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Hawaii Gas, the 115-year-old supplier of natural gas for Hawaii now at a crossroads amid the state’s shift from fossil fuels, is considering creating a separate community organization as part of a campaign to fight a Honolulu City Council bill.
The measure would limit gas water heaters in newly built homes.
The planned organization, called Our Energy Choice, is described in documents from Strategies 360, a Seattle-based political consulting firm hired by Hawaii Gas to create a narrative for the gas provider.
While the documentation indicates the organization will launch before the end of this year, John White, a senior vice president for Strategies 360 who heads the Hawaii office, said it’s now uncertain whether the organization will launch.
“That’s one of the options,” he said.
Josh Stanbro, Honolulu’s chief resilience officer who is leading the push for the bill, said his office has spoken to numerous stakeholders, including Hawaii Gas. He said he had not heard of Our Energy Choice.
Formerly known simply as The Gas Co., Hawaii Gas faces an uncertain future, as city and state officials implement policies designed to shift Hawaii from fossil fuels to renewable resources. Although Hawaii Gas produces some renewable natural gas from a Honolulu wastewater treatment plant, most of the company’s gas is a synthetic form of natural gas created as a byproduct of oil imported into the state.
Jeannine Souki, Hawaii Gas’s director for government affairs and corporate communications, said via text she was not available to comment.
Hawaii is pushing to meet a goal of producing all of the electricity sold in the state from renewable resources by 2045. Natural gas has mostly been left alone by policymakers because it’s generally not used to produce electricity; instead, it’s used for things like kitchen appliances, water heaters and tiki torches. But there’s mounting pressure to change that.
Although the Honolulu City Council’s bill would focus on gas water heaters in new homes, Souki has described the measure as “a slippery slope to the ban on many other things.”
And there’s reason to worry.
Natural gas was once viewed favorably as a clean-burning alternative to fuels like oil and coal, but the tide has turned dramatically in recent years. Berkeley, California, has banned gas completely for some new construction projects, and San Jose has done the same. Now, Seattle is considering a ban.
Meanwhile, other regulated utilities are piling on. Earlier this year, Hawaiian Electric Co.’s senior vice president for public affairs, Scott Seu, wrote a strongly worded op-ed piece published in the Honolulu Star-Advertiser criticizing Hawaii Gas for not doing enough to produce natural gas from renewable resources like waste materials. Only a small amount sold here is renewable, the product of a wastewater treatment plant.
“No matter how much it describes itself as the Clean Energy Company,” Seu wrote, “Hawaii Gas has consistently opposed legislative efforts to require that they transition to renewable energy, arguing that the technologies for renewable gas are not sufficiently mature or robust.”
The purpose of the Strategies 360 campaign, documents show, is to change the narrative, focusing on issues like cost and resiliency. Indeed, those were two of the issues Souki stressed during an interview with Civil Beat in November.
“Cost is a big issue, particularly in a state like Hawaii, where the cost of living is one of the highest in the United States,” White said in an interview.
Construction organizations have said using solar water heaters would drive up new house costs so much that it would price people out of a home. Advocates like Stanbro have disputed that.
The campaign is also focusing on natural gas as being cleaner than coal and oil, which are now the main sources of producing electricity in Hawaii.
“In the natural gas story, there’s a number of important facts to communicate to the public, one of which is that natural gas is a source of energy that is much cleaner than coal and oil,” White said.
As part of the campaign, Strategies 360 conducted a statewide opinion survey to understand residents’ opinions on natural gas and help shape its narrative, documents show. White said it was important to gather data to back up its story and counter what he described as misinformation from opponents.
“How do we help people understand why it’s important to them, why it’s relevant to them, and to back those statements up with facts,” he said.
Strategies 360 also conducted a digital marketing campaign, gathering information from Facebook and Instagram, the materials say. And it has gathered more names from an appeal by Hawaii Gas’ chief executive, Alicia Moy, which was sent out to customers with their bills.
Moy stressed another issue from the Strategies 360 playbook: customer choice. The Honolulu City Council bill, she said, “would essentially eliminate your right to choose a gas water heater of any kind for your home.”
According to the documents obtained by Civil Beat, the next phase of the campaign will include rolling out the ourenergychoice.org site, which consists only of a landing page. It would include names and logos of supporters, like labor unions, and major customers, as well as articles and scientific data.
While it was unclear from the documentation whether the advocacy organization would be identified as a Hawaii Gas affiliate, White said that relationship would be obvious.
“Any natural gas advocacy effort is going to clearly be seen as Hawaii Gas’ effort,” he said.
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