate burning even more gas given the increasingly severe impact of climate change. I am 100% confident that we can work together to significantly reduce our building emissions in the next few years with minimal impact, and with tremendous satisfaction that we are moving our city and state towards a cleaner and healthier future.


 +  Like this comment
Posted by Staying Young Through Kids, a resident of Old Palo Alto,
on Aug 28, 2020 at 9:51 am

Staying Young Through Kids is a registered user.

Sherry, I so enjoy your blog. Thank you for keeping with this! You have persuaded me to challenge some of my own ideas and have opened my eyes to a several new things!

Question...does the APGA also lobby for the use and transport of biogas, syngas, etc? I know there are other groups for this too.

Seems like some gas options are actually "better" for the environment in the short and long term. Since we're not going to stop creating extra methane in the short term isn't burning it the better both practically and environmentally? Same for some of the other gasses encountered/produced via non-energy related mining?


 +  Like this comment
Posted by Staying Young Through Kids, a resident of Old Palo Alto,
on Aug 28, 2020 at 10:17 am

Staying Young Through Kids is a registered user.

I should add that I'd like COPA and COPA Utilities to be as fiscally responsible as possible while still providing safe and dependable electricity, gas, and water. Wish I could add FTTP to that list!


 +  Like this comment
Posted by Sherry Listgarten, a Almanac Online blogger,
on Aug 28, 2020 at 9:40 pm

Sherry Listgarten is a registered user.

@Staying: I believe that APGA does get involved to some extent in renewable gas. Here is one example of a public comment they offered during a standards process, though there's not much there.

As you suggest, it's better to burn methane than to leak it, and better to stop producing it than to burn it. I'm not sure what sources you are thinking of, but the biggest sources of anthropogenic methane are agriculture and leaks from production and distribution of natural gas. (Landfills and then coal mines are next but rather smaller sources.) There is a lot of work going on to detect and block leaks, and some work going on with cattle feed, manure management, etc, to reduce agricultural emissions. Composting organics out of landfills will also help. But it's a work in progress and, as you say, methane emissions won't drop overnight. When collecting it is easier than blocking it, by all means we should use it or bury it.

Biogas in general is somewhat expensive and not particularly plentiful. There are some other options. For example, I like the idea of using or at least mixing in some green hydrogen. If you want a peek at some really clean gas, though, check out this proposal to synthesize it from the air.

(My daughter is taking chemistry this year, and it kills me that she won't listen when I tell her how important it is to building a more sustainable energy system...) There is so much potential here.


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