from the fake-plastic-trees dept
Back in 2016, we noted how Florida utilities had resorted to creating fake consumer groups to try and scuttle legislation aimed at ramping up solar competition and adoption in the state. The tactic is generally used to create the illusion of support for shitty, anti-competitive policies, and it’s been a common tactic in the U.S. broadband industry for as long as I can remember.
Eugene, Oregon recently passed a new city ordinance that would require that all new residential construction in the city be fossil-fuel free (aka: utilizing more efficient heat pumps instead of oil or natural gas furnaces, or installing new electric stoves instead of gas stoves):
“We have seen a lot of evidence … that natural gas does not support healthy air quality for our children,” Councilor Lyndsie Leech told her colleagues just before the vote on February 6. By phasing out fossil fuels in new homes, she said the council was “building the city that we want to see in the future.” Eugene’s mayor signed the ban shortly after it passed, and it is expected to go into effect in June.
An estimated 90 counties or cities have pursued similar efforts. Unsurprisingly, traditional utilities aren’t exactly keen on this. But instead of debating the ordinance directly as themselves, gas utilities like NW Natural instead decided to create a fake consumer groups with names such as Eugene Residents for Energy Choice and Eugene for Energy Choice.
The former describes itself as a “group of local Eugene residents,” but that’s, of course, not true. It’s effectively a cutout for local utilities aimed at forcing a vote on the issue:
Eugene Residents for Energy Choice is taking advantage of a petition process that allows ordinances passed by the City Council to be put up for a vote by the public. If a petitioner can collect signatures from 6,460 Eugene residents within 30 days of an ordinance being signed by the mayor, that ordinance can be placed on a ballot referendum and sent to voters on the next election day, so long as it’s more than 90 days away.
“Why not force a vote on it?” sounds reasonable on its face, but it won’t be a fair, democratic fight. Should it make its way to a public vote, utilities trying to kill the ordinance will have a financial and tactical advantage over local environmental activists in “educating” the public via a massive misinformation campaign with an unlimited budget, while also throwing money at local policymakers:
Public records show that NW Natural contributed more than $51,400 to the petition committee just four days after Eugene city councilors passed the electrification policy, followed by another $600,000 less than a week later.
As a result, Eugene’s plan, originally slated to go live in June, won’t go live until this fall, assuming it survives at all. Again, giant utilities might have points to make on these issues, but the choice of trying to make them through fake consumer propaganda groups speaks loudly as to the quality of the argument, and the awareness of these companies’ own credibility.
This is a tactic that’s extremely popular among telecom monopolies fighting community owned and operated broadband networks. Usually under the pretense that taxpayer subsidy-slathered telecom monopolies are just super concerned about taxpayer waste. It often goes hand in hand with massive campaigns to flood regulators with bogus support from fake or dead Americans.
You can tell that nobody has much of an answer for this kind of sleazy bullshit because this is effectively the same tactic we wrote about five years ago in Florida. And it’s the same tactic we’ve written about for decades in telecom. It’s K Street propaganda on demand, designed to convince Americans to root against their best self interests, and it works in scuttling consensus and reform far better than most folks assume.