One way or another, almost everyone in Seattle pays a bill to Puget Sound Energy, the natural gas utility that heats this city's homes and feeds its fancy gas stoves.
So Seattle residents may be interested to know that PSE, as its commonly known, has made a major investment in changing Seattle's government this year.
Using its Citizens United-approved right to spend unlimited amounts to influence elections, PSE, a private company, has joined forces with Amazon and the Seattle Chamber of Commerce in their effort to flip control of the Seattle City Council.
So far Amazon has put $250,000 into a Chamber-sponsored political action committee, "Civic Alliance for a Sound Economy," that aims to install business-approved candidates at City Hall. Other major Seattle businesses have donated, too, with Vulcan putting in $155,000 and Expedia putting in $50,000.
And then there's PSE, which has given the Chamber's PAC a total of $30,000 so far.
The natural gas utility is no stranger to political giving in this state, and it's even given to the Chamber's PAC in past elections. But this year PSE is giving far more than it's ever given before.
Two current Seattle City Council members, both of whom sit on the committee that oversees this city's utilities—and both of whom are being targeted for defeat by the PSE-funded PAC—say the natural gas utility is concerned about how hard local lawmakers are pushing PSE to change its habits when it comes to dirty energy.
More than 20 percent of PSE's energy mix comes from fracked gas and nearly 40 percent of it comes from coal. In the view of these council members, PSE's pumped-up spending this year is a direct reaction to the council's push to make Seattle greener. Local environmental activists agree with this take.
Fundamentally, they say, PSE is feeling threatened because its very reason for existing—at least in its present incarnation—could disappear in the fast-approaching green future. Fracking won't be allowed to heat Seattle's homes. Coal won't be allowed to power Washington's electrical grid. And PSE, if it wants to give us energy, will have to find carbon-neutral ways to get it.
"In general," said City Council Member Lisa Herbold, the vice-chair of the Civil Rights, Utilities, Economic & Arts committee, "they get concerned when the Council passes fossil fuel resolutions, particularly about fossil fuel infrastructure projects in other jurisdictions."
Not too long ago, the Seattle City Council stood in opposition to PSE's new Liquified Natural Gas facility in Tacoma. PSE was not pleased, according to Council Member Kshama Sawant, the other vice-chair of the Civil Rights, Utilities, Economic & Arts committee.
And last month, all nine Seattle City Council members unanimously signed a commitment to implementing a Green New Deal for Seattle, a local plan inspired by Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez's national vision to cut emissions and create green jobs.
Herbold also noted a contrast between PSE and Seattle's publicly-owned electricity utility, Seattle City Light.
"If you look at PSE's energy mix compared to Seattle City Light's," Herbold said, "it is illuminating as to what their interests are as it relates to City Council elections."
PSE uses 39 percent renewable energy.
City Light uses 92 percent renewable energy.
Jess Wallach, an organizer with the climate justice group 350 Seattle, believes that PSE has a "vested interest in not seeing the transition" to renewable energy and clean fuel. She sees PSE’s political donations as a means to protect their investment in, and reliance on, natural gas.
Sawant, for her part, told The Stranger: “I am sure that PSE is determined to prevent a Green New Deal for Seattle’s working people."
When asked if PSE would embrace moving away from fossil fuel infrastructure like fracked gas and pivot toward greener standards, Christina Donegan, a PSE spokesperson, bristled:
"First of all," Donegan said, "We would call it 'natural gas infrastructure.'"
She followed with a vague statement: "We don’t set public policy. Our job is to do the best to comply with it. Our job is to make sure that when a customer wants the heat on, that it’s there. We’re always open to new technologies. Frankly natural gas is a key component to that green energy mix."
PSE vs. the Council
Sawant listed two examples of PSE’s involvement with the council as a way of demonstrating what she believes are the utility's true priorities.
The first dates to 2016, when a natural gas explosion blew up a whole block in Greenwood.
According to Sawant, "their negligence leading to the gas explosion that blew up a region in Greenwood in 2016 was unacceptable, as is their attempt to offload responsibility for the incident." PSE maintained that the blast was caused by an abandoned and unsealed pipeline that was "damaged by people in a space where they were not supposed to be," according to a report by the Seattle Times. (PSE ended up paying $1.5 million in a settlement).
The second example came in February of last year when the city council unanimously passed a resolution opposing the construction of PSE’s Liquified Natural Gas plant in Tacoma.
“That project,” Sawant said, “which is currently under construction, would build a multi-million-gallon liquified natural gas facility, significantly increasing the fossil fuel infrastructure in the Pacific Northwest.”
Sawant sees PSE as a for-profit fossil fuel energy company whose primary business is profiting off burning greenhouse gas-emitting natural gas. They've never aligned with her ideals, she said.
Playing and Paying in Many Washington Elections
Puget Sound Energy delivers natural gas to customers throughout the Puget Sound region. It also delivers electricity to Kitsap and Whatcom county.
The majority of its approximately 1.9 million customers live in the Puget Sound area, but PSE, which had customer revenues of over $1 billion in the first quarter of 2019, would not say exactly how much of that revenue comes from Seattleites who are represented by the city council that PSE is currently spending $30,000 to change.
Still, PSE is clearly flush enough to spend significant amounts on local elections in Seattle and beyond; in 2018, it spent more on Washington state elections than Amazon, the juggernaut with over $11 billion in profit that year.
In fact, the utility has been funneling money into local politics for decades. From 2016 to 2018, PSE spent over $1,742,000 on lobbyists in Olympia. That's almost $400,000 more than Amazon spent on lobbying during the same period.
And that's just lobbying.
Between 2008 and 2018, PSE gave $665,598 to candidates across Washington.
Over the last 10 years, according to Sightline, PSE's total political spending in Washington looks more like $7 million (compared to $2 million from Amazon). That money is donated to candidates, spent on lobbying, and used to fund special interest PACs like the one it's supporting this year in Seattle.
The general pattern will be familiar to anyone who pays attention to money in politics: When there's an issue on the table that does not suit PSE's goals, the company throws its financial weight behind the opposition.
In 2012, for example, there was a ballot measure to switch Thurston County, where Olympia is located, from relying on PSE to being served by a publicly owned utility.
It turned into the most expensive election in Thurston County history.
PSE spent more than $400,000 against the measure, which ultimately wasn't approved by voters. As a result, PSE remained in control of Thurston County's natural gas delivery.
The Pension Funds Behind the Curtain
"PSE is an Investor-Owned Utility (IOU), so it is a private company," Maura Brueger, the Director of Government and Legislative Affairs at Seattle City Light, told The Stranger over email. "No different from Boeing, Amazon, etc. so they can legally have a Political Action Committee and engage in electoral politics."
Seattle City Light, by contrast, is a public utility and therefore can't spend any money on elections. They also can't really speak to other utility companies' practices, Brueger said, remaining tight-lipped on that particular subject.
But for context, Brueger explained that "in Washington, there are only three Investor-Owned Utilities, so you do not see much money in state and local elections from other electric utilities.”
The other two IOUs, Spokane-based Avista (serving over 250,000 electric customers and nearly 164,000 natural gas customers) and Kennewick-based Cascade Natural Gas Corporation (serving more than 215,000 customers), are far smaller than PSE. Additionally, Portland-based Pacific Power (serving about 130,000 customers) gives Eastern Washington power.
So who exactly is is in charge of PSE, the IOU that heats Seattle’s houses?
PSE was bought by an Australian investment firm, Macquarie Group, in 2008. The Macquarie Group "has a track record of supporting climate-wrecking projects," according to the Sydney Morning Herald.
In October of 2018, PSE changed hands once again. This time, PSE was taken over by British Columbia Investment Management Corporation and Alberta Investment Management Corporation, Canadian pension funds that currently control 90 percent of the company.
And guess what? Those pension funds are dirty with oil and fracked gas money.
"More than $3 billion of the $135.5 billion managed by the British Columbia Investment Management Corporation (BCI) is invested in the top 200 publicly traded oil and gas companies," reports CBC.
"It is concerning that our private utility is owned by an out of state interest that has a financial incentive," Caleb Heeringa, communications director for the Sierra Club, told The Stranger.
Investing in Fracked Gas
Back in May, the current PSE CEO, Kimberly Harris, penned an op-ed in the Seattle Times titled "We need a balanced approach to energy production." In it, she defended the use of natural gas, casting it as good for the planet and essential to emissions reductions.
In fact, over 20 percent of PSE's energy comes from natural gas that is gathered through fracking, a process that isn't the clean solution to coal it's lauded as because of all the methane (the most potent of greenhouse gases) it leaks into the atmosphere.
Currently, PSE is all-in on the Liquified Natural Gas (LNG) plant in Tacoma—the one the Seattle City Council voted against last year. It's a project that's also drawn the ire of the public and Governor Jay Inslee. That plant would oversee the production and transport of liquid natural gas that's extracted through fracking. The gas will mainly be used to replace the bunker fuel that powers cargo ships in the port. Though it's a good short-term solution, Inslee and the Seattle City Council believe the long-term impacts are more dire.
"I am no longer convinced that locking in these multi-decadal infrastructure projects are sufficient to accomplishing what’s necessary," Inslee said in May when he came out against the Tacoma LNG plant and a planned methane plant in Kalama, Washington.
According to Heeringa, the pension funds that have a controlling interest in PSE "have some pretty significant financial investments in the fracking process as well as the transport of gas... A big concern we have is whether PSE has a financial incentive to build more outlets for fracked gas because what’s good for the goose is good for the gander."
Because of a clean energy bill package passed this year in Olympia, PSE will have to get 80 percent of its energy from clean sources starting in 2030. Harris' op-ed in the Times worried Heeringa because he felt it wasn't showing enough of a commitment to getting to that clean energy future.
Heeringa and Jesse Piedfort, director of the Washington state chapter of the Sierra Club, saw that op-ed as a pro-natural gas harbinger.
"They’re building this massive fracked gas facility in LNG," Piedfort told The Stranger. "Meanwhile, we're trying to get gas out of our homes and buildings and we're actually concerned that PSE is trying to preserve their ability to build more fracked gas infrastructure."
It means we have to stay vigilant, Heeringa said.
Christina Donegan, a PSE spokesperson, said that PSE will be committed to pursuing clean energy. The company believes, however, that natural gas is a key player in that future.
"Natural gas is a key component to making sure when the wind isn’t blowing and the sun isn't shining... that when a customer wants that heat on, that it’s there," Donegan said about the alleged unreliability of renewable resources.
Heeringa said that this is a very dated mentality.
"That was true 20 years ago," he said of PSE's view on natural gas. "But it’s not true not now. Right now, wind and solar are being paired with battery storage. They're stuck in the past on that issue."
Flipping the Council
One of the goals of the Green New Deal is weening local utilities off of using natural gas and fossil fuels. As Wallach said, renewables are getting cheaper than fossil fuels every day. Scotland, for instance, just produced enough wind energy to power all its homes twice. States and energy companies all over are recognizing this and making the switch from fossil fuels to renewables.
"There’s discussion about what we can do in Seattle to move more people off of natural gas through incentive programs," Herbold said. "I think those discussions, while essential to our city and planet, are concerning to PSE."
At present, a Green New Deal for Seattle has the full-throttle support of the city council. According to Sawant, such a deal "would transition workers from the fossil fuel sector, and create tens of thousands of public-sector, unionized, living-wage, clean-energy jobs." It would transition our infrastructure from being natural gas-centric to prioritizing and expanding renewable energy resources, she said.
But if the make-up of the Seattle City Council changes after this election, the council's support for programs like a local Green New Deal could change, too.
Which may be exactly the outcome PSE's unusually large donations are intended to achieve.