Climate advocates claim gas industry is spreading misinformation
This Tuesday, a new energy reach code will be discussed by the Santa Barbara City Council.
As the regular meeting approaches, climate advocates, energy groups and Southern California Gas have spoken up about their opinions on the code.
It’s important to note that the council will not be deciding on Tuesday; rather, members will receive a presentation from city staff on the code and provide direction to staff for possible pathways of implementation.
The reach code (a local code that is stricter than state code) would prohibit all gas infrastructure in new construction. All new residential and commercial buildings would be required to have all electric infrastructure, therefore reducing carbon emissions and the city’s carbon footprint.
It’s also important to note that this code would not apply to existing buildings, additions or alterations such as tenant improvements.
“Any existing building with natural gas appliances would not be affected, even if that building is sold or renovated or changed use,” the staff report reads.
The Sustainability Council Committee, including Mayor Cathy Murillo, Mayor Pro Tempore Kristen Sneddon and Council member Meagan Harmon, unanimously voted in favor of the code in November 2020.
According to the report, staff has met with many local stakeholders, community-based groups and industry associations. With council direction, staff will return with a recommended approach (to either adopt the reach code or not) and the council will vote then.
“Throughout the state, there is a growing consensus that building electrification is the most viable and reliable path to zero-emission buildings,” the staff report reads. “There are two code enhancement options to decarbonizing new construction: reach codes or a natural gas infrastructure prohibition. Both leverage a local jurisdiction’s ability to develop more stringent building code requirements based on local needs. To date, over 40 California jurisdictions have adopted code enhancements that encourage or require all-electric buildings.”
The full staff report can be viewed on the city’s website.
On Dec. 8, SoCalGas sent a letter to the city council pointing out reasons why the company believes a prohibition on gas should receive a second look.
They cited the following reasons: “comprehensive building emissions reduction strategies were omitted from the council’s consideration; renewable natural gas is already a part of SoCalGas’s clean energy system and experts agree it is needed to help the state achieve carbon neutrality; SoCalGas customers will soon have the option to purchase all or a portion of their natural gas from renewable sources; building homes without gas service does not equate to decreased building costs; proper ventilation is the most important component to indoor air quality regardless of energy source; and experts agree that buildings with both natural gas and electric service are more resilient to extreme weather events and disasters.
“We applaud Santa Barbara’s leadership as an environmentally progressive municipality and support the city’s efforts to identify policies and programs that improve air quality and mitigate the impacts of climate change,” the letter said in its conclusion. “As a trusted long-term energy provider in Santa Barbara, we are committed to working with the city to achieve those goals.
“We are excited that we are replacing our natural gas supplies with increasingly cleaner sources of energy, enabling customers to replace all or larger amounts of their natural gas use with RNG, and providing rebates and incentives to encourage customers to reduce their energy use. We hope the information we are providing you will help you make a better-informed decision about how to reduce emissions from buildings in your city.”
In addition to SoCalGas, Californians for Balanced Energy Solutions, a coalition of natural and renewable gas users, launched a campaign outright opposing the energy code. They posted on their website, at https://c4bes.org/actnow/, telling residents to contact city council members and tell them to vote no, saying the ban “could prohibit the use of natural gas appliances and equipment for BBQs, spas and pools, water heaters, furnaces and cooktops.”
The organization also wrote that the energy code would “dramatically increase energy bills for homeowners and tenants” and “make residents more vulnerable to power outages.”
In addition, according to multiple Santa Barbara residents, C4BES sent out unsolicited text messages to residents from sequential numbers, such as 541-305-7171 and 541-305-7187.
The texts read: “URGENT: The Santa Barbara City Council wants to ban natural gas in new homes and businesses. This plan would dramatically raise energy costs and present danger to our electrical grid. Tell the City Council: NO on the proposed natural gas ban! https://c4bes.org/actnow/ Paid for by Californians for Balanced Energy Solutions, txt stop 2 end.”
Sunstone Strategies, a public affairs firm focused on the climate crisis and based in Oakland, looked into this campaign, and told the News-Press that C4BES was created and is funded by SoCalGas.
Chloe Zilliac, an associate strategist at Sunstone, referred to the campaign as a “disinformation campaign” and claimed that SoCalGas is illegally using ratepayer dollars to fight local building electrification policy. In addition, she said that C4BES could be in violation of FCC rules for political campaign calls and texts, due to their unsolicited nature, suggesting that it’s an auto dial text campaign.
Ms. Zilliac also referenced a data request from the Public Advocates Office (a California watchdog group) to SoCalGas asking how phone numbers were obtained for the texts, how many people they were sent to and if Sempra Energy, SoCalGas or SDG&E played any role in the texts. They have yet to receive a response.
Matt Vespa is a staff attorney at Earthjustice, a nonprofit environmental law organization, and told the News-Press that C4BES’s text campaign was just a way for SoCalGas to manufacture opposition to electrification.
“They sent a flurry of text messages to people saying, ‘Someone’s going to take something away from you.’ That is not happening here,” he said. “This is a gas industry-driven obstruction. They’re behind this. I don’t know how they got people’s individual numbers and I think it’s worth asking, ‘Where did they get people’s personal information?’”
He added that he believes the gas industry will “resort to any tactic to keep California relying on gas.”
Alex Pujo, an architect and a member of Santa Barbara County’s Board of Architectural Review, told the News-Press he supports the idea of prohibiting gas in new construction, and said it’s not that significant of a change.
“Reach codes every year are getting more and more stringent,” he said. “This is part of a trend. This is the way we’re going. You can drag your feet, but this is the way the state and world is going.”
He also countered the claims of the gas industry, saying that grid storage continues to get better and cheaper, and electric homes have great insulation. Mr. Pujo also referenced SoCalEdison’s support of the change.
Leah Stokes is an assistant professor at UCSB working on environmental politics. She knows multiple people who received the texts from C4BES.
“The texts misleadingly say, ‘This plan would dramatically raise energy costs and present danger to our electrical grid,’” she told the News-Press. “This is not true. SCE, which manages the grid in Santa Barbara, supports the electric building code. And all-electric buildings are less expensive.”
She obviously supports the measure, and mentioned how 40 other cities in California have adopted similar measures.
“If we decide to use more electricity rather than gas to heat and cook in our homes, this idea that it would somehow be dangerous from the grid — that’s coming from the gas company that has a stake in the matter,” Ms. Stokes said. “It’s really lying to the public by putting out messages like this.”
C4BES Executive Director Jon Switalski responded to the claims of his organization’s campaign being misleading, but when asked about the text messages and their unsolicited nature, he did not address it.
“Here is the truth. The Santa Barbara City Council is considering a plan that would make major changes to the city’s energy mix, including a ban on natural gas in new homes and buildings,” he told the News-Press. “Such a change would result in dramatically increased energy costs, the loss of good-paying jobs for union workers, elimination of customer choice, and danger to the electric grid.
“In the middle of a public health and economic crisis, now is not the time to make costly changes to our energy policies. The City Council should only consider this when full public participation is allowed, not during a pandemic where the public has a limited ability to make their voices heard.”
He added, “It is accurate and truthful that if the city council moves to ban natural gas, especially in new buildings, residents will be required to use more expensive electric appliances and equipment that would dramatically increase energy bills for homeowners and tenants, eliminate good-paying union jobs, and make residents more vulnerable to power outages.”
SoCalGas did not respond to requests for comment on its involvement in C4BES’s campaign.
The City Council meeting at which this matter will be discussed will begin at 2 p.m. on Tuesday, and can be live streamed at www.SantaBarbaraCA.gov/CAP.
Residents can also register to join the meeting electronically to speak in public comment at https://attendee.gotowebinar.com/register/8994179249603314957.