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Utilities try to silence Twitter critics

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Photo: Susan Montoya Brian (AP)

Until recently, Autumn Johnson believed that criticism of utilities, dirty energy on the grid been at work all day. “As an environmentalist, my job is to call attention to the doubling of fossil fuels when we are in the midst of a climate crisis,” she said.

But earlier this month, when she began publicly criticizing the recent decision of the Salt River Project (SRP), one of Arizona’s largest utilities, something amazing happened: According to her, someone in the public utilities complained to her employer. Johnson’s experience is not unique and highlights how utilities in some countries major energy policy decision makersmay also be some of the most sensitive players in the energy space, tending to ignore legitimate criticisms or concerns about their policies and decisions, especially those posted on social media.

In late August, SRP announced it would build 16 new gas installations at one of its generating stations, adding an additional 820 megawatts of fossil fuel power to the grid. SRP also claimed that this gas energy will incredibly help the utility meet its goals for sustainable development and renewable energy. Natural gas is main source of methane, the greenhouse gas is 80 times worse than carbon dioxide. This seemingly recent plan has grieved renewable energy advocates, environmentalists, investors, and society at large in Arizona.

As part of what she saw as her job at Western Resource Advocates (WRA), a non-profit organization dedicated to the conservation of land, water and ecosystems in the Southwest, Johnson began tweeting about the project. She said her “reason for reaching out to Twitter and the media in general” is that ordinary people “have no other way to resist” the decisions of utilities.

Johnson’s tweets about SRP are pretty harmless. After announcing the utility, she tweeted questions about the SRP planning process and other alternatives that he could consider before deciding on such a large gas expansion, as well as comments on hoping for the closure of coal-fired power plants… Johnson isn’t the only one who opposes the new plant: one of the links she shared was for petition from the Sierra Club against the project.

SRP, apparently, could not stand it. Johnson said she was told the utility was upset that its tweets were “corrupting the SRP.” Johnson said she was told that her activities “potentially contradicted” her organization’s social media policies and was “advised to soften it”. She later tweeted about the incident

Erter examined WRA internal communications that confirm that the SRP spokesperson “tagged” Johnson’s tweets for the WRA. An SRP spokesman said in an email that the company was “not aware of any complaints against the employer,” adding that it “respects people’s rights to free speech” and “welcomes public comment.” When I asked the WRA about the incident, a company spokesperson said the company “has investigated the matter and [Johnson]the tweet is inaccurate. ”

Johnson is neither an elected officer nor a member of the Commission of the Arizona Corporation, which regulates public utilities in the state. I asked her why she thought SRP was so offended, in particular on her Twitter feed.

“Good question, I don’t know,” she said. “I’m a little fish. They provided me with a much larger platform than ever before. I don’t know if they did this to other people and they didn’t speak up, or if I was singled out. There are definitely more aggressive tweets about this project that you can find on social media. “

It turns out that Johnson is far from the only one who insists on him. Keith Kueny, who lives in Portland, Oregon, was a taxpayer lawyer in Oregon until recently, a position he held for seven years. His job was to protect the rights of low-income consumers at community commission meetings. Last fall, Kueny recalled, smaller utilities began pushing for renewed service outages for customers unable to pay their bills even as the pandemic was still raging and winter was approaching. Kueny mentioned the fact that many of the board members of utilities were associated with commercial and industrial enterprises. at a meeting with the governor’s policy advisor and representatives of the private nonprofit company Mid-State Electric to discuss the blackouts. This led to what he said was a tense exchange of views with a representative of the utility.

The representative “kept repeating:” We are democratically elected, we are democratically elected, “Kueny recalled. (Mid-State Electric members are allowed to vote on the board of directors, although Kueny said that board members generally work without resistance and, in his opinion, are essentially allowed to elect their successors and other board members.) “I said this in the meeting. more like a banana republic. It’s like I shot someone. “

Queni told me that after the meeting, the blackout resumed. “I heard from the agency I represented that the family was cut off for 37 cents in the winter during the pandemic,” Kueny said. “I was very angry.”

Kueny took to Twitter and shared an article about monopoly utilities, which he says represent “the moral decay of capitalism.” His boss later told Kueny that Mid-State Electric and the Oregon Rural Electric Cooperative Association, an industry group, had sent a letter to his employer stating that they could no longer work with him and asking him to be fired, citing his tweet and his comments. during the meeting. (Kueny maintained his position, but said he deleted the tweet as a result of a compromise. We reached out to Mid-State Electric and the Oregon Rural Electric Cooperative Association for comments and will update this article if we get a response.)

Meredith Connolly, also based in Oregon, is a state director for the non-profit organization Climate Solutions. The group specializes in the electrification of transport, buildings and other sectors. In 2019, Connolly said, she usually tweeted about electrification and natural gas as part of the week to get public attention. Shortly thereafter, she received an email from an employee of NW Natural, a publicly traded utility and natural gas distributor headquartered in Portland.

“It said something like, ‘Someone slipped me some copies of what you are posting, would like to talk about where we see the views and where we don’t,” Connolly said. “I thought it was weird.”

An NW Natural employee asked to meet for coffee, and Connolly agreed. At the meeting, “I was presented with printouts of my tweets,” she said. “They were redirected by someone at NW Natural, so someone was clearly checking my Twitter feed to see what I was talking about.”

Connolly recalled one of her tweets mentioning Massachusetts natural gas explosion in 2018 as a result, one person was killed and 22 were injured, which is of particular concern to the staff member.

She said. “It hurt me personally because a couple of years ago a block exploded in Portland due to a gas leak in the Northwest on the 23rd. I was on maternity leave, walking with my two month old baby down that street, and the next day it exploded. “

Connolly said she refused to delete the tweets “I said [the employee] that it’s part of the product doesn’t make it frivolous, it raises awareness. ” (Countryman reached out to NW Natural for comment and will update this post if we get a response.)

Connolly said it is not uncommon for utilities to flag what they perceive as problematic tweets: her boss has received calls from utilities before expressing concerns about tweets criticizing their policies. But when she was physically handed the printouts of her tweets, asking them to edit –which is even impossible“Strange,” she said.

“It got me thinking – what are they saying or asking from elected officials if they have this attitude towards climate advocates?” she said.

There is one way to understand this: keep track of your money. David Pomerantz, executive director of the Energy and Policy Institute, indicated in an email that utilities across the country have consistently used their charitable donations to intimidate politicians and local groups into doing what they want.

“Monopoly utilities have a long history of using their virtually unlimited banks of money raised from clients who have no choice to buy off or silence any opposition to their plans to build fossil fuel plants,” Pomerantz said. “While I can’t get into the heads of utility executives and lobbyists at the Salt River Project or other utilities, I suspect history makes them think that any critic is someone they can intimidate or buy.”

As with most jobs, it’s understandable that nonprofits expect their employees to act as they see fit on social media. But utilities that provide energy services to entire regions of the country, many of which function as near-monopolies with little or no competition, should receive a healthy dose of criticism. There are legitimate criticisms of policies that will affect millions of people, and products that are climate damaging and life-threatening, like natural gas. Large companies should not intimidate outside lawyers by forcing them to silence these criticisms. considering the rates

“In some ways, it’s surprising that utilities are still responding with such thin skin given that environmental and consumer advocates have criticized them for years,” Pomerantz said. “But maybe it shouldn’t be: Monopolies don’t have to face competition like normal business, and I think this has generated a lot of arrogance in many parts of the industry.”

Johnson has a similar view. Even though the WRA asked her not to tweet again, she decided to take a different route and publicize her interactions with the SRP. (And despite the alleged fear that Johnson’s tweets may harm their image, narrowly resolved monday to allow Coolidge’s expansion – amid widespread criticism from the wider environmental community in Arizona.)

“If utilities can get away with this kind of thing, it gives them the courage to try to silence and intimidate other people,” she said. “I don’t think that’s acceptable.”

Correction 9/15/21 at 4:58 PM ET: This article has been updated to correct the spelling of David Pomerantz’s last name.

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