A Tale of 2 Cities
abbreviated & modernized by guest blogger: Chuck “Gas Plant” Dickens, great great grand-nephew of the original author
It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of Light, it was the season of Darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair, we had everything before us, we had nothing before us, we were all going direct to Heaven, we were all going direct the other way – in short, the period was so far like the present period, that some of its noisiest authorities insisted on its being received, for good or for evil, in the superlative degree of comparison only.
–Charles Dickens, A Tale of Two Cities
Our bellies are full from Thanksgiving, there’s a chill in the air, and it’s that time of year time when the good citizens of Denton gather ’round the proverbial fire to hear a certain universally beloved Christmas tale about a greedy and selfish old man who miraculously redeems himself to his community in the end. This year, however, I have chosen to share with you today an equally timely but infinitely more realistic Dickensian classic, A Tale of Two Cities. There is nothing redemptive or inspiring about it, I’m sorry to say, but the good news is that it is still unfinished. You own it, my fellow citizens; it’s your story; and its ending is—or at least should be—entirely up to you.
It was the best of times, it was the worst of times. It was 2015 in Denton, Texas. Denton Municipal Electric (DME), the city’s publicly owned electric provider, had unveiled its long-anticipated plan to follow through on citizens’ requests for more renewable energy and a divestment from coal. That was the “best of times.” The “worst of times” came in the form of DME’s plan to build two new natural gas plants for “back up” to the tune of $250 mil. for land and construction costs alone –and in a town that voted to ban fracking and was $150 mil. in debt to a coal plant. Those times, I am sorry to say, are still here. So is that $150 mil. of debt still owed to the coal plant.
Meanwhile, over in the state capitol, the city of Austin was up in arms over Austin Energy’s similar plan for $500 mil. new gas plants (twice the cost and size of Denton’s, if you’re doing the math), and for identical reasons: backup for renewables (necessary because, according to the patronizing mantra of its most enthusiastic advocates, “the sun doesn’t always shine and the wind doesn’t always blow”), and to meet the demands of population growth and urban expansion. People from both cities, Denton and Austin alike, were asking the same skeptical questions, raising the same reasonable objections and viable alternatives, and receiving similarly evasive and condescending answers—that is, when they were lucky enough to receive any answers at all.
But why, dear readers, are these two cities’ tales so strikingly similar? The answer, or at least part of the answer, is that both cities were relying on two of the same thoroughly biased entities for advice: a non-profit statewide coalition called TREIA (pronounced ‘tree-uh,’ an acronym for the admirably green-sounding Texas Renewable Energy Industry Association) and a for-profit private energy consultant Navigant, both of which specialize in promoting partnerships between renewables and natural gas, and in recommending ‘renewable energy + gas plant’ combos to Texan municipalities and energy providers.
To begin, let’s take a look at TREIA whose website boasts that they “provide longstanding credibility and extensive knowledge and experience that the industry, media and the general public have come to rely upon” (LINK). My own electronic and face-to-face communications with the head of DME and an Austin Energy specialist (respectively), confirmed my suspicions that both cities’ electric providers were among those entities reliant upon such “longstanding credibility and extensive knowledge and experience” from TREIA. In response to an email inquiry I sent under my actual birth name (which is not Chuck “Gas Plant” Dickens, but something far less impressive), Phil Williams of DME kindly wrote: “In answer to your question, yes, I and my staff have had multiple conversations with TREIA. They have asked, and we have agreed to participate in their upcoming meeting.” So TREIA was somehow at least partly responsible for both cities’ similar energy proposals.
But why would self-proclaimed energy specialists go out of their way to encourage the media and general public to build new natural gas plants at a time in which the science and economics are turning away from such outdated fossil fuel infrastructure? The answer, I discovered, is that it is precisely in these economic “worst of times” for fossil fuels that the natural gas providers, investors, consultants, and mineral owners who make up a good part of TREIA’s membership, board, and sponsors, are most in need of a helping municipal hand. By tying the sinking ship of natural gas to the rising star of renewable energy, TREIA does not prioritize the needs of citizens and municipalities but works instead to benefit the gas providers, investors, and mineral owners whose businesses they promote, and on whose behalf they convince cities and energy providers of an imaginary and pressing public “need” for natural gas plants in an increasingly pro-renewable and anti-fossil fuel market.
But the natural gas industry is not the only special interest group to benefit from the services provided by TREIA, which bills itself to potential new member organizations as a “strong network of industry leaders” that “connects you with the heart of the renewable industry and opens the doors to invaluable business associations” (LINK ). Wind and solar providers also stand to gain from the matchmaking services provided by TREIA, which connects these forward-looking green companies to the old money and political connections of oil & gas wheelers and dealers tripping over themselves to pose for photo ops with windmill and solar panel backdrops, and who can’t rush fast enough to invest in and join forces with their hip new renewable BFFs before what’s left of their money and power blows up and disappears into the ether like methane from a fracking site. It’s an arrangement that benefits both parties financially and politically. “We truly are better together,” gushes one of the website bullet points under the heading “6 Reasons to Join TREIA Today” (LINK). From a business perspective, TREIA is a mutually beneficial May-December dating service connecting old gas money with attractive and virginal young renewables. But such matches will likely turn out to be shotgun weddings from hell for the municipal citizens left tending the toxic, costly, and long-lived bastard gas-plant products of these unlikely unions.
At TREIA’s November 2015 conference in Houston, DME and Austin Energy were joined by “Key executives from ERCOT, the Independent System Operator of 90 percent of the Texas grid, as well as every major utility in the state, renewable energy companies and other key stakeholders [who] will participate in the event’s full slate of panel discussions and talks” (LINK).
Participants ran the gamut from old-fashioned oil & gas folks like MAS Field Services, which “provides land services to the oil, gas and renewable energy industries” (LINK), to identity-crisis companies like AMSHORE US Wind LLC, which describes itself on the TREIA website as “primarily focused on oil and gas exploration,” but eager to rebrand itself in a more politically correct fashion: “In addition to oil and gas, AMSHORE is involved in the renewable energy field with over 190,000 acres of wind energy leases in Texas” (LINK).
The keynote speaker at the event was John Hofmeister, “founder of Citizens for Affordable Energy and former president of Shell Oil,” an odd choice for a green-sounding conference attended by Earth Day representatives, the resource planning and integration manager of 100% renewable Georgetown, and a representative from the Sierra Club. An outspoken advocate of fracking, Hofmeister has been spending his retirement years appearing on television news programs apologizing for Big Oil & Gas (LINK) and publicly criticizing New York Governor Andrew Cuomo for supporting the state’s recent fracking ban (LINK). You’d never know it though from his description on the TREIA conference agenda as “founder of Citizens for Affordable Energy” and “a champion of sustainable environmental policies and security” (LINK). Most likely, TREIA’s description of Hofmeister as “a champion of sustainable environmental policies” is likely an allusion to the fact that Hofmeister is one of the few oil and gas moguls to acknowledge on record the reality of global warming (LINK ), a fact that hardly makes Hofmeister a bold environmental leader, but qualifies him instead as a savvily self-preserving follower. After all, why continue to deny the way the proverbial wind is blowing, the logic goes, when you can earn the trust of an increasingly environmentally conscious public and gain points over the competition at the same time by simply resetting your fracking coordinates accordingly and riding those new winds and your oil & gas business all the way to the bank? In other words, Hofmeister’s simultaneous acknowledgment of global warming and denial of the hazards of fracking is not self-contradictory but strategic: Yes, global warming is real; but rest assured, my fellow environmentally conscious citizens, the enemy is not natural gas but coal. If that argument sounds familiar to you, it’s because public officials in Denton and Austin have swallowed it hook, line, and sinker, and are repeating it to their citizens in defense of the gas plants they’re hoping to force on them.
Hofmeister and TREIA have every right to exist and to say what they want, of course, but cities consulting with them for energy advice are the municipal equivalent of those parents who choose to rely on the toll-free number on the back of an infant formula bottle or baby-food jar for advice on their child’s nutrition. Neither TREIA nor the baby-food and formula companies are working in citizens’ best interests; they’re there to sell us a specific product. But unlike licensed pediatricians, they always have clear and simple answers for even your most difficult questions. After all, why bother with the hassle of setting up an appointment with an actual doctor when the formula companies are right there knocking at your door, introducing themselves to you, and providing you with attractively simple, fast, and easy short-term answers to your complicated long-term problems?
The analogy also applies, though somewhat differently, to the energy consulting group Navigant. In Navigant’s case, the role of the parent dialing the number on the back of the baby-food jar is played by the city of Austin, who then passes on the formula company’s advice to their younger cousin Denton, the latter city being understandably unmotivated to make the call themselves when the advice they’re seeking for their baby is of the one-size-fits-all variety.
Like most Dentonites, I first heard of Navigant from city councilmember Kevin Roden, who has been touting Navigant’s advice to Austin as proof that building new gas plants is without a doubt the best solution to Denton’s renewable energy needs, and that no further outside consultation is needed—in spite of the calls for direct and unbiased outside consultation coming from a number of citizens and from two other city councilmembers, Kathleen Wazny and Keely Briggs. On November 18, Roden seemed to be declaring citizens’ pleas for outside consultation moot when he re-tweeted an Austin American Statesman article entitled “Austin Energy Should Build a New Gas Plant,” accompanied by the commentary, “Some are calling for a ‘consultant’ to study Renewable Denton Plan, just like Austin. Result of Austin’s consultant:”—followed by the Austin Statesman headline and a link to the article. Among the three Roden Twitter followers who “hearted” that tweet was Ed Ireland, Executive director of the Barnett Shale Energy Education Council and notorious local fracking apologist.
Although Roden and Ireland had once been on opposite sides of the Denton fracking debates (Roden had established the citizens’ advisory council on natural gas that evolved into the Denton Drilling Awareness Group [DAG] and supported their effective fracking ban campaign during his second run for office), Roden surprised his constituents by switching tactics early on in his second term by leading the call to repeal the fracking ban on city council in response to HB40, endorsing reduced fees for gas providers, and defending a weakened gas well ordinance that greatly reduced the minimum distances between gas wells and residences.
But who is this consulting firm on whom both cities are relying, directly and indirectly, for advice on their TREIA-approved new energy proposals? Navigant consults on a variety of matters, but their work on fracking and natural gas is one of their specialties. As their website explains:
The oil & gas industry landscape is experiencing a major global shift. The tempo of the industry dynamics has never been faster and stakes have never been higher: Natural gas markets are transforming into truly global markets through advances in hydraulic fracturing and liquid natural gas (LNG) transportation. Competition from alternative energy sources continues to intensify as the result of regulatory environments and technological advances in solar, wind, distributed generation and energy storage. Inextricable links to geopolitical issues in a globally connected real-time world are causing scrutiny at greater levels than ever before. Sustainability is not just a matter of balancing safety, health and environmental performance against operating and commercial performance. Each must be achieved fully to ensure long term survival.” (LINK)
In other words, their position on natural gas is identical to TREIA’s: fracking and sustainability are both equally positive endeavors that can, and should, go hand in hand.
But why would a private energy consultant recommend such a fiscally and environmentally dubious marriage of gas plants and renewables to publicly owned municipal electric providers? To serve their own clients of course, who, as their website boasts “come from every part of the oil & gas industry” (LINK). Like their doppelgangers in TREIA, Navigant serves not only the oil & gas industry, but renewable providers as well. As their section on renewables explains, the focus of Navigant’s work for renewable companies is “advising on building renewables into the energy mix to meet renewable energy goals and portfolio standards” –in other words, linking renewable solutions to natural gas. Similarly reminiscent of TREIA (and of TREIA’s keynote speaker, former Shell president John Hofmeister), Navigant acknowledges the realities of global warming but identify coal rather than all fossil fuels as part of the problem, boasting of the environmental advantages of natural gas over coal. Echoing Hofmeister, they are also overt apologists for fracking, concluding their statement on “Fracking in America” with the industry-boosting claim that fracking is “an innovative development out of the independent natural gas industry that provides better options in the future for all of us”
All of this, dear reader, is to say that we and our representatives on city council should consider both TREIA’s and Navigant’s advice on natural gas and energy policy with the same caution as we would a gas plant salesperson’s. But what advice did Navigant give Austin Energy besides a thumbs up on their TREIA-endorsed plans to build new natural gas plants to supplement their renewables? Although I do not yet know what DME got from their conversing and conferencing with TREIA, Navigant’s advice to Austin Energy is all over the papers:
When Navigant ran the various scenarios, it basically showed that either a new combined-cycle gas plant at Decker or an additional 500 megawatts of wind capacity make the most financial sense, though Navigant managing director Dan Bradley noted that there were no major cost differences between gas or the various renewable energy options. (LINK)
In other words, dear reader, even a natural-gas-loving consultant like Navigant believes that wind and renewables are equally financially reasonable, at least in Austin. So why build the gas plants at all if citizens would prefer not to invest their futures and finances in the methane emissions, water contamination, and explosion hazards that come with new gas plants and the accompanying increase in fracking, transportation, and waste storage? The answer, according to Navigant, is the “potential” risk of “transmission congestion” that would come from receiving power from the grid as opposed to a local gas plant serving only the city:
another factor that can impact cost is “transmission congestion,” which basically is the impact of removing power generating sources in Austin Energy’s load zone — the Decker gas plant and the Fayette coal power plant — and replacing with energy generated outside the load zone. That potential cost impact is anywhere from $152 million to $172 million. Navigant noted that a gas plant would help “mitigate” this risk. (LINK)
But wouldn’t a local wind farm or solar farm help to “mitigate” any potential “transmission congestion” just as effectively as a local gas plant would? After all, the purely hypothetical risk of transmission congestion is run by outsourcing energy of any kind; so any kind of local energy would serve to mitigate that hypothetical risk. So why the thumbs-up endorsement of the proposed gas plants? When you read the Navigant articles closely, and consider the clientele they serve, they sound less like “proof” and more like rhetorical “spin.”
It makes sense, then, that, as that same tweeted Statesman article notes, Sierra Club representative Dave Cortez “criticized some of the methodology and conclusions in the report,” expressing to the Austin commission his belief that “Navigant didn’t seriously study energy storage and demand response options. ‘Even though we view the Navigant study as incomplete…it is important to acknowledge that based on our initial review, there is no slam dunk for a new 500-megawatt gas plant’” (LINK). Mr. Cortez is correct, thank goodness. The tweeted article maintains that Austin city council’s verdict on the Navigant report is still out. Navigant has not yet reported their findings to council, and is still receiving input from the Austin citizens they represent (LINK).
Fortunately the verdict is still out in Denton too. Unfortunately, however, our city council in Denton appears to be in more of a rush to decide on this $250 mil. investment than their peers in Austin. All but two of our councilmembers are content to rely on an oil-&-gas-friendly consultant’s advice to another city rather than taking the time to find an unbiased consultant on our own. And no one besides those same two councilmembers, Briggs and Wazny, has asked our city attorney to interpret our city charter’s ambiguous policy on new utilities in a way that enables us to vote on this matter. While the Statesman article claims that Austin could take up to a year to settle the gas plant controversy, here in Denton a mid-December vote on the issue seems imminent. Reduced fees for gas providers are on the agenda for the first city council meeting of December, a decision that seems suspiciously timed to coordinate with a holiday season decision on the gas plants—a time of year where most people’s minds are set on uplifting Dickensian carols and shopping rather than methane emissions and gloomy tales of two cities. The prospects look gloomy from the perspective of Denton’s Ghost of Environmental & Fiscal Future, but all hope is not lost. Our time is running out, but we the citizens and our two best advocates on council still have a couple more weeks to convince a quorum on council to undergo a sudden December transformation—if not from the Christmas spirit alone, then for the sake of our municipal democracy.
- Open letter to Denton City Council
- SOS from Denton Fracking Zone
- Greenwashing Denton Fracking
- What the hell Denton?
- Natural Gas Power Plant Bad Economics for Denton
- Don’t feed fracking, Denton
Update from blog owner who is not the author of this tale:
— TXsharon (@TXsharon) November 29, 2015
I did not write that. But it's admirable research. Who knew the renewable consultants are oil & gas? Did you? https://t.co/6xHztizlq9
— TXsharon (@TXsharon) November 29, 2015