Threatened by EVs, Oil Companies Employ Disinformation Tactics in Massachusetts

September 23, 2019 | 11:06 am
Red Chevrolet Volt Parked in One of Ten New Solar-Powered Charging StationsSteve Fecht/General Motors
Samantha Houston
Senior Vehicles Analyst

The oil industry has wised up to the fact that utilities have an important role to play in accelerating electric vehicle (EV) adoption, and it has responded by undertaking a broad campaign to fight against utility programs that invest in EV charging infrastructure. The breadth of that effort is discussed in a recent POLITICO article, which features a couple of quotes by yours truly.

I’ve been working on utility proceedings in several states where the oil industry is fighting against EV infrastructure programs, and I have seen its disinformation tactics to firsthand.  I’d like to share a bit more detail on what the oil industry is getting up to through an illustrative example in Massachusetts.

Massachusetts needs more EVs

Deploying electric vehicles is a key strategy for the Commonwealth to reduce global warming emissions from cars and trucks to meet its economy-wide Global Warming Solutions Act (GWSA) emission reduction goals. The dire consequences of failing to make progress on emission reduction goals are detailed in recent analyses from Union of Concerned Scientists on chronic coastal inundation and the increase in dangerously hot days in Massachusetts and across the United States.

Deploying electric vehicles will also reduce health-harming tailpipe pollution, particularly in communities that suffer the most exposure to transportation pollution.

And we’re not just talking electric passenger cars. We can also swap heavy trucks, buses, and off-road equipment for electric models to cut global warming emissions and reduce health-harming pollution.

Mass Electric Utilities can accelerate EV adoption

In Massachusetts, Eversource and National Grid have already begun making regulator-approved investments to support the transition to EVs. And National Grid has stepped up again, proposing a second phase of its EV program. The Phase II EV Program will make investments on a scale that could put the Commonwealth on track to meets its statutory global warming emission reduction goals by enabling more EV adoption and seeding the market for private investments in EV charging.

Phase I of National Grid’s EV program focused almost exclusively on much-needed public charging infrastructure. National Grid’s Phase II EV Program builds on Phase I through:

  • Expanding public charging
  • Introducing new residential and fleet charging program elements
  • Implementing novel approaches to research and development, program marketing, and program evaluation
  • Providing a new residential off-peak charging discount and a new commercial demand charge discount

The program is designed to address one third of the charging infrastructure that would support a level of EV adoption in 2025 that would put Massachusetts on a trajectory to meet its 2050 greenhouse gas reduction goals.

Private, investor-owned utilities have to get approval for their planned investments from the Department of Public Utilities (DPU) in order to recover the costs of those investments from their customers. The DPU has a process for getting stakeholder input on utility programs and plans. That process, or “proceeding,” for National Grid’s Phase II EV Program has been characterized by a healthy amount of debate on the issues by stakeholders. These stakeholders include a wide range of groups or companies including EV charging companies and consumer advocates.  The stakeholders in this case also include the oil and gas industry.  Recently, the presence of these companies in electric utility proceedings has increased substantially as the oil industry is starting to take seriously the threat EVs pose to its market share of transportation fuel.

The debate in the Phase II EV Program proceeding has ranged from high-level issues like utility ownership of chargers to in-the-weeds details of off-peak charging discount design. Though stakeholder positions on such issues differ, they have adhered to rules and protocols for presenting reasoned arguments supported by accurately-characterized and properly-cited evidence. Well, almost all stakeholders have done so.

Oil and gas industry stakeholders have not limited themselves to arguments supported by accurately-characterized, properly-cited evidence. These tactics are a dark spot in an otherwise good-faith process.

Oil industry uses disinformation tactics to try and stall EV investments

It’s easy to miss a subtle bit of disinformation in a niche regulatory proceeding that involves thousands of pages of testimony, hearing transcripts, legal briefs, and other documents. I’ve been fortunate to work in a coalition of sharp, detail-oriented minds in this proceeding.  An email from one such mind tipped me off to one instance of disinformation in which the American Petroleum Institute (API, the national trade association for the oil and gas industry) urges the DPU to follow the California Public Utilities Commission’s (CPUC’s) lead and reject National Grid’s Phase II EV Program as premature.

The only Southern California Edison program I knew of with a proposed second phase is the Charge Ready Program. Well, I was (and technically still am) an expert witness giving input on Southern California Edison’s Charge Ready Phase 2 program, and I knew that the CPUC had not issued a decision on that program, not even a proposed one, at the time (and still hasn’t). This reference to CPUC was troubling, and I knew it was important to clarify or correct the record. So I looked into it.

I opened the API brief from whence the flagged statement came to see a block quote attributed to a January 14, 2016 CPUC order on a Southern California Edison Program (see page 21). In the quote, CPUC declines to approve Charge Ready Phase 2 “without considering the results of Phase 1.” The situation, or so API claims, is “precisely the same case” as with National Grid’s Phase II EV Program.

The date of an order and the utility whose application was under consideration may seem like a good amount of information for a citation, but it omits several key pieces of information that would allow a reader to readily identify the cited material. The proceeding number or the order number (or both) should have been noted along with the proceeding caption or full program name from the application. None of this was present, which was odd because, first of all, everything in a brief should have a proper citation, and second, the other citations in the API brief were at least complete enough to be passable.

But I have reasonable deductive skills and a good working knowledge of California EV programs, so I persevered.

It turns out that the original Charge Ready application (docket A.14-10-014) was the program at issue. That application proposed the Charge Ready program in two phases within the same application.  It also turns out that the claims that API made about the situation with National Grid’s Phase II EV Program and SCE’s Charge Ready Phase 2 being “precisely the same case” was misleading.  In their Decision on the original Charge Ready application, the CPUC decided to approve only the first phase of the Charge Ready program and invited Southern California Edison to submit Charge Ready 2 at a later date, after some Charge Ready 1 data was available (see D.16-01-023, “Decision Regarding Southern California Edison Company’s Application for Charge Ready and Market Education Programs,” January, 14 2016 on the aforementioned docket).

The intervening time between the National Grid’s Phase I and Phase II EV Programs means that the situation is not, in fact, “precisely” the same as the original Charge Ready application. National Grid’s experience with Phase I has already yielded important lessons that it has applied to the design of Phase II. For example, the relative absence of direct current fast charging (DCFC) station applications in Phase I to date has influenced the addition of the option for company ownership of DCFC stations and infrastructure in other under-served market segments. National Grid has committed to incorporating additional lessons learned from Phase I into Phase II, as they learn them, and the company has had several more months of opportunity gather data and lessons since the evidentiary hearing on the Phase II EV Program in May.

That wasn’t the only quotation API mischaracterized over the course of their written testimony and briefs. Another, particularly egregious, example of this is API’s twisting the words of a witness that testified on behalf of the Massachusetts Energy Directors Association (MEDA) in order to support one of the oil industry’s favorite inaccurate claims that ratepayer funded infrastructure programs necessarily inequitably burden low-income ratepayers. MEDA issued a short, but pointed rebuttal to this deceptive behavior in its reply brief (see pages 13-14).

Mischaracterizing quotes from witnesses and other state regulators wasn’t the only disinformation strategy that API used to muddy the waters of the Phase II EV Program proceeding. The oil industry group trafficked in serious sounding, but nonsensical metrics (see page 14 of API’s initial brief) in an attempt to persuade the DPU to gut or outright reject the National Grid’s program. API compares the Phase II EV Program to other utility EV programs on a dollars per utility customer and a dollars per gigawatt-hour (GWh) generating capacity basis, but glosses over numerous factors about those cost metrics that render the comparisons meaningless. For example, API ignores program length, but this factor alone dramatically impacts the $/customer and $/GWh calculations of a program. Moreover, API does not attempt to identify or address whether the programs were pilots versus full-fledged programs, whether the program scope included light- or heavy-duty vehicles, whether the program included marketing and education programs, whether the states had climate or ZEV commitments necessitating a specified ramp-up of EVs in the jurisdiction, or any of the other factors that would enable a meaningful apples-to-apples comparison. To make it more difficult to investigate the relevant factors, API neglects to name or provide other identifying information for programs summarized in their table.

If you’re shaking your head at all of this bad faith behavior by API, you’re not alone. Our coalition intervening on the Phase II EV docket, the Clean Energy Parties, did our fair share of head shaking as we rebutted API’s disinformation on the record, including a discussion in our reply brief (see pages 16-19). The DPU’s decision on this proceeding is due by the end of this month. I hope the DPU commissioners give no credence to the oil industry’s disinformation and avoid undue delays in making progress on EV adoption that would help the Bay State meet its climate goals.