Washington Gas workers excavate pipes on a city street. Credit: Courtesy of the D.C. Public Service Commission

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Much of the news Loose Lips follows out of the Wilson Building adheres to a similar, depressing pattern: Big corporate interests tell D.C. officials to jump, and they respond: “How high?” So it’s worth pausing to examine one of the rare exceptions that proves the rule.

Namely, Washington Gas had a chance to neuter a big piece of climate legislation as the Council wrapped up its final legislative session of 2022. But for once, the utility company (long one of the most influential businesses in the District) didn’t get its way.

The bill in question was an effort from At-Large Councilmember Robert White aimed at forcing the D.C. government to immediately meet net-zero energy standards as it builds new facilities or manages extensive renovation projects (meaning buildings would have to generate as much energy as they use). Lawmakers already acted last summer to impose the net-zero standard and ban natural gas in all new construction by 2026, but White wanted to see the city adhere to these more stringent environmental standards right away.

All of this is bad news, of course, for Washington Gas (one of the city’s two local utility monopolies) since net-zero buildings generally rely on electric and renewable energy sources instead of gas. The District owns and leases something like 42 million square feet of property around the city, so the D.C. government is both a regulator and a major customer for the natural gas purveyor. The Department of General Services spends about $7 million a year on gas.

Washington Gas writes in a statement to LL that it is “working with policymakers to help drive towards a sustainable future, while also taking concrete actions today, to contribute to the District of Columbia achieving its climate goals.” But the company also happens to be a member of a group of utilities running a secretive advocacy campaign against the “anti-natural gas movement,” according to leaked documents uncovered by E&E News in 2021. (The city’s electric provider, Pepco, is also a member, and has similarly fought against D.C.’s green building standards.)

Add all that up and it’s probably no surprise that the gas company would oppose White’s bill, and it testified against the legislation during a hearing last fall. The company raised concerns that the bill “was duplicative with other laws, but also that it might lead to a net increase in the region’s use of fossil fuels by encouraging the installation of energy-inefficient electric devices,” per written testimony submitted to White’s government facilities committee.

But the Council disregarded that industry opposition, and the bill sailed through both White’s committee and the Committee on Transportation and the Environment chaired by then-Ward 3 Councilmember Mary Cheh. The legislation received unanimous approval from the full Council in its first vote on Dec. 6, so its formal passage via a second and final vote looked pretty much assured.

“We expect utilities to be utilities, and to try and protect and defend what they do,” White tells LL. “That’s the reason we have government and the separation of powers, so that we can chart the best course for our city based on multiple factors, not just bottom line of the utility company.”

Yet Washington Gas is a sophisticated enough player to know all the tricks of the legislative trade. Former Ward 4 Councilmember Brandon Todd runs its local lobbying operations, after all. If the bill was a sure bet to pass at the Council’s Dec. 20 meeting, tacking on some last-minute amendments would be the next best thing for the utility.

At-Large Councilmember Kenyan McDuffie Credit: Darrow Montgomery

So that’s exactly what Manny Geraldo, one of the company’s in-house lobbyists (and a former Todd staffer in his Council days), proposed in a Dec. 19 email sent around the Wilson Building and subsequently forwarded to LL. Geraldo drafted a pair of amendments to the bill: One would exempt any project planned in D.C.’s budget for the next four years from the net-zero standards, while the other specified that city workers didn’t need to remove gas infrastructure from old buildings as part of any substantial renovation projects, in case someday it could be “repurposed for transport and storage of hydrogen.” Geraldo added that Chairman Phil Mendelson and then-Ward 5 Councilmember Kenyan McDuffie, who has oversight of the utilities via his economic development committee, “already have the amendments and support both.”

Cheh tells LL she was also contacted by Washington Gas lobbyists about the amendments—in addition to Todd and Geraldo, the company employs several prominent private lobbyists, including Max Brown, a favorite of Mayor Muriel Bowser, and Corey Arnez Griffin, formerly McDuffie’s chief of staff. Cheh says she thought about the proposals for “like 30 seconds” before concluding “this doesn’t make any sense.”

“Think about the number of projects already in the pipeline over the next four years, I mean, come on,” Cheh says, noting that the 2026 timeline for net-zero construction is already on the books. “What we’re trying to do here is deal with emissions and climate change. There’s no point in exempting those if we’re serious about this.”

She was similarly skeptical about the idea that natural gas assets could be used for hydrogen someday, considering widespread adoption of the fuel source could be many years away (if it happens at all). So when McDuffie called her to gauge her support, she told him she’d vigorously argue against it, and that she suspected it would be a “futile act” for him to even introduce the amendments.

“I told him he could choose bonafides to the company if he wanted to do that,” Cheh says. “But it wouldn’t go anywhere. So that was the end of that.”

Indeed, McDuffie never ended up offering any amendment to the bill—his spokesperson declined to comment on that decision. Mendelson’s spokesperson says he similarly “never considered moving” the amendments, despite Geraldo’s apparent confidence. The legislation sailed through, as written, on another unanimous vote.

“If there was an appetite for prioritizing utility companies or prioritizing natural gas, those amendments would have seen the light of day,” White says. “But clearly there was not enough support on or off the Council for continuing to chart out a path where gas pipes are going to be used in the future.”

So despite the attempts at a back-room deal, the Council secured what could be a very meaningful win for the city’s climate goals. D.C. government facilities account for roughly 5 percent of all emissions generated by buildings across the city, per the Department of Energy and the Environment, and buildings are far and away the leading source of greenhouse gas emissions in the District.

But the tussle also illuminates why it’s so difficult for cities like D.C. to make progress on clean energy initiatives when utility monopolies can use their deep pockets, lined by residents’ utility bills, to manipulate the legislative process. Just witness Pepco’s ongoing efforts to influence the obscure Construction Codes Coordinating Board into slowing down D.C.’s plans for all-electric building construction to see how these behind-the-scenes fights tend to play out in favor of big utilities with the resources and policy savvy to gum up the works.

White’s legislation might yet fall victim to the same machinations. He still has to get the bill funded for it to take effect, and there’s a big price tag. The Office of the Chief Financial Officer estimates the city will need another $9.9 million over the next four years to afford net-zero construction on projects that are already in the works. (Net-zero buildings will likely save D.C. money on energy costs in the long term, White notes, but that wasn’t factored into the CFO’s analysis).

And Cheh predicts that Bowser won’t be especially keen on including money for the bill in the budget on her own accord. Her administration has long had deep ties to both utility companies (Todd was Bowser’s hand-picked successor in Ward 4, while top mayoral adviser Beverly Perry was once a top Pepco lobbyist) and DGS officials expressed a variety of reservations about White’s bill during its October hearing. In fact, White says DGS’s intransigence in complying with other clean energy goals pushed him to introduce this legislation in the first place—the agency was 29 months late in releasing a Council-mandated plan for substantially reducing energy use in D.C. government buildings by 2024, a delay White found “baffling.”

That’s why Cheh suspects White will have to be diligent in finding funding for the bill on his own when budget season arrives (even though he’s no longer chair of the government facilities committee), just as she did on many occasions over her 16-year Council career. If he succeeds, she suspects it’ll be worth the effort.

“It will be sort of modeling for private companies how they can proceed,” Cheh says. “There may be glitches here or there, but we will have gone through it, and they will be able to see what happened with us.”