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Environmental groups ask Avista, Puget Sound Energy utilities to leave powerful gas lobby

A technician turns off a gas pipeline.
Olga Rolenko/Getty Images
Moment RF
A technician turns off a gas pipeline.

A coalition of 17 environmental groups are asking two of the largest electric and natural gas utilities in the Pacific Northwest to end their membership in a powerful gas trade group that’s fighting climate change policies.

Environmental organizations — including the Sierra Club, Eugene-based Breach Collective and Oregon Physicians for Social Responsibility — said in letters to the CEOs of Washington-based Avista and Puget Sound Energy that membership in the American Gas Association is antithetical to pledges the companies have made to begin decarbonizing and meet targets for reducing state greenhouse gas emissions.

The American Gas Association lobbies federal and state governments on behalf of natural gas providers and has vowed to fight the voter-approved natural gas ban in Eugene while stealthily intervening in a public hearing on natural gas in Multnomah County and fighting efforts to switch sectors formerly reliant on fossil fuels to renewable energy.

“The American Gas Association is at the bleeding edge of anti-climate advocacy,” said Dylan Plummer, an organizer with the Sierra Club. “Avista has indicated it sees decarbonization as a priority, and the association it’s part of is working to undermine that at every turn.”

Avista supplies natural gas and electricity to customers in Washington, North Idaho, Oregon and Alaska. Overall, Avista provides natural gas to more than 370,000 customers and electricity to more than 400,000 in the Northwest.

“Avista received the letter and appreciates the signatories’ acknowledgement of our partnership and commitments to reduce the carbon footprint of our natural gas business,” said Jason Thackston, Avista’s senior vice president, in an email. But, he said the company is not prepared to leave the gas association.

“We believe that our participation with the American Gas Association allows us to engage with our industry peers in important discussions about the role of natural gas in the energy ecosystem and to explore ways to continue to meaningfully improve the environmental impacts associated with natural gas as a part of that ecosystem,” Thackston said.

Puget Sound Energy is the largest electric utility in Washington, serving over 1 million customers, and also distributes natural gas to more than 900,000 customers in western Washington.

Representatives from PSE did not respond to a request for comment by Wednesday night. Spokespersons for the American Gas Association also did not respond to a request for comment.

Avista and Puget Sound Energy have fought state climate policies, but also pledged to increase renewable energy offerings, invest in electrification and increase energy efficiency in buildings. Avista recently agreed to a settlement with environmental groups over a proposed rate hike, agreeing to reduce ratepayer funding for trade association groups by $90,000. It also agreed to double its investment in weatherizing the homes of low-income customers and to cut a subsidy that got new customers hooked up to natural gas at artificially low prices.

“The terms of settlements with Avista in both Washington and Oregon have been some of the most progressive that we’ve seen in our work anywhere in the country,” Plummer said.

He added that environmental groups chose to ask Northwest utilities that provide both electricity and natural gas to leave the American Gas Association, because those utilities have an incentive to focus more heavily on electrification. A company like NW Natural, Oregon’s largest natural gas provider and a member of the American Gas Association, does not have an alternative to the single fossil fuel they provide to customers.

In August, the largest investor-owned energy utility in the Northeast, Eversource Energy, became the first utility to leave the gas association, citing an interest in joining industry groups more focused on decarbonization. The environmentalists in the Northwest are hoping to convince Avista and Puget Sound Energy to do the same.


This story was originally published by the Oregon Capital Chronicle.