The quiet campaign to make clean energy racist

To stop a small city's climate policy, fossil fuel interests sent in a front group, threatened COVID infections, and may have even manufactured a racism controversy.

The city of San Luis Obispo is viewed from the air on February 27, 2013, in San Luis Obispo, California. Credit: George Rose/Getty Images.


San Luis Obsipo, California is a small place with big ambitions.

The Central Coast city of 47,000 people—roughly 1.1 percent the size of Los Angeles—was the first in America to ban smoking indoors in 1990. It made history again in 2018, passing “the most ambitious carbon neutrality goal in the nation:” net zero emissions by 2035.

That trendsetting thirst is why, almost two years ago, San Luis Obispo Mayor Heidi Harmon started considering another bold move for the city: becoming one of the first to have zero-emission, all-electric new homes and businesses.

“We like to punch above our weight,” she said in a recent phone interview.

What Harmon didn’t realize, however, was that this time she was punching the face of the nation’s largest distributor of natural gas.

The small climate policy that sparked a big gassy rage

A Democrat elected mayor in 2016, Harmon says she’s been a climate change activist for the last 15 years. “It’s what inspired me to get involved in politics,” she said.

After the city passed its net-zero-by-2035 promise, Harmon said, she immediately got to work on fulfilling it. Buildings account for 29 percent of San Luis Obispo’s carbon pollution, according to the city, and natural gas accounts for 53 percent of building-related emissions. So she figured reducing the use of natural gas to heat buildings was a good way to start.

A year-long stakeholder engagement process resulted in the proposed Clean Energy Choice for New Building program. Unlike other policies which outright ban gas-hookups in new buildings, it allows developers to install natural gas for heating and cooking, but disincentivizes the practice through fees and efficiency requirements. At the same time, the policy provides strong incentives for all-electric installations. (You can read all about it in the latest staff report from the city council, here).

“This was the topic we received the most public comment on in the history of the city,” Harmon said. “I had lots of talks with major stakeholders in our community: the building world, the development world, electricians, engineers, all of it.”

“It’s a really thoughtful policy, and balanced compared to other communities,” added Eric Veium, Chair of the SLO Climate Coalition—SLO standing for San Luis Obispo.

Given all that—plus the relatively small size of the city—Veium and Harmon said they were surprised by the natural gas industry’s intense negative reaction. “I think they see this as an opportunity to beat us up and make an example of us; to tell other elected officials in their territory not to try this,” Veium said.

“I think they see us as a battleground.”

Step one: astroturf. Step two: threaten with COVID.

In the months leading up to the city council’s vote, natural gas industry interests—led by Southern California Gas company, known as SoCalGas—began deploying every trick in the book to stop the Clean Energy Choice program.

The first was a relatively easy-to-predict move: they sent in a front group to drum up opposition to the policy. Known as “astroturfing,” it’s a commonly-deployed tactic of the fossil fuel industry, in which a company creates an outside advocacy entity to make it appear as if there is natural, grassroots support for their case.

In this case, the entity was a non-profit called California for Balanced Energy Solutions, which SoCalGas has admitted to funding. Documents have also revealed that the company paid consultants to set the non-profit up.

The industry’s playbook got progressively more outrageous, however, as the city council’s vote drew nearer.

In March, the board chairman of California for Balanced Energy Solutions—also the president of a union representing thousands of SoCalGas employees—successfully got Harmon to cancel the council’s scheduled vote on the policy. He did this by threatening to bus in “hundreds” of protesters who were potentially infected with coronavirus, and directing them not to practice social distancing, The Los Angeles Times’ Sammy Roth reported.

And when the cancelled vote was rescheduled for June 16—coinciding with nationwide protests over systemic racism—a well-known media consultant for the energy industry started pitching national energy and environment reporters on the San Luis Obispo story: because, he said, the Clean Energy Choice policy was racially discriminatory.

The final effort: manufacture a race controversy

In his June 14 email to reporters, Bracewell LLP Senior Principal Frank Maisano said that Harmon had been getting “a lot of heat” from minority groups over the Clean Energy Choice policy, “including local Latino groups and the NAACP.”

He attached a June 13 letter to Harmon from a group called United Latinos Vote, and excerpted what he said was an important point:

“The consequences of this policy will disproportionately impact vulnerable communities and communities of color at a time when we should be finding ways to socially and economically empower them.”

Maisano told reporters he thought the letter was “worth a mention,” as the accusations of discrimination were “a harbinger of what will play out across the nation” as other cities attempt to pass similar policies.

The only problem was, the NAACP does not actually oppose the Clean Energy Choice policy. “That doesn’t even make sense,” said Stephen Vines, president of the SLO NAACP. “We’ve been fighting for environmental issues for over 60 years. We support the policy.”

In fact, no local minority group from San Luis Obispo or the surrounding area had expressed any public opposition to the policy in the years-long stakeholder process up to that point.

The only minority groups that had expressed opposition were business-focused groups from hundreds of miles outside the area—and all expressed their opposition less than 72 hours before the June 16 vote. United Latinos Vote, for example, is based 230 miles north in Oakland. The other minority groups that opposed San Luis Obispo’s climate policy were the California National Black Chamber of Commerce, the Black Small Business Association of California, and the California Hispanic Chamber of Commerce—statewide organizations. The Los Angeles Latino Chamber of Commerce, based 200 miles south, also sent a letter in opposition.

In the days before the city council’s vote on its all-electric buildings policy, Maisano tweeted several letters from business-focused racial identity groups across California accusing the council and the mayor of racial discrimination.*

Asked to explain the NAACP error, Maisano said via email, “I had heard through several sources that the California NAACP was going to have a letter and that prompted my initial email. Unfortunately, I was mistaken. It turned out that the CA Black Chamber of Commerce and the Black Small Business Assn of California ended up sending letters, not Cal NAACP. That was the source of the confusion.”

Maisano declined to say if he had a role in procuring the letters, or if he was pitching them to reporters as part of his consulting work for the oil and gas industry. “This is only one of the issues that several of my clients are following that I have been tracking—trying to amplify the voices of those concerned about the city proposals,” he said.

But as far as Harmon, Veium, and Vines are concerned: the whole thing smells a lot like gas.

“We’re the ones who breathe this air. We’re the ones dying.”

Vines, of the SLO NAACP, was particularly incensed by the last-minute pile-on by business-focused minority groups from outside the community—but not because he thinks they were necessarily wrong about racism. In fact, he agrees that the economic impacts of the Clean Energy Choice policy—good or bad—will be discriminatory against Black and brown people.

“When you live in a racist economy, all policy that affects the economy is racist,” he said. “So they can make that accusation about anything.”

What Vines is pissed about is that none of the groups’ letters grapple with the racism of the fossil fuel industry itself. “Ninety percent of all pollution in metropolitan areas is centered in our communities. We’re the ones breathing this air. We’re the ones dying,” he said. “What’s discriminatory is having a company that profits from dirty energy and then makes you pay for it with your life.”

Veium believes the letters don’t grapple with the industry’s role because the industry is the reason they were written in the first place. “It was SoCalGas calling in favors,” he said. “That’s what investor-owned utilities do. They spread out money all over town; they have relationships with business organizations; and they use that to call in favors.”

Mayor Harmon, too, believes gas interests were behind the last-minute race push.

“I’m familiar with the tactics the fossil fuel industry utilizes, so I’m making the assumption that it’s the gas lobby,” she said. “But even with all of the experience, this I found to be pretty low.”

“I think this is a tactic we’ll likely see more of”

On June 16, the San Luis Obispo city council voted unanimously to support the Clean Energy Choice for Buildings program. On Tuesday, the four-person council will vote again at a second reading of the policy, where it is expected to pass again.

Veium, for his part, is celebrating the victory. But he’s concerned that his city was just a tiny testing ground for bigger fights to come. “I think this is a tactic we’ll likely see more of.”

He might be right—especially as the country delves deeper into addressing its systemic racial inequities. After all, the fossil fuel industry has a long history of attempting to co-opt and/or pacify racial minority groups through financial support, in order to delay policies to fight climate change and clean up pollution that disproportionately harms them.

It is for that reason that Vines, of the SLO NAACP, also said he was skeptical that Maisano had simply made an error when he falsely claimed the NAACP opposed the Clean Energy Choice for Buildings policy. Oil and gas industry interests have forged letters from the NAACP before as a strategy to oppose climate legislation.

If that strategy returns, he said, he hopes environmental leaders nationwide are prepared to address it head-on.

“The environmental movement needs to get their eye on the ball,” he said. “They need to put some pep in they step.”

*Correction: A previous photo caption incorrectly stated Maisano’s tweets had been deleted.

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