Another day, another fight between fossil fuel companies and climate programs. It’s a dance that is seemingly never ending.
It’s understandable that many fossil fuel companies are fighting for survival in an encroaching future where clean energy is key. Clean energy will absolutely kill them off, and there’s no denying that. However, it’s important that we understand that the survival of a few companies does not hold the same weight as being able to maintain a stable climate.
So, who is the company and what are they fighting this time? It’s Avista again, the second largest natural gas provider in Oregon.
Avista has been spending ratepayer money in order to fight state climate change regulations, all the while trying to raise the rates of the customers who use their service. During the last five years, Avista has spent more than $51,000 on lawyers to fight Oregon’s Climate Protection Program, according to the nonprofits Earthjustice, Sierra Club and Climate Solutions, who obtained the records on Friday and submitted them to the Oregon Public Utilities Commission. These records indicate that Avista has been getting the money from an account that’s funded by their 105,000 ratepayers.
If you’re not in this fight and you’re not a customer, you may be asking what the problem is. The problem is that they’ve been raising rates to a staggering degree. Avista customers are essentially paying a higher rate to cover for their service’s legal fees. In fact, Avusta is asking the Oregon Public Utilities Commission to be able to raise the rate by another 8%, which might just be used to spend a higher budget on more legal fees. When someone spends more money on a service, it’s usually because they expect the service to improve in some way, but this simply isn’t the case here.
As of now, the commission is considering whether or not to allow the natural gas provider to raise residential rates by 8% by the time the year comes to a close.
Avista isn’t the only one trying to fight back, though. This is alongside NW Natural and Cascade Natural, two other natural gas providers. They’re suing the Oregon Department of Environmental Quality using lawyers from San Francisco-based Baker Botts and Reno-based Snell & Wilmer. They’re essentially challenging the agency’s authority to regulate greenhouse gasses under the climate program. In case you aren’t aware, the program mandates that Oregon’s greenhouse gas emissions are cut in half by 2035, and 90% cut by 2050.
Natural gas is made up almost entirely of methane gas, which is an extremely potent greenhouse gas. Greenhouse gasses trap heat in the atmosphere, which contributes to gradual climate change. According to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, roughly one-third of global warming is due to human-caused emissions of methane.
This means that at least 26% of the reduction of greenhouse gas emissions will have to come from the aforementioned natural gas providers. No matter how you spin it, these companies are going to have to cut back on their emissions, and given that all they really do is provide natural gas, you might as well be asking them to cut off the end of their paychecks.
When inquired about using ratepayer money on a legal team, Greg Hesler, Avista’s senior legal counsel, had this to say to Capital Chronicle:
“We believe it is a prudent expenditure on behalf of our customers, and it is therefore included as a cost to customers in their rates,” Hesler wrote. “Avista does not believe that the Oregon Climate Protection Program (CPP) provides a constructive pathway for reducing emissions, and that it negatively impacts our customers through reduced energy choice, higher costs and decreased reliability.”
Well you wouldn’t believe it, but the nonprofit environmental groups mentioned earlier highly disagree. It’s a known fact that Avista has already raised rates by 18% since November 2022, which the company attributed to difficulties in supply due to the Ukraine/Russia war.
Climate Solutions’ policy manager, Greer Ryan, believed the utilities commission should outright deny Avista’s ask to raise rates while they use ratepayer funds for legal counsel. She said,
“We hope the commission will agree with us and say it’s inappropriate for gas utilities to charge their customers for political activities, especially for activities that are against the public interest like dismantling landmark climate policies.”
She then went on to suggest,
“We want the commission to say, ‘In rate-setting situations moving forward, you cannot charge your customers for these expenses,’”.