A gas industry union leader and chair of a group funded by California’s largest gas utility threatened to protest with “no social distancing” a vote last month on a city policy in San Luis Obispo that would support electrification in new buildings, according to emails obtained by Climate Investigations Center and first reported in the Los Angeles Times. That threat to bus in hundreds of protesters, “potentially adding to this pandemic,” apparently worked as San Luis Obispo city officials have postponed the April 7 vote on its Clean Energy Choice Program indefinitely.
And while the March 16 protest threat preceded right-wing reopen groups protesting stay-at-home orders across the country, both have something in common — an appearance of grassroots organizing with underlying ties to big funders including fossil fuel interests.
As DeSmog previously reported, “Like the eruption of Tea Party protests in 2009, many of the [reopen] protests have the outward appearance of spontaneity, yet are tied through common funding streams and networks.” That network is the State Policy Network, an umbrella of state-level right-wing think tanks that is funded by the Koch family, the Devos family, the Mercer Family Foundation, and others.
The threat to protest in San Luis Obispo, on the other hand, came from Eric Hofmann, president of Utility Workers Union of America Local 132. On the surface, it appears that a union leader would be organizing fellow workers concerned with losing their jobs, but there is a deeper connection to a gas industry concerned with losing profits as cities begin to transition away from fossil fuel use in new buildings.
Screen shot from March 16, 2020 email from Eric Hofmann ahead of the city council vote, in which Hofmann wrote, “Please don’t force my hand in bussing in hundreds and hundreds of pissed off people potentially adding to this pandemic.”
Hofmann’s union is made up exclusively of employees of Southern California Gas (SoCal Gas), which the Los Angeles Times describes as “one of the nation’s largest gas utilities, and a prominent crusader against local efforts to phase out gas.” And, as the Los Angeles Times points out, Hofmann “also chairs the board of directors of Californians for Balanced Energy Solutions, a pro-gas advocacy group that has received funding from SoCal Gas and worked closely with the utility to generate opposition to all-electric building policies.”
Increasingly, municipalities across the nation, but particularly in California, are making moves to transition away from gas use in new buildings in an effort to address climate change. However, this shift towards electrification for heating threatens the gas industry’s core business. Now the industry appears to be supporting new tactics to try to stop this trend.
Fossil Fuel Front Groups Push Back Against California Community’s Proposed Climate Policy
San Luis Obispo, a community of over 47,000 residents located along California’s central coast, is advancing local measures to transition away from fossil fuels, with a target of being carbon neutral by 2035. One of those measures is a program called Clean Energy Choice, which would encourage but not mandate all-electric new buildings powered by carbon-free energy. According to a description of the program on the city’s website, “all-electric new buildings are operationally greenhouse gas emissions-free, cost effective, and help achieve the community’s climate action goals.”
Fossil fuel front groups campaigned against the proposed policy, falsely claiming it would raise energy costs and ban natural gas. In August last year a group called Californians for Affordable & Reliable Energy (CARE) launched a social media ad campaign opposing Clean Energy Choice. CARE has actively opposed clean energy initiatives throughout California and is affiliated with the Western States Petroleum Association, a trade group representing major oil and gas companies across the West. WSPA is an original member of CARE and has paid $102,136 to CARE since the start of 2019 for lobbying services, according to 2019 filings at the California Secretary of State.
In September last year, the San Luis Obispo City Council voted 4-1 to adopt the Clean Energy Choice ordinance, but following the vote, the gas union leader Hofmann filed an ethics complaint against council member Andrea Pease, delaying the ordinance and forcing the council to reschedule the vote. That vote was set to happen last month on April 7, and it has now been delayed again following Hofmann’s threat of protesting and defying social distancing during the coronavirus pandemic.
So here’s a wild story for you: The head of a pro-gas advocacy group backed by SoCalGas derailed a local climate vote by threatening to bus in hundreds of protesters “potentially adding to this pandemic.”
“There will be no social distancing,” he warned: https://t.co/oOZf8aEe5q
— Sammy Roth (@Sammy_Roth) May 6, 2020
Hofmann recently became board chair of Californians for Balanced Energy Solutions (C4BES), another industry front group, which has funding ties to SoCal Gas. As the Guardian reported last year, “According to state filings, SoCal Gas began paying the bills for C4Bes in March 2018.” The gas utility has said it doesn’t direct the organization, but as the Guardian further explained, “documents show it funded the organization from its launch, paying outside consultants to develop the not-for-profit group, establish ‘the organization’s messages and themes’ and recruit board members.”
One of those “outside consultants” appears to be a firm called Marathon Communications. On March 12 Marathon’s Brian Lewis contacted San Luis Obispo Sustainability Manager Chris Read to inquire about the agenda for the April 7 city council meeting, according to email records. Read confirmed the next day that the council would be voting on the Clean Energy Choice Program, and three days later Hofmann sent his threatening email.
SoCal Gas did not respond to a request for comment on the email records and its relationship with Marathon and C4BES. The gas utility, a subsidiary of Sempra Energy, has come under scrutiny by the California Public Utility Commission’s Public Advocates Office for allegedly lying to regulators and using ratepayer money to help fund C4BES. The Los Angeles Times has characterized C4BES as a “sleazy Astroturf group.”
“This is just one example of the fossil fuel industry setting up front groups to further its agenda,” Matt Vespa, a California-based clean energy attorney at Earthjustice, told DeSmog. SoCal Gas has been very aggressive in trying to keep San Luis Obispo from moving forward with its building electrification policy, he said, but Hofmann’s threatening email took it to another level.
I’ve seen my share of underhanded gas industry tactics, but the Chair of @socalgas front group @CA4BES threatening to spread Corona to stop a city from a long deliberated vote on all electric fossil fuel free buildings is a new low. https://t.co/UqVpfOMjYY
— Matt Vespa (@missionvespa) May 6, 2020
“The behavior has been getting so egregious,” Vespa said. “The level of bullying and threatening, I was pretty shocked by it. [C4BES] is an entity that SoCal Gas has created, and they’re threatening public health amid a pandemic.”
Hofmann did not respond to a request for comment.
Main image: Southern California Gas Co. sign at a wastewater biogas project in Escondido, California, in 2011. Credit: Crop of original image by Genevieve Prentice, CC BY–SA 2.0