Arizona Corporation Commissioners Andy Tobin and Tom Forese attended a private meeting of gas industry lobbyists in October that focused on topics such as how to defend pipelines against “anti-fossil fuel sentiment” and offered updates on the activities of gas industry front groups.
ACC Chairman Tom Forese welcomed attendees to the American Gas Association’s State Affairs meeting in Scottsdale, Arizona on October 8th at the four-star Hilton Scottsdale Resort, according to a meeting agenda obtained by DeSmogBlog. The meeting offered attendees an opportunity to “share strategies on how legislators, regulators, utilities and industry can cooperate on utility initiatives,” according to the agenda. Titles of sessions included, “Proactive Strategies for Securing Infrastructure,” and “Natural Gas Expansion: Case Studies.”
ACC Commissioner Andy Tobin gave a keynote speech to attendees, which included vice presidents of the AGA and directors from gas pipeline giants like Dominion and Enbridge. He spoke during dinner at The Hause Brasserie, an upscale Scottsdale steakhouse that features foie gras and a $68 ribeye on the menu, according to the agenda.
An ACC spokesperson did not respond to a request asking to confirm that Commissioners Tobin and Forese attended the conference.
Other public officials who attended, according to the agenda, included Travis Kavulla of the Montana Public Service Commission (PSC), Brandon Presley of the Mississippi PSC, Jay Balasbas of the Washington Utilities and Transportation Commission, and Hayes Framme, Deputy Secretary of Commerce and Trade in Virginia.
Tobin’s attendance at the AGA event is one of a string of events that calls into question his impartiality as a utility regulator. The Arizona Corporation Commission (ACC) is the elected body that regulates public utilities and telecommunications companies, including Arizona Public Service Company (APS), the state’s largest electric utility.
In the past, Tobin has criticized Arizona’s major investor-owned utility, Arizona Public Service, for its over-reliance on gas, claiming “this trajectory is troubling.” So why did a supposedly independent regulator who has criticized gas overdevelopment in Arizona choose to give keynote remarks to the gas industry?
APS has a plan to build an additional 5,300 MW of natural gas-fired power plants. Tobin had earlier this year expressed concerns that APS’ plan would overexpose Arizonans to the natural gas’s historical price volatility.
Those criticisms may ring hollow in light of the fact that Tobin addressed the industry meeting whose agenda explicitly called for expansion of natural gas infrastructure. His attendance also would lend credence to the idea that Tobin’s primary reason for criticizing APS’s investment in natural gas was not a concern over over-investment in gas, but his support for coal, which natural gas development threatens. Tobin has been a steadfast advocate of the largest coal plant in the state, the Navajo Generating Station (NGS), which has been teetering on the brink of closure.
Here’s why Arizona customers should care: monopoly utilities like APS have every financial incentive to invest in natural gas pipelines and power plants, and profit from them, whether customers need them or not. Over-investment in natural gas raises customers bills and threatens the climate, but customers have no option of choosing another utility in Arizona. The only thing keeping APS from building gas plant after gas plant is its regulators at the ACC.
That’s why Tobin and Forese’ apparent coziness with the AGA should be troubling. Forese is retiring from the ACC this year to run for state treasurer, but Tobin won reelection to a full four-year term in 2016.
For the next four years, Tobin and his colleagues at the ACC will be the only people who can protect APS customers from new natural gas infrastructure that will increase bills and contribute to climate change, a major issue for Arizona’s desert cities.
The image of Tobin addressing the gas industry’s lobbyists over steaks does not convey confidence to customers that are depending on his independence to protect them from those threats.