Fossil Fuel Companies Enlist Customers to Fight New York’s Climate Law

National Fuel urged customers to oppose a gas appliance ban. It’s just one strategy in the fossil fuel industry’s mounting offensive against climate action.

Colin Kinniburgh   ·   March 7, 2023
National Fuel robocalled customers urging them to oppose a ban on gas. | Photo: Jaroslaw Puszczyński, National Fuel logo

“ALBANY LAWMAKERS are finalizing a plan to phase out natural gas,” says a disembodied voice on a western New York answering machine. “Banning natural gas could lead to power outages and cost increases. We need all energy options to keep the lights on and heat flowing.”

It sounds scary, but it’s a stretch: Governor Kathy Hochul’s budget proposal includes plans to prohibit fossil fuel-burning appliances in new construction, but it doesn’t ban gas from existing homes. Still, Hochul’s proposals are a notable step toward acting on the state’s climate plan, which was more than three years in the making. As New York lawmakers prepare to vote on the budget in the next month, oil and gas companies are fighting back.

Among their tactics? Enlisting their own customers to lobby state lawmakers against building electrification.

The robocalls came from National Fuel, a gas utility based outside of Buffalo, and went on to prompt residents to press 1 to connect to their representatives. It’s just one of a variety of strategies the fossil fuel industry has employed in its mounting offensive against climate action. And it worked.

“Our phones were ringing off the hook,” said a staffer for Assemblymember Jonathan Rivera, who represents west Buffalo and some of the city’s southern suburbs. Assemblymember Monica Wallace’s office, representing the city’s eastern suburbs, reported much the same.

Banning natural gas could lead to power outages and cost increases. We need all energy options to keep the lights on and heat flowing.

National Fuel robocall

National Fuel spokesperson Karen Merkel confirmed that the company conducted a robocall campaign in mid-February and shared a script with New York Focus. She described the effort as “an outreach and education campaign in our N.Y. service territory to increase public awareness.”

“Our customers depend on us to power and heat their homes, and National Fuel believes bans are not necessary to achieve the state’s emission reduction goals, and as planned will instead increase costs, reduce reliability, and ultimately jeopardize public safety,” Merkel said. But the script’s claims were misleading, exaggerating the scope of the gas ban and its likely impacts on reliable service.

Itai Vardi, research and communications manager at the Energy and Policy Institute, which monitors utility lobbying around climate action nationwide, said that industry-aligned groups in New York and New Jersey have used robocalls before, but that National Fuel’s approach may have gone a step further.

Our phones were ringing off the hook.

staffer for Assemblymember Jonathan Rivera

“This use by National Fuel of customers’ personal data to marshal their opposition to New York’s sweeping climate law is highly inappropriate,” Vardi said. “These customers are essentially captive customers of a monopoly utility. ... They shouldn’t be used by the utility to fulfill its own anti-climate agenda.”

The New York Public Service Commission, which regulates utilities, said it was not aware of the robocalls until contacted by New York Focus. The group said it would investigate the robocalls to ensure that they were not paid for by National Fuel customers.

“The company has a right to its opinion, but not to charge its ratepayers for expressing it,” said spokesperson James Denn, adding that the commission disagrees with the company’s characterizations of the energy transition.

It’s not the first time that New York utilities have solicited their customers to oppose climate policy. Last summer, a communications specialist hired by the propane industry boasted in a trade publication of using leaflets sent out with customer’ bills as part of a multi-pronged strategy “aimed at slowing down the electrification freight train.” Utilities including National Grid and Central Hudson have also emailed customers about climate policy issues.

Nevertheless, the robocalls mark an aggressive effort to undermine one of the pillars of New York’s climate plan: a gradual phaseout of fossil fuel heating, cooking, and other appliances from buildings. The first of Hochul’s proposals to achieve this is a ban on gas hookups in new construction, beginning at the end of 2025 for buildings of three stories or less and in 2028 for larger buildings. The second is a ban on replacing fossil fuel heating equipment — namely, boilers and hot water heaters — in existing buildings, starting in 2030 for small buildings and 2035 for larger ones. Instead, owners would be expected to switch to heat pumps.

Notably, there is no requirement for homeowners with existing gas stoves to replace them. And the gas ban in new construction includes exemptions for back-up generators, commercial kitchens, manufacturing, hospitals, and a variety of other hard-to-electrify uses.

Though National Fuel railed against the proposals in its February campaign, the utility wasn’t exactly locked out of the process to craft them. Last year, New York’s Climate Action Council — which included Donna DeCarolis, the president of National Fuel’s utility branch — issued the recommendations that were the basis for Hochul’s current proposals.

DeCarolis was one of just three members of the 22-person council who voted against the plan’s final adoption. All three were allied with the fossil fuel industry.

WESTERN NEW YORK has emerged as a hotbed of opposition to the climate plan. Among the factors fueling outrage in the region: the blizzard that dumped four feet of snow on Buffalo at Christmas, leaving tens of thousands of homes without power and more than 40 people dead. And rumors in early January — since-dispelled — that the Biden administration was considering banning gas stoves, which provoked a nationwide furor over the appliances.

Fossil fuel proponents have seized on these events to slam New York’s climate plan. Beyond robocalls, they’ve taken to op-eds, local resolutions, and other statements seeking to halt the state’s march toward building electrification.

“One could only imagine if the historic blizzard that hit the region and, in particular, the city of Buffalo occurred without the availability of natural gas and other fuels that are to be eliminated in New York State’s draconian climate action plan,” began a mid-January op-ed in the Buffalo News. Its author, James Dentinger, is an executive at NOCO Energy, which delivers propane and heating oil.

Over the next six weeks, lightly edited versions of Dentinger’s piece appeared in no fewer than four more local news outlets catering to all parts of western New York, from Niagara Falls to the Southern Tier. Other outlets published opinion pieces by state and local lawmakers making similar arguments.

The pattern looked familiar to Anshul Gupta, a research scientist who tracks climate disinformation as a volunteer with the Climate Reality Project, an Al Gore-founded advocacy group. Last year, as the state held public hearings on its climate plan, Gupta noticed local and statewide outlets publishing a steady drumbeat of op-eds by industry and pro-business figures with identical talking points. Some repeated entire sentences almost word for word — even though they were penned by different authors.

“There is evidence that these campaigns are coordinated,” Gupta told New York Focus.

These customers are essentially captive customers of a monopoly utility. They shouldn’t be used by the utility to fulfill its own anti-climate agenda.

Itai Vardi, Energy and Policy Institute

The PR blitz after the Buffalo storm went beyond routine misinformation, he added, “​​shamelessly exploiting” the deaths of residents to promote fossil fuel appliances despite the evidence. Oil and gas heating systems need some electricity to operate, meaning that they too stop working when the power goes out. And some of the Buffalo-area deaths were caused directly by carbon monoxide from burning fossil fuels.

Dentinger was not immediately available for comment.

Meanwhile, county and local lawmakers were building their own rhetorical wall of opposition to the gas phaseout, passing a slate of similarly worded resolutions urging the governor to reconsider.

The first came from Erie County, whose 11-member legislature unanimously passed a pro-gas resolution on January 19. “A ban on natural gas appliances and water heaters is not feasible for western New York with harsh winter weather and exposed electrical infrastructure,” it read, citing the December blizzard.

The resolution further warned against potential “black outs and rationing” as well as the costs of converting to all-electric appliances. It asked Hochul and the legislature “to pause in their rush and to fully examine the real life impact their decisions will have for all New Yorkers, especially those least able to afford them.”

By late February, seven of the eight counties making up the westernmost portion of New York state had passed similar resolutions. In three cases, the bulk of the text was copied word for word, culminating in “vehement” opposition to the gas phaseout. Others riffed on the same themes; lawmakers in Chautauqua county highlighted “a devastating effect” on “the Amish community,” among others.

The resolutions, by and large, passed with unanimous support.

Municipalities have also entered the fray: Since early February, at least a half-dozen have considered or approved resolutions in defense of natural gas, in some cases including wording copied and pasted from their counterparts at the county level.

Hochul’s hometown of Buffalo was the largest city to pass such a resolution. On February 21, its common council unanimously approved a bill urging the state’s Climate Action Council to “pause” implementation of its climate law. (A parallel motion against banning gas stoves was tabled.)

That council is an advisory panel that was tasked with recommending how to achieve the law’s targets, not implementing it. But however rhetorical, the resolutions illustrate the reach of a long-running influence campaign by fossil fuel companies, utilities, and allied business groups.

“They’re really cynically trying to capitalize on and perpetuate this perceived upstate-downstate divide, where … the salt-of-the-earth, upstate New Yorkers and western New Yorkers don’t want those big-city-style environmental regulations,” said Robert Galbraith, a Buffalo-based senior research analyst at the left-leaning Public Accountability Initiative. He noted that National Fuel — which reported $566 million in profits last year and has a Houston-based exploration armfor years held its shareholder meetings in Naples, Florida.

“Unfortunately,” he added, “its effective.”

A poll published last week by New Yorkers for Affordable Energy — a coalition led by fossil fuel interests — found majority support statewide for much of Hochul’s climate agenda, including the 2025 gas ban in new construction and ending fossil fuel boiler replacements starting in 2030. But support for the policies was much lower in western New York. Just 30 percent of respondents in Erie and Niagara counties supported the boiler phaseout, for example, compared to 56 percent statewide.

Will it make any difference in Albany? Rich Schrader, New York policy director at the Natural Resources Defense Council, said efforts by New Yorkers for Affordable Energy and allied groups were a key factor in blocking climate legislation last year. But this time around, fossil fuel groups have lost the element of surprise, and the payoffs of technology like heat pumps are coming into clearer view, he said.

“The politics have changed, information has changed, and the [federal] incentives are much clearer now,” Schrader said. “All that weighs against their propaganda.”

A figure representing National Fuel's profits last year has been corrected.

Colin Kinniburgh is a reporter at New York Focus, covering the state’s climate and environmental politics. Over a decade in media, he has worked in print, television, audio, and online news, and participated in fellowship programs at CUNY’s Graduate School of Journalism and… more
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