Several groups calling on the Public Utilities Commission of Nevada (PUCN) for the continued use and expansion of fossil gas infrastructure in the state have ties to Southwest Gas and NV Energy, or their respective charitable foundations.
The PUCN opened an investigation for the long-term planning of fossil gas utility services in the state last May. In response, HELP of Southern Nevada, the Henderson Chamber of Commerce and others that have received contributions from Southwest Gas, NV Energy, or their respective foundations submitted comments backing the gas companies plans.
Southwest Gas and NV Energy have a vested interest in Nevada’s continued use and expansion of gas infrastructure. Southwest Gas serves fossil gas to 790,000 customers in the state and over a million additional customers in Arizona and California. The company also owns the Great Basin Gas Transmission Company, which operates an interstate pipeline system that extends from the Idaho-Nevada border to the California-Nevada border. Southwest Gas’ parent company also recently acquired Dominion Energy’s Questar Pipeline company, which added 2,160 miles of interstate gas pipeline assets in the Rocky Mountain region to the business.
NV Energy is predominantly an electric utility with 1.3 million electric customers in Nevada. Still, the utility also serves nearly 200,000 gas customers in the state, and Berkshire Hathaway Energy (BHE), which owns NV Energy, has significant fossil gas assets as well. The holding company owns MidAmerican Energy, which serves gas to 774,000 customers in Iowa, Illinois, Nebraska, and South Dakota, and pipeline companies Northern Natural Gas and Kern River. BHE also purchased Dominion Energy’s East Coast gas transmission and storage business in 2020. The acquisition added an additional 5,700 miles of gas pipelines and a 25% stake of the Cove Point liquefied natural gas export facility in Maryland to BHE’s fossil fuel portfolio. (BHE abandoned the purchase of Questar following an investigation by the Federal Trade Commission).
State organizations filing comments to the PUCN in support of the utilities are invaluable to SWG and NV Energy’s political interests and their investors’ pockets. This practice, however, is not limited to Nevada utilities. It is a common utility-industry tactic to influence lawmakers and regulators alike. For example, in a first-of-its-kind analysis in 2019, the Energy and Policy Institute examined the philanthropic contributions of 10 leading investor-owned electric utilities in the U.S. We found that all of these major utilities use their charitable giving to manipulate politics, policies and regulation in ways designed to increase shareholder profits, often at the expense of low-income communities, who often bear the brunt of climate impacts and suffer higher levels of air pollution.
Utility-funded non-profits, associations, and chambers of commerce mobilize to support gas
Of the 15 chambers of commerce, charities, and organizations that favored the utilities’ continued use of gas, EPI found that 9 have received utility money or are connected to the utility in another way.
Two 501(c)(3) nonprofit organizations with a focus on affordable housing, Veterans Village, which is a project of SHARE, and HELP of Southern Nevada, filed comments in support of gas infrastructure in Nevada. The Southwest Gas Charitable Foundation contributed $2,500 in 2019 and 2020 to HELP as part of the “Golfer’s Roundup Breakfast Sponsorship.” Senior Vice President of Operations Eric Debonis also sits on the Executive Board. The gas utility contributed $200 of board dues on behalf of Debonis in 2019. The NV Energy Charitable Foundation also donated $10,000 to HELP in 2019 for a homeless youth shelter, and contributed an additional $17,500 to the non-profit in 2020. Veterans Village/SHARE received $5,000 in 2019 and $2,500 in 2020 from Southwest Gas’ foundation.
The Nevada Restaurant Association submitted comments to the PUCN supporting continued fossil gas use because “control over the intensity of heat directly affects the flavor of food” and claimed that the restaurant industry would suffer if fossil gas were limited. Southwest Gas contributed at least $500 in company dues to the Nevada Restaurant Association in 2019. The gas utility’s Arizona subsidiary attempted to have its customers pay for these dues as part of their rates, according to an exhibit in Southwest Gas’ rate case application. However, the Arizona Residential Utility Consumer Office caught the payments and allocated the fees to shareholders. Many restaurant associations have become political allies of gas utilities as gas stoves heat up the battle over electrification. The American Gas Association has used Facebook and Instagram ad campaigns to improve public perceptions of gas stoves, even as years of mounting evidence makes clear the risk that indoor gas use poses to human health and safety.
Other groups providing comments in support of gas include the Henderson Chamber of Commerce and the Latin Chamber of Commerce. Southwest Gas is a sponsor of Henderson Chamber of Commerce’s Development Association, which is a $3,500 annual fee. NV Energy is a “Diamond” sponsor, which is a $20,000 annual fee, according to a chamber spokesperson. The Latin Chamber of Commerce confirmed with EPI that both NV Energy and Southwest Gas are members, but would not confirm the membership status of either utility. Based on the LCC’s website, the utilities could be paying between $500 and $25,000 annually. In 2020, both chambers of commerce signed a letter with SWG to Nevada Governor Sisolak to express concerns about the state’s greenhouse gas emission reduction goals established by SB 254 in 2019. The coalition that signed the letter outlined the important role of “Clean, Affordable, Natural Gas” in reducing emissions and creating jobs.
The Coalition for Renewable Natural Gas and the Southern Nevada Homebuilder’s Association were other associations that weighed in with the PUCN. The Coalition for Renewable Natural Gas urged the PUCN to include “renewable natural gas” in any long-term gas planning process. According to emails obtained by Energy and Policy Institute, Southwest Gas intends to “aggressively pursue” RNG in the coming years and is a “leadership” member of the coalition, which costs $30,000 in annual dues. Southwest Gas has proposed that its Arizona customers pay for the majority of the Coalition for Renewable Natural Gas annual dues, according to an exhibit in the rate case. Other industry documents reveal that the gas industry planned to use RNG advocacy as part of a pipeline expansion strategy to “mitigate” stakeholder opposition, specifically from environmental groups.
The Southern Nevada Homebuilder’s Association, a local trade association representing the residential construction industry in the region, highlighted concerns regarding electrification. SWG and NV Energy are both members of the association, paying annual dues of at least $1,592.
Environmental advocates challenging the “future of gas”
The PUCN’s docket to explore gas in Nevada comes in the wake of other states also opening similar investigations, including the Oregon Public Utilities Commission and the Massachusetts Department of Public Utilities. Many states are pursuing more ambitious climate goals, and because methane – the primary component of fossil gas – has a warming potential 84 to 87 times greater over a 20-year period than carbon dioxide, the greenhouse gas has risen to the top of many advocates and commissions agendas. And with good reason: The latest UN IPCC report makes clear that cutting methane emissions can help produce the type of quick and meaningful climate reductions necessary to keep temperatures below 1.5 degree celsius.
Environmental advocates have also shown up to file public comments with the PUCN regarding Nevada’s future of gas. Western Resource Advocates, Natural Resource Defense Council, Sierra Club, Nevada Conservation League, and the Southwest Energy Efficiency Project, submitted a joint, nearly 300 page statement in one filing. Their joint comments focused on the greenhouse gas reduction goals set by the Nevada legislature. The groups propose a wide variety of paths to reduce emissions since the various sectors of the economy will reduce emissions on different schedules. For instance, the groups submitted modeling to show how gas can be eliminated in the residential and commercial building sector, and explain that hydrogen and types of biomethane can be used in the industrial sector to reduce those emissions.
In a separate filing, RMI takes a more hard line stance against fossil gas development and calls out the false claims about electrification made by Southwest Gas:
“Southwest Gas has repeatedly made the incorrect claim that ‘policy-driven electrification’ “offers no certainty that it will reduce GHG emissions.” This claim is patently false, as many comments on the record have clearly shown … SWG hinges much of its argument on customer preference for gas. However, this preference does not acknowledge the context in which gas became the known and familiar fuel for many customers, or the ways in which that context and priorities have shifted.”
RMI also proposes several policies to eliminate line extension allowances and halt subsidies for gas allowances.
Organizations representing similar comments to RMI include the Mormon Women for Ethical Government, Advanced Energy Economy, CHR Inc. and CHISPA. The American Lung Association, American Academy of Pediatrics, Southern Nevada Health District, Dignity Health St. Rose Dominican and Nevada Nurses Association submitted a joint statement addressing Nevada’s air quality challenges and the importance of transitioning away from fossil gas in order to safeguard clean air and Nevadans’ health.
The final comments in response to the utilities under investigation were submitted January 7, 2022 to the PUCN.
Featured image source: Wikimedia Commons, Ken Lund.