Absolutely wild article in the LA Times this week by Sammy Roth, superstar energy reporter (subscribe to his climate newsletter). This story is about the natural gas industry using race and progressive language to promote fossil fuel use. A lot of it is about SoCalGas.
The Southern California Gas Company is the company that distributes gas to every home in Los Angeles. Their natural gas, is wafting around menacingly underneath your building right now. Two days ago you probably burned the SoCalGas piped into your kitchen to brown the cranberry onions and broast the turkey beans.
Many people think SoCalGas is a city-owned utility, because they associate it with the Department of Water and Power. It is not. SoCalGas is a private corporation and always has been. They started with 43 gas lamps along Main Street downtown in 1867 and are now the largest natural gas distribution utility in America. They also were responsible for the worst manmade emissions disaster in US history, which happened in the city of LA five years ago.
SoCalGas and its various parent companies have also made other investments over the years. At one point in the 1980’s they owned the Thrifty drugstore/ice cream brand and Big 5 Sporting Goods. But recently, many of their investments have been in matters of race.
This is real! Race is now a major component of SoCalGas’s long-term strategy. That’s what Sammy Roth’s story is about. We’ll get into this in one second.
First, this is an important thing to understand: SoCalGas is not just a gas distributor. It is also a gas promoter. Generating consumer hype for natural gas is a huge part of their business model, and always has been.
According to its own corporate history, after those 43 gas lamps on Main Street were pretty quickly made obsolete by Thomas Edison, SoCalGas started “aggressively promoting” gas stoves and heaters for the home. In the ’50s and ’60s, during a postwar real estate boom in LA, SoCalGas sales reps “aggressively promoted” natural gas with “architects, builders, homeowners, and restaurant operators.”
They use the phrase “aggressively promoted” twice in their own autobiography, and “vigorously promoted” once. It’s part of the story. When they’re met with an existential threat, they crank up the gas marketing machine to generate demand that otherwise may not exist and keep their business alive. The name of their parent company, Sempra Energy, means “always.” They have no intention of going anywhere.
But today, SoCalGas is facing another Edison-level crisis: people do not need gas in their homes anymore. Electric ranges, ovens, and home heaters work just as well as their gas counterparts. They’re often higher-quality, are getting cheaper, and are more environmentally friendly as our grid moves toward renewable sources. Some people, like MacArthur genius Saul Griffith, thinks mass electrification is the most effective climate solution at our disposal. A whole bunch of local governments have passed legislation to ban gas hookups in new buildings, including Berkeley, San Jose, and Ventura County.
All this represents a very huge problem for the natural gas industry. And SoCalGas is hoping a solution can be found in… the racial discourse.
Their plan is to position natural gas as essential to the culture and livelihood of people of color in Southern California, and that any attempt to limit the use of natural gas would therefore be racist. On what grounds? Many of people of color use gas to cook and heat their homes. Therefore, it is culturally insensitive to suggest that we shift to non-gas energy sources. That’s it! That is the plan.
They’re spending a lot of money to spread this racial awareness campaign, mostly through a PR front group called “Californians for Balanced Energy Solutions.” Here are just a few organizations and programs that CA4BES, SoCalGas, and Sempra Energy have funded:
- They’ve organized coalitions of Chinese restaurant owners to advocate for gas as essential for wok cooking (they also funded a natural gas Chinese food cooking display at Ciclavia, which SoCalGas sponsors every year).
- They were the only named sponsor of Black Restaurant Week in LA County this year.
- They’ve sent Latino chefs and restaurateurs to trade shows to promote natural gas cooking.
- They worked with a PR firm called Imprenta Communications, “a full-service marketing, communications and campaign agency specializing in today’s multicultural consumers and communities,” to set up CA4BES and write pro-gas legislation for elected officials. (Imprenta also operated a PAC for David Ryu, and many of their employees maxed out to his campaign).
- They amplified the work of United Latinos Vote, an organization with unclear funding sources that wrote an open letter calling the Sierra Club’s campaign to phase out gas-burning cars and appliances “hypocritical and socially divisive” and saying it would “disproportionately burden low-income and ethnic minority populations.”
- They helped coordinate a powerful coalition called Western States and Tribal Nations to combat anti-gas policies. There is actually only one tribal nation in the group, which is otherwise largely made up of enormous energy conglomerates, including Sempra Energy.
- They’ve funded multiple environmental groups that serve low-income communities of color in LA, including Pacoima Beautiful, which recently stopped taking SoCalGas money and is now fighting to shut down one of their leaking plants in the community. (Pacoima Beautiful used to be run by Nury Martinez, now the President of the LA City Council.)
Sammy Roth wrote about these efforts by SoCalGas in his story from this week, in particular the last two. He asked SoCalGas officials for comment. In response, they wrote a letter to his bosses calling him a racist:
To be clear: SoCalGas is not interested in a racial reckoning for themselves. The privilege-checking they seek is only for environmental activists, progressive elected officials, and reporters who ask too many questions. The company is not undergoing a reckoning with the extreme racial impacts of their own work: gas appliances, for example, create dangerous and unhealthy conditions in small and overcrowded apartments, the vast majority of which in Los Angeles are occupied by low-income people of color.
This is the cancel culture we should actually be worried about. The industries that threaten human survival are getting very good at speaking the language of progressivism. They’re going into low-income communities, they’re getting people of color to use newly-accumulated political capital in defense of natural gas, and then turning the fight for racial equity against climate solutions. 114 cities in Southern California alone have signed on to a resolution, put forward by SoCalGas’s front group, against anti-gas legislation. Many of those cities, if not most of them, have majority nonwhite populations.
In the city of LA, there’s actual momentum right now around banning gas hookups in new construction. New councilmembers Nithya Raman and Kevin de Leon both ran on it, and Mike Bonin is almost certainly on board. But SoCalGas’s racial-awareness effort is designed specifically to make life difficult for politicians like them. The goal isn’t actually to get people of color to care about natural gas — it’s to run ad campaigns calling elected officials racist if they even attempt to implement meaningful climate policy.
This kind of progressive appropriation is popping up everywhere, and it has worked. Uber and Lyft used it to get Prop 22 passed — they (successfully) made it seem like legislation to expand labor rights for rideshare drivers was actually an attack on those drivers, and that their proposition to slash those rights was the progessive alternative. When you have millions of dollars for promotion and fluency in the love language of California liberals, you can win elections and rewrite policy for conservative and corporate interests.
SoCalGas does have millions of promotional dollars. They know how to speak the language. And they are combining those tools to make a lot more money — while potentially cementing the position of natural gas in our energy supply for the next half-century.