The Santa Barbara City Council decided Tuesday to move forward with finding ways to require all new construction to be all electric, and hopes to incentivize already existing buildings with natural gas appliances to make the switch.
While city staff still have more work to do and research to come back with before any policy goes into effect, both city staff and leadership discussed what they called a misinformation campaign by Californians for Balanced Energy Solutions at the meeting.
The campaign involved many emails and unsolicited text messages to Santa Barbara residents urging them to contact the city council and tell them to vote no on the energy reach code.
The Public Advocates Office, an independent consumer advocate at the California Public Utilities Commission, sent an inquiry to SoCalGas, who allegedly created and funded C4BES, and asked them the following: “Please provide a copy of the text message sent by C4BES to Santa Barbara residents”; “Please explain how Santa Barbara residents’ phone numbers were obtained to send the C4BES text message”; “Please identify when the message or messages were sent and how many people they were sent to”; “Please identify all other cities where similar text messages have been sent to residents of those communities”; and “Did Sempra Energy, SoCalGas or SDG&E facilitate the delivery of the text messages in any manner, whether direct or indirect?”
SoCalGas responded on Jan. 6, 2021, with nine objections to the inquiry’s instructions.
However, its response to the questions said, “SoCalGas did not facilitate the delivery of the text messages in Question 1. Therefore, SoCalGas lacks personal knowledge to respond to Questions 1 through 4.”
SoCalGas provided general objections and objections to “instructions” from the inquiry. The company referred to the instructions as “overbroad and unduly burdensome,” and objected to the deadline of Jan. 6, calling it “unduly burdensome and unreasonable, particularly given the holidays.”
The company wrote in its response, “Special interrogatory instructions of this nature are expressly prohibited by California Code of Civil Procedure Section 2030.060(d). SoCalGas further objects to the Instructions to the extent they purport to impose requirements exceeding that required by CPUC General Order 66-D or the Discovery Custom and Practice Guidelines provided by the CPUC.”
The Public Advocates Office looks at what utilities do with customer money, and according to Maya Chupkov, director of strategic communications and outreach, “We found the company (SoCalGas) illegally misused ratepayer money to advocate against state’s climate policies.”
The office has been investigating SoCalGas and its involvement with C4BES since May of 2019, and the investigation “revealed that SoCalGas has engaged in numerous campaigns throughout the state intended to promote gas use.”
According to the website, SoCalGas has: “formed coalitions to convince the Los Angeles Metropolitan Transportation Authority to procure natural gas buses in lieu of electric ones”; “convinced local officials in over 100 jurisdictions to reject ‘Reach Codes’ that seek to limit the installation of gas in new construction”; and “succeeded in ensuring the continued use of natural gas at the ports of both Long Beach and Los Angeles.”
The office said the company claimed these activities were “100% shareholder-funded.”
“As part of our efforts to ensure affordable, safe, and reliable utility services, the Public Advocates Office carefully reviews what utilities do with the money they collect from their customers through utility bills,” the office said in a statement to the News-Press. “In our investigation of SoCalGas’ records, we found evidence that the gas company was illegally using customers’ money to misinform the public and lobby against the state’s policy goals.”
The office added, “It is only fair that Californians know what is being done with their money.
“Our office hopes the CPUC will do the right thing and hold SoCalGas accountable in order to deter future misconduct. SoCalGas customers deserve to know the truth about how their money is spent, especially if it involves illegally funding efforts to derail California’s policy goals,” the statement said.
SoCalGas Public Affairs Manager Tim Mahoney was asked directly by Council member Kristen Sneddon if he had any knowledge of the texting campaign during the council meeting, and his response was, “I got one (a text). Somebody sent me a text message. I didn’t know this one was coming to me, no.”
C4BES Executive Director Jon Switalski also defended the campaign at the meeting, saying, “Our campaign that was referenced here was indeed truthful and accurate.”
According to Ms. Chupkov, the Public Advocates Office has sought sanctions for some of the company’s inappropriate practices, and the CPUC issued a subpoena that she said SoCalGas has not complied with. She added that the “efforts to uncover SoCalGas astroturf activities and other violations of law continue.”