Xcel Energy played a leading role in a stealthy plan to defend natural gas in Colorado
Anyone who's seen ads for Xcel Energy knows the company is in the green energy business.
Its frequent television spots show workers erecting new wind turbines and touting its promise to deliver 100 percent carbon-free electricity by 2050.
What's less featured is its massive role in Colorado's natural gas industry.
While Xcel Energy has put solar and wind at the center of its electricity plans, newly released documents prove the company is a prominent force behind Coloradans for Energy Access — a non-profit dedicated to fighting a growing movement to shift buildings from natural gas heat to renewable electricity.
The group’s 2021 tax documents show Joni Zich, the senior director of gas strategy for Xcel Energy, served as a board member when the group formed in late 2021. In addition, a political contributions report the company published last Thursday notes it donated $80,000 to the organization in 2022.
The company maintains its participation doesn't undermine its larger climate commitments. Michelle Aguayo, an Xcel Energy spokesperson, said the company has pledged to meet a short-term goal to cut emissions from its natural gas system by 25 percent by 2030.
"To reach our net-zero vision, we will need a portfolio that includes both a robust and reliable natural gas system and new electrification technologies," Aguayo said. "Our engagement with diverse groups allows us to have a dialogue with people with different perspectives about the pathway to a clean energy portfolio."
Xcel has not hidden its desire to grow its Colorado natural gas network and has repeatedly sought approval from state utility regulators for fossil fuel investments.
That work defies the consensus among climate scientists, who have concluded further investments in fossil fuel infrastructure aren't compatible with international climate goals. A state analysis also shows Colorado’s widespread reliance on natural gas helped drive a spike in household energy costs this winter.
The gas network nevertheless remains one of Xcel Energy’s most lucrative assets. The company’s latest annual financial report shows it now serves 1.5 million gas customers in Colorado and owns around 2,600 miles of gas transmission and distribution lines, making it by far the state's largest company delivering the methane-based fuel to buildings. Continued expansion projects are one reason the regulated monopoly earned a record $1.74 billion in profits last year.
It's now clear the company helped launch a stealthy political project to defend the investment. The tax forms for Coloradans for Energy Access showed it received $205,000 in donations from five different individuals. As a social welfare nonprofit, it faces no legal requirement to publicly disclose the identity of those donors.
Aguayo declined to detail the full amount Xcel Energy contributed to the coalition. She noted the company works with a variety of energy and environmental policy groups, but those efforts are funded by the company’s shareholders and not recovered from ratepayers.
Coloradans for Energy Access has always been an effort to present the business interests of natural gas utilities as grassroots activism.
The project comes amid a growing movement to end the expansion of natural gas systems in climate-conscious cities. Crested Butte became the first Colorado community to ban gas hookups in new buildings last year, following the lead of progressive cities like Berkeley, Calif., and New York City. Both Boulder and Denver are now exploring similar policies.
Colorado utility regulators have also approved new rules to scrutinize the climate impact of future natural gas projects.
Coloradans for Energy Access announced its formation in a Colorado Sun op-ed early last year, saying the coalition had formed to battle "forced electrification." It was signed by members including two union managers, the head of a trade group representing realtors and the leader of a political nonprofit advocating for southern Colorado.
The truth was those supposed authors weren't the driving force behind the new group. A recording obtained by CPR News last year revealed the coalition was led by Atmos Energy, the country's largest gas-only utility.
Its initial tax filing further proves utilities organized the coalition. Jennifer Altieri, a lobbyist for Atmos Energy who has since taken a new role with Black Hills Energy, is listed as the board chair. The three other founding board members were executives with Xcel Energy, Colorado Summit Utilities and Black Hills Energy.
To assist the new coalition, the group hired FTI Consulting, a firm with a well-documented history of managing public relations campaigns for the fossil fuel industry. During a call for coalition members, William Allison, a senior director at FTI, said his firm would help "preserve and protect access to natural gas" and ensure "people have the freedom to choose the energy that suits them."
Those efforts appear to have focused on placing editorials in local newspapers. The group's Twitter page, which has 41 followers, routinely shares links to a handful of editorials written by different coalition members and other natural gas supporters. It also organized a tour featuring recent innovations in the natural gas industry.
The composition of Coloradans for Energy Access has also shifted over the last year. The Colorado Chamber of Commerce joined last December. Other new members include the Westminster Chamber of Commerce and trade groups representing construction and mechanical contractors.
Coalition members insist the group is no longer led by utility executives alone.
Sara Blackhurst, the CEO of Action 22, rejected any suggestion the coalition is an industry front group. She said her organization, which advocates for communities in southern Colorado, joined Coloradans for Energy Access to protect households against the high cost of switching from natural gas to electric heating systems.
"We have to be protective of communities which contribute little of the carbon footprint and would be forced to give up the main source of energy," Blackhurst said. "They just can't afford to do it.”
Since the launch of Coloradans for Energy Access, Blackhurst said she has been appointed as the board's vice chair overseeing the coalition. She added Gary Arnold, the business manager of Denver Pipefitters Local 208, is now the chair.
In a separate interview, Arnold said he "can't promise" he assumed a board position but thought that sounded correct. Neither Blackhurst nor Arnold followed up with a list of people overseeing the organization.
Blackhurst clarified membership and board appointments don't require any financial commitment. While she confirmed Action 22 hadn't provided any funding, she was unsure which organizations donated to the coalition.
At the moment, Blackhurst said the coalition's main activities amount to quarterly meetings to discuss local and state efforts to shift buildings away from natural gas. She acknowledged FTI Consulting continues to organize those meetings.
"What we’re doing right now is monitoring," Blackhurst said. “I’m surprised anyone is paying attention.”
Editor's note: This story was updated Feb. 27 with Xcel's disclosure of the 2022 donation to Coloradans for Energy Access.
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