Utility front groups spending on disinformation advertising
September 23, 2022 - Earth and Policy Institute
The Energy and Policy Institute launched a new tracking tool that exposes up to $2.4 million in spending on advertising by 14 utility front groups in the last year.
Utilities stall and limit climate action by establishing, controlling and funding front groups to spread climate misinformation through advertising on social media.
Utility front groups have spent thousands of dollars on disinformation advertising that target people of color and historically marginalized groups, mislead the public on the impacts of gas bans, highlight false concerns regarding the reliability of renewable energy, and promote “renewable natural gas” and hydrogen, despite multiple studies showing these fuels are not viable substitutes for building electrification.
Utility front groups advertise for preferred candidates in elections, including Seniors Across America promoting Governor Ron DeSantis, followed by a slew of anti-solar advertisements costing up to $60,000.
Federal commissions, legislators, and utility regulators can take action to improve the transparency of utility advertising and limit the spread of disinformation.
Gas and electric utility front groups have spent over $2.4 million over the past 4 years on social media advertisements, many of which include targeted messaging to mislead customers on critical climate and energy concerns, including the impact of power plant retirements, the reasons behind high utility bills, and the viability of “renewable natural gas” and hydrogen.
Using data from the Meta Ad Library and existing code developed by Brown University, the Energy and Policy Institutelaunched a new tracking tool that exposes up to $2.4 million in spending by 14 utility front groups in the last year, and shows the specific regions that the groups are targeting with the advertisements. The tracker does not show advertising spending by the groups on other social media platforms, such as TikTok, Twitter or YouTube.
Utility front groups are organizations that appear independent but are established, controlled, or funded by a gas or electric utility or trade association. These front groups advocate on behalf of utility interests, often by amplifying misinformation about distributed renewable energy or electrification while masking or obscuring the utility’s involvement. Just over the last year, gas and electric utility front groups spent tens of thousands of dollars spreading misinformation through targeted advertising on the platforms of the social media giant Meta, such as Facebook and Instagram. In some cases, the front groups have promoted specific candidates over others to influence voters in the weeks before primary elections.
Social media networks expedite the spread of misinformation through algorithms that recommend new connections to people with similar views, and then promote content within the network based on engagement with previously viewed material. Additionally, research shows people are more likely to trust information from others in their social network, propagating “echo chambers” and severe polarization of people uniting around disparate positions.
Social media companies are under scrutiny for promoting misinformation, as are the companies using the platforms to spread falsehoods furthering their interests and influence.
In September 2022, the U.S. House Natural Resources Committee, Subcommittee Oversight & Investigations, led by Rep. Katie Porter, examined the role of public relations firms in preventing climate action for their fossil fuel clients.
Other members of Congress are also investigating the firms and fossil fuel companies for their role in the decades-long campaign to mislead the American people about the industry’s role in climate change. Rep. Carolyn Maloney, the Chairwoman of the Committee on Oversight and Reform, and Rep. Ro Khanna, the Chairman of the Subcommittee on Environment, recently released a report of initial findings that show how oil companies “focus on unproven technologies the companies admit are decades away from implementation,” and “[rely] on accounting gimmicks, tricky language, and delay tactics to claim the mantle of climate leadership while continuing to be a primary cause of an ongoing climate catastrophe.” The report comes nearly a year after the Committee on Oversight and Reformheld a hearing to examine the fossil fuel industry’s disinformation campaigns.
Like the oil industry, the utility industry knew about the risks that burning fossil fuels posed to the climate for decades before the general public was broadly exposed to the same science. . In the late 1950s, the oil industry was studying carbon dioxide in the atmosphere through their trade association, the American Petroleum Institute. Several years later a science advisor to President Lyndon B. Johnsonwarned the utility’s trade association, the Edison Electric Institute, about the threat that carbon dioxide emissions from burning fossil fuels could one day pose to the climate. Together, the utility and oil industries were told of the climate risks of their products and actions but used doubt and denial in various ways, including advertisements, to erode public understanding of the science and quell government action. The industry then transitioned to deflecting focus onto the emissions of other countries and sectors, and in recent years have “uplifted approaches such as carbon capture and storage (CCS) that have proven unviable to date in the power sector, distracting attention from the energy transition,” according to a recent study.
Today, most utility companies have publicly committed to some type of “net-zero” climate goals, but they continue to block meaningful climate reform and invest in fossil fuel infrastructure. EPI’s new tool shows that utilities continue to stall and limit climate action by funding front groups to spread climate and energy misinformation through advertising on social media networks. Below are a few examples of recent utility front group advertisements.
Front groups targeting people of color and historically marginalized groups
Natural Allies for a Clean Energy Future is a 501(c)(4) front group with ties to some of the largest utilities in the country, including DTE Energy, Duke Energy, and Southern Company. The front group has spent more than half a million dollars on Facebook and Instagram advertising since 2018 and is among the highest spenders of any utility front groups tracked by EPI.
Natural Allies for a Clean Energy Future recently received media attention for its advertisement campaign targeting young, liberal, and Black and Latino voters to convince them of the benefits of fossil gas in addressing climate change. Internal documents revealed that the campaign had a plan to “redefine the role of natural gas in fighting climate change and protect the social license to operate” and “success for the natural gas industry will be rooted in whether we can message to the left and the Democratic base of Black and Latino and age 18-34 voters as effectively as we have messaged to the right.”
More details from the documents detailed how the front group has a specific focus on Black voters: “Black voters- the core of President Biden’s Democratic coalition – are more likely to support affordability over disruptive changes in energy and climate policy. Black voters also register lower support for the Green New Deal when informed of the practical effects of such policies on energy affordability and reliability.”
The ads for the campaign included the same video with the message that fossil gas is “accelerating the world’s clean energy future,” despite the fact that methane is accelerating the climate’s warming, with a heat-trapping potency 84 to 87 times greater than carbon dioxide over a 20-year period. The recent UN IPCC report clearly states that cutting methane emissions is critical to having a chance to limit global temperature increases to 1.5 degrees Celsius. Yet methane emissions are on the rise, and U.S. oil and gas drilling is a major contributor to the increase. Rob Jackson, a Stanford University scientist who leads the Global Carbon Project, which published two studies in July 2020 on this topic, said, “Natural gas use is rising quickly here in the U.S. and globally. It is offsetting coal in the electricity sector and reducing carbon dioxide emissions but increasing methane emissions in that sector. As a result, we’re emitting more methane from oil and gas wells and leaky pipelines.”
Between February and May of this year, Natural Allies spent up to $10,000 on ads featuring the video created for its advertising campaign.
The Consumer Energy Alliance (CEA), which calls itself “the voice of the energy consumer” but in reality is an advocacy front group for some of the country’s largest utilities, fossil fuel corporations, and trade associations, has spent even more than Natural Allies for a Clean Energy Future on Facebook and Instagram advertising. Since May 2018, CEA has spent nearly $700,000. It has also deployed similar tactics as Natural Allies, dropping up to $8,000 on an ad touting two women “running a business in a male-dominated field” and struggling in the face of rising fuel prices.
Seniors Across America is a front group that spent thousands of dollars on Facebook advertisements that urged Floridians to support an anti-rooftop solar bill. Text of the legislation, HB 741, was sent to state senator Jennifer Bradley’s staff from a Florida Power & Light (FPL) lobbyist. FPL’s parent company, NextEra Energy, contributed $10,000 to Bradely’s political committee just days after the legislator received the legislation, and an additional $10,000 weeks later. As the bill moved through the legislature, Seniors Across America ran advertisements promoting it, targeting those aged 55 and over, and claiming that the “stealth solar tax” disproportionately hurt senior ratepayers by forcing them to subsidize customers who could afford to purchase solar for their homes. In fact, the bill would have authorized utilities to charge all customers for the recovery of its lost revenue, creating the very subsidy Senior Across America claimed solar was causing. Solar allies opposing the bill presented thousands of comments establishing the fact that no solar “cost shift” currently exists in Florida;Governor Ron DeSantis vetoed the bill, saying that it would have forced rate increases among FPL’s captive customers. Seniors Across America continues to advertise warnings against “shady solar salespeople.”
Utility front groups spending thousands fighting against bans on fossil gas
The Affordable Energy Coalition, a front group created in March 2021 to attack building electrification policy in the Seattle region, spent up to $2,500 on an advertisement that ran through May 2022, focused on the Seattle City Council decision to ban fossil gas in new buildings. The front group used another advertisement to suggest vague and dangerous repercussions, with no corroboration, had the gas ban been in effect during Seattle’s record cold temperatures this past February.
Affordable Energy Coalition’s advertising stokes fears that electric heat pumps cannot perform in cold weather. However, technological advances to new models of electric heat pumps disprove this concern. For instance, a recent study in Maine found that heat pumps perform well in below-freezing weather without fossil-fueled backup. An analysis of the technology’s performance in Minnesota came to the same conclusion.
New Yorkers for Affordable Energy used similar tactics in response to a failed attempt to ban fossil fuels from newly constructed buildings in the near future. The front group is supported by the utilities Dominion, National Grid, and National Fuel Gas, according to LittleSis. The front group focused on a campaign with the false narrative that banning gas appliances would require New Yorkers to spend thousands on retrofitting, spending up to $8,000 on ads falsely claiming that a gas appliance ban would cost homeowners $30,000. However, the ban was only for newly constructed buildings, and an analysis from the Rocky Mountain Institutefound that all-electric homes have lower costs than new mixed-fuel homes, with savings on upfront costs and utility bills.
A study published by Stanford University researchers found that even when not running, gas appliances release an annual amount of methane equivalent to 500,000 cars. Further, the nitrogen dioxide emitted from gas stoves inside homes far exceeds the Environmental Protection Agency’s outdoor air quality standards, significantly increasing the risk of asthma and chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, especially in children.
Consumer Energy Alliance made a similar claim concerning costs in support of a bill that almost passed in Virginia that would have prevented municipalities and counties from banning new gas infrastructure and hookups. According to a Rocky Mountain Institutestudy, many residential electrification scenarios for new buildings would reduce the cost for homeowners over the lifetime of the appliances, as compared to fossil fuel-burning appliances, and cost savings are also possible in retrofitting scenarios. Further, with the passing of the Inflation Reduction Act, the federal government is lowering the energy costs of energy efficient appliances by providing $14,000 in direct customer rebates.
Advertisements from front groups make false claims concerning the reliability of renewable energy and energy security
Citizens for Energizing Michigan’s Economy (CEME), a 501(c)(4) organization that has received more than $43.5 million from Consumers Energy, has spent on advertisements including misinformation about renewable energy and the electric grid. When Michigan legislators introduced a bill in 2021 to lift a cap on utility distributed generation programs, CEME ran a misleading ad that falsely claimed “out-of-state special interests” – implying solar companies – caused widespread blackouts on the Texas grid earlier that year. Versions of the advertisement appeared on Facebook feeds in the districts of members of the Michigan House Energy Committee, which held hearings on the legislation. Utility companies in Texas – specifically Calpine, Vistra, and NRG Energy – all have said natural gas shortages affected their ability to operate their power plants. Additionally, the Texas Railroad Commissiondidn’t mandate winterization to prevent oil and gas wells from freezing and failed to ensure that gas producers and pipeline operators sought priority status for power during emergency outages, which occurred when the grid operator ordered utilities to perform rotating outages. Coal-fired power plants also failed to operate during the extreme weather event.
Voices for Cooperative Power, a front group funded by the National Rural Electric Cooperative Association, the trade association for electric cooperatives, used Facebookads in an attempt to urge people to call on the Michigan Public Service Commission to “not to allow the premature retirement of power plants unless the utilities demonstrate new operational alternative power plants first.” The ads are likely referring to the J.H. Campbell power plant, owned by Consumers Energy. The ads claimed Michigan “can’t afford to go dark,” suggesting renewable alternatives could not maintain reliable power or would be too costly. But expert analysis shows that switching to renewables would be the safest and most cost-effective option, and modeling by Consumers Energy and environmental groups demonstrated Campbell’s retirement and the plan to purchase the Covert Generating Station, accelerating the addition of 8,000 megawatts of solar power and 550 MW of battery storage by 2040, with interim targets through this decade, improve reliability in the service territory. Testimony filed by Consumers Energy also revealed that electric cooperative Wolverine Power Supply’s competitive business stood to benefit financially if Campbell remained open.
Affordable Energy for New Jersey spent its largest sums on attacks against Governor Phil Murphy’s Energy Master Plan. The 2019 plan outlines a statewide strategy to reach 100 percent clean energy by 2050, which prioritizes the rapid electrification of buildings. In response, the front group has deployed a steady onslaught of low-cost, frequent advertisements since the beginning of 2022.
The group’s ad topics range from attacks on the viability of electric vehicle batteries to blaming “radical environmentalists shouting down US LNG exports” for Germany’s reliance on coal in the midst of Russia’s attack on Ukraine. The front group also focused on blackouts in June 2022 advertisements in attempts to convey the message that only “base load” can prevent the blackouts. Utilities and groups typically reference coal, gas, and nuclear as baseload plants. Yet these fuels have no magical reliability properties, and are responsible for their own outages. In Colorado, during a summer heat wave, Xcel Energyaverted a crisis by taking control of customer thermostats to relieve demand after the coal plant Comanche 3 “went down quickly.” A year earlier, a different Colorado utility, Mountain Parks Electric, warned customers to conserve energy because wind turbines “iced up,” when in fact the causes of the supply crunch were complex, and included how the winter conditions also impacted the supply of gas and Wyoming coal plants.
Gas utility front groups promoting RNG, hydrogen, and “clean” “natural” gas
Partnership for Energy Progress is a 501(c)(4) front group with ties to multiple utilities, including Avista, Cascade Natural Gas, NW Natural, and Puget Sound Energy, all in the Pacific Northwest. The Guardian reported that the utilities created the group to convince consumers that “natural gas is part of a clean energy future.” The Seattle Times also reported that the group had prepared a $1 million media strategy campaign that would feature paid advertisements focused on “key audiences in Washington and Oregon,” mobilize allies in policy debates, and create a “positive” message about gas.
The front group has spent over$60,000 in 2022 on Facebook and Instagram advertising. Part of the advertisement campaign focused on promoting technologies that gas utilities are bolstering, but are false solutions for the purposes of building decarbonization. One of the messages promoted “renewable natural gas” as clean, reliable, and affordable, and capable of being delivered in the existing gas infrastructure and reducing emissions. “Renewable natural gas,” or biomethane, is non-fossil methane, generally captured from agricultural sources or landfills. The other message promoted hydrogen in the same light as renewable natural gas – as a practical solution for gas utilities to reduce emissions. Similar to utilities that have promoted carbon capture and storage even though it remains unworkable to date in the power sector, Partnership for Energy Progress advertisements ignore the facts that biomethane and hydrogen, while plausibly playing a role in decarbonizing other sectors, are not viable alternatives to building electrification. Ampleevidence shows both fuel types would lead to higher costs for customers, are not available at the necessary scale, could be climate intensive due to methane leakage, exacerbate air pollution, and cause safety risks.
Front groups frequently deployed ads that refer to fossil gas as a “clean” fuel source, implying that it is critical to achieving emission reduction targets. The Alliance for Michigan Power used Facebook and Instagram advertisements to encourage that misleading message. The Alliance for Michigan Power is a front group with connections to monopoly utility company DTE Energy, which provides both electric and gas service to customers in Michigan.
Utility front groups involved in advertising for elections
Citizen’s Energizing Michigan’s Economy, the front group funded by Consumers Energy, ran Facebook ads for eight candidates – seven Republicans and one Democrat – ahead of their August 2022 primary elections. The ads for the Republicans focused heavily on advancing a right-wing agenda, promoting “election integrity,” gun ownership, police, “Christian values,” and “fight[ing] China.”
In the weeks leading up to Florida’s August 2022 primary elections, Seniors Across America spent hundreds of dollars supporting Governor Ron DeSantis, who had no Republican primary challenger. DeSantis appointed the Florida Public Service Commissioners who approved Florida Power & Light’s rate hike earlier this year, and has passed a host of legislation friendly to FPL and its parent company, NextEra. In 2018, DeSantis received$25,000 from a dark money non-profit funded by FPL. Despite his veto of the anti-rooftop solar bill, written by FPL and supported by Seniors Across America, DeSantis has remained silent about FPL’s connection to election scandals, criminal trials, and ongoing investigations. The ads from Seniors Across America praising DeSantis were followed by a slew of messaging campaigns, one warning against “greedy solar companies and their door-to-door salesmen,” on which the front group spent up to $30,000, and another suggesting the “Top Five Scams” of rooftop solar salespeople, which cost up to an additional $30,000. These ads ran simultaneously with several ads encouraging primary voting.
Utility front groups also deploy tactics outside of Meta platforms to influence elections. Leading up to Nevada’s 2022 primary election, Southwest Gas Corporation – one of the largest gas utilities in the country – gave $10,000, its largest contribution at the time, to Assemblywoman Lesley Cohen’s Democratic primary opponent, Joe Dalia. Residents in Cohen’s district in Clark County also began receiving political mailers smearing Cohen and demanding she return “dirty money” from fossil fuel and energy companies ahead of the primary. The mailers were paid for by the front group Nevadans for Economic Opportunity (NEO), a 501(c)(4) “pro-growth, public policy” coalition financially backed by the Retail Association of Nevada (RAN) and the Associated Builders and Contractors of Nevada, among others. The address of RAN is also the same one for NEO in the state’s campaign finance disclosure database.
In 2021, Cohen introduced AB380, legislation that would require gas utilities to employ a more rigorous planning process before expanding infrastructure. To combat the legislation, Southwest Gas built a coalition of affiliated interest groups. This included the creation of a now-disbanded front group, Coalition for Cleaner, Affordable Energy. The group sponsored Facebook content to “Stop AB380,” and featured RAN’s Senior Vice President, Bryan Wachter, falsely framing the climate bill as a fossil gas appliance ban.
Appeals to state and federal regulators for greater transparency
Utilities form front groups to intentionally deceive customers and advance their own interests. By utilizing social media for advertising, utility front groups rapidly disseminate disinformation, without disclosure to viewers about the utilities’ involvement. Meanwhile, even if utility involvement is revealed to customers through news sources or watchdog organizations, customers are unable to opt out of paying their bills for electricity or gas, both necessities of modern life.
The Federal Trade Commission exists to protect consumers from these kinds of deceptive and unfair business practices. Earlier this year, 230 groups, including the Energy and Policy Institute, requested the FTC investigate the utility industry for widespread abuses, including political corruption, dark-money campaigns, and unfair anti-competitive practices, including denying customers access to renewable energy.
The Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC) could amend the accounting system that all utilities use in rate cases, the Uniform System of Accounts, to require that utilities record the millions paid in industry association dues as presumptively non-recoverable for rate recovery purposes. This action would at the very least force utilities to justify efforts to recover payments to trade associations engaged in political activities, and would reduce costs for wholesale transmission customers who would no longer be required to pay those expenses. FERC can also require more granular disclosure of expenses made by utilities through their annual filings, specifically in the accounts where utilities routinely place political expenses. This additional reporting requirement would help discourage utilities from booking the consulting costs of creating a front group and charging it to customers, as Southern California Gas Company did several years ago when it formed the front group Californians for Balanced Energy Solutions to advance the utility’s pro-gas position in a California Public Utilities Commission proceeding.
Members of Congress can also include the utility industry in their investigations of the fossil fuel industry. The same questions and requests for documents sent to oil companies from the House Committee on Oversight and Reform could be sent to many in the utility industry as part of an ongoing investigation on climate disinformation. The House investigation included a request for companies to provide documents and communications related to involvement in supporting disinformation and misleading the public to prevent climate action.
State regulators are also capable of intervening on behalf of utility customers. Commissioner Sandra D. Kennedy of the Arizona Corporation Commissiondemanded that Arizona’s utilities provide comprehensive lists of political contributions, lobbying expenses, advertising and marketing expenses, “Corporate Giving”, and a list of compensations for employees and consultants engaged in those activities. In the filing, Kennedy indicated that some utilities have “veered off the path of their core mission and instead have focused on solidifying their positions of power,” and said that “the level of transparency called for in this letter is essential to maintaining the public’s trust.”
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