Inside the Fossil Fuel Industry’s ‘Existential’ Battle Against New York’s Climate Plan

Deceptive Facebook ads, hundreds of thousands of mailers to customers, six-figure lobbying campaigns — here’s how fossil fuel companies are fighting to keep electrification at bay.

Colin Kinniburgh   ·   March 27, 2023
The propane industry launched a campaign that has so far spent six figures on ads attacking proposals to electrify New York buildings. | alphageek via Flickr

WE ARE FACING an existential threat the likes of which we have never seen.”

Those were the opening words of Rocco Lacertosa, New York’s top oil heat lobbyist, at a webinar addressed to his industry colleagues last month.

The threat? New York’s climate law, passed in 2019 and moving towards implementation this spring as lawmakers consider a raft of new measures to achieve its legally binding emissions cuts.

Among the most hotly debated questions is what to do about the state’s largest source of emissions: buildings. Governor Kathy Hochul has proposed requiring new construction to be free of fossil fuels starting at the end of 2025, and banning sales of new fossil heating appliances, like boilers and furnaces, in the 2030s. By 2050, analysts project, oil and gas heating systems would be a thing of the past in New York.

That would spell extinction for much of the state’s fossil fuel industry — and it doesn’t plan to go down without a fight.

“New York State, in the swipe of a pen, has decided that they have the right to put me and all of you out of business, and take all of my employees and put them out of work too,” said Allison Heaney, president of Skaggs-Walsh fuel oil company, on the February call. “New York State is out to shut me down, to destroy what my family has built over the last three generations.”

But, Heaney told her colleagues, there’s still a way to stop it: “All you need to do is know how to write a check.”

As of December, members and allies of the New York State Energy Coalition, an oil heat trade association, had pledged $395,000 to fight the state’s proposed climate policies, Lacertosa said. The group’s goal is to raise at least $1 million, partly to boost “Smarter NY Energy,” an anti-electrification campaign launched by the propane industry.

“We are not on the attack,” Lacertosa told New York Focus. “Rather, we are playing defense against those who would destroy our industry. This is an industry that is made up of multi-generational main street family-owned and operated businesses who provide good union wages, benefits, and pensions.”

Lacertosa and Heaney said they’re not against electrification in itself, but against forcing consumers to pick one heating system over another. “I’m not saying anything is good or bad,” Heaney told New York Focus. “I believe in a market economy. … When electrification is ready for primetime, people will naturally choose it. But that isn’t today.”

Since late 2021, Smarter NY Energy has spent anywhere from $94,000 to $116,000 on Facebook ads and more on other media including YouTube, website banners, and emails. The ads have been seen roughly 7 million times, by Facebook’s count. And the campaign is still picking up steam: The group has already spent more than half as much on Facebook ads this year as it did in all of 2022.

“Governor Hochul wants to outlaw your gas stove!” read one promoted post in January that was viewed more than half a million times.

That was false. Neither Hochul nor the legislature are proposing to take away New Yorkers’ existing appliances, and even new gas stoves would be exempt from the appliance bans that take effect next decade.

Communications specialist Rich Goldberg presents his “battleplan” to a heating oil trade association. | Screen grab via Vimeo

Other Smarter NY Energy ads show frozen landscapes and stock images of people shivering, with warnings that electric appliances will be unreliable in winter storms like the one that ravaged Buffalo at Christmas.

On YouTube, the campaign’s most successful ad — viewed more than 420,000 times — asks, “Are you happy about being forced to convert your home?” A woman’s voiceover calls New York’s climate efforts “the most radical, untested plan in the country” and concludes: “Tell them, ‘Get out of my house.’”

THE MAN BEHIND the ads is Rich Goldberg, a New Jersey-based communications specialist with deep ties to the propane industry. Goldberg has written several postsin trade publications detailing how the campaign has stalled electrification mandates in New Jersey and his tactics to do the same in New York. His firm, Warm Thoughts Communications, employs around 30 staff and notched its latest victory in the Garden State just this month, when lawmakers postponed a scheduled vote on a building electrification bill.

Goldberg may soon be able to claim a partial victory in New York, too. The Senate and Assembly have both dropped the measures targeting existing buildings from their counteroffers to Hochul’s draft budget. That could defer the debate over how to decarbonize New York’s 6 million buildings until later this spring, if not next year.

Bill Overbaugh, director of the New York Propane Gas Association, called the legislature’s stance encouraging.

“I applaud the legislators for doing that because I think that, very similar to what we’ve been saying, they just feel like they needed to put a pause and do some more research into cost-benefit,” he said.

Lawmakers said the move was prompted in part by this winter’s furor over gas stoves, even though the proposals on the table wouldn’t affect them.

“I feel that there was political overreaction to the messaging about, ‘The world will end if we don’t have new gas stoves,’” said Senate finance committee chair Liz Krueger, when asked why the Senate is seeking to remove the requirements for existing buildings from the final budget. “It seemed to be a fairly effective talking point because people literally started to panic.”

Senate housing chair Brian Kavanagh, a sponsor of the All-Electric Buildings Act for new construction, pointed to supply chain and funding issues as another factor in the Senate’s decision. But he acknowledged the industry’s success in framing the debate.

“Corporate interests are very good at identifying their wedge issue and clearly, people have a lot of affection and sense of attachment to their gas stoves,” he said.

One New York Energy ad falsely warned that Governor Hochul wanted to eliminate gas stoves, another that “forced electrification” would leave New Yorkers in the cold. | Screen grab via Vimeo

Hochul’s office declined to answer specific questions about building electrification on the record, saying only that the governor seeks a budget that will “make New York more affordable, more livable and safer” — a stock response to budget questions from the press.

Raya Salter, an environmental justice attorney and member of New York’s Climate Action Council — which spent three years crafting the plan that Albany is now weighing how to implement — said the fossil fuel industry has dedicated vast resources to slowing down implementation of the climate law.

“The industry — be it propane, be it fossil gas — have been executing a well funded, well coordinated campaign, designed to undermine the climate law and scare folks into thinking that clean energy is going to hurt them, when in truth, it’s the dependence on fossil energy which is harmful,” she said.

Lacertosa, of the oil heat group, denied that the campaign has been misleading or that it aims to impede the climate law. He said the heating oil industry is shifting away from fossil fuels and toward lower-emissions biodiesel, and argued that the state needs an “all of the above” energy strategy to ensure reliability.

“If you want to put everything on one source, then there’s nothing to back it up,” Lacertosa said. “Our industry has been the backstop for many generations.”

THE PROPANE AND OIL heat industries haven’t been alone in spreading this message. The gas utility National Fuel led a robocall campaign in February enlisting customers to push back against the climate plan, New York Focus reported earlier this month. And New Yorkers for Affordable Energy — a coalition led by fossil fuel interests including National Fuel and National Grid — recently launched its latest marketing campaign with TV and online ads opposing the gas ban in new buildings.

In response, climate groups have launched a digital ad campaign of their own. The Better Buildings New York coalition — comprising six climate and environmental justice groupsspent between $30,000 and $37,000 in recent weeks on a Facebook video spot highlighting surging utility bills and fossil fuel profits.

But fossil fuel companies have one built-in audience that climate groups do not: their customers.

“We’re one of the few industries that have the keys to their customers’ homes,” Lacertosa said during the webinar last month.

The propane industry already targets its customers with a leaflet titled “Propane Matters,” which dozens of suppliers send out with bills, according to Goldberg, whose firm produces the mailers. He estimates that 300,000 customers will receive the leaflet this spring. (The heating oil industry is considering this tactic too, Lacertosa said.)

Some customers might not be too happy to receive such pamphlets, Goldberg acknowledged, but that’s no reason not to send them.

“The interests of the vast majority of your customers in your company are more important than the fact that you’re going to rub some people the wrong way,” he told the oil heat group. “Because you’re going to be out of business if these plans continue along the pathway that they’re currently on.”

Robert Howarth, a biochemist at Cornell University and member of the Climate Action Council, complained to lawmakers earlier this month that he had received an anti-electrification leaflet along with the bill for his propane stove. (He converted the rest of his Finger Lakes home to a heat pump nine years ago and hasn’t looked back, he added.)

The goal of this broad-based communication campaign, Goldberg has emphasized, is to target moderates in swing districts, especially downstate.

“We need people in Valley Stream, and people in Bayside, and people in Huntington to let their legislators know, this is going too far too fast,” he said in February.

When New York Focus called Goldberg for comment — on a cell phone number listed in his email signature — a man with a similar voice to his picked up the phone but denied that he was Goldberg. “He is not speaking to the press about this,” said the man, who identified himself only as a representative of Warm Thoughts Communications.

Goldberg’s “battleplan” against building electrification mandates includes enlisting customers through mailers and online ads designed to “activate a community of resistors.” | Screen grab via Vimeo

Overbaugh, of the propane association, said his group launched Smarter NY Energy in 2020 as a “consumer advocacy” effort aiming to advance debate on the climate law.

“The plan that has been put together is absolutely transformational. It hits every aspect of our lives,” he told New York Focus. “No matter which side you’re on, we need to spread the word about this. And we need to have public debate about what the citizens want to move forward.”

Fossil fuel interests aren’t counting just on public outreach to get their message out in Albany. They’ve also enlisted a slew of lobbyists to pressure lawmakers behind closed doors.

The oil heat association is planning to spend $150,000 on lobbying this year, filings show. The propane association expects to spend $60,000. Some fuel companies have registered their own lobbyists. And the American Petroleum Institute, a national trade group, has budgeted more than $200,000 for New York.

Rich Schrader, New York policy director at the Natural Resources Defense Council, said fossil fuel companies have good reason to worry that they could be out of business within the next few decades. But he said they, not lawmakers, were the ones to blame.

“​​Had we had an honest discussion in the ’80s and ’90s, had they not killed treaty after treaty, the fossil fuel industry could have been part of the discussion and could have been prepared to transition,” he said, referring to decades-long efforts by oil interests to spread misinformation on climate. “But we have a shorter period of time, because the climate crisis is so much more daunting, and we’re already seeing extreme weather.”

Lacertosa, too, is feeling the pressure.

“We’re not gonna get any second chances here,” he told his colleagues.

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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