Originally published in BPN Magazine
In the July issue of BPN, I covered the potentially devastating consequences of New York’s unprecedented electrification efforts and the equally unprecedented decision by the NYPGA to engage the public in pushing back. Now, I’ll share more details about how our plans are playing out.
Together, the NYPGA leadership and Warm Thoughts Communications devised a two-pronged strategy. On one hand, we knew we needed to promote the benefits of propane as part of a reduced carbon future, and Propane Education & Research Council (PERC) messaging would play a valuable role in that.
But we strongly believed this would only matter if we first changed the political calculus of moderate Democrats so they would open up to alternatives beyond narrow electrification. To that end, we devised a much larger, aggressive, fuel-neutral campaign aimed at slowing down the electrification freight train. This depended on raising money from propane companies and associate members and adding other allies. We called the campaign Smarter NY Energy (smarternyenergy.org).
We started with a series of webinars and in-person meetings to wake the membership up to the true risks their businesses faced from the regulatory and legislative initiatives underway. I’ve been working with propane and heating oil companies for over 40 years. What I’m finding — and not just in New York — is that many people have a hard time appreciating how different this threat is than others we have faced. There is a tendency to believe common sense will prevail. Unfortunately, common sense and political expediency rarely coincide.
We laid out our strategy to galvanize public opposition to the plans and made a strong pitch for their financial support. Several NYPGA leaders stepped up right away to get the ball rolling. More than 35 members and associate members have now made contributions ranging from $5,000 to more than $75,000. Several bigger companies set up matching funds.
We’ve raised more than $375,000 in the last 12 months and are still attracting more support. Most have told us they will make those contributions annually as long as the fight continues.
Combined with New York’s traditional PERC funding (which could be used but with much more restriction), we had a nice war chest. But New York is a big, expensive state, and we need to reach a maximum number of people — so we had to find ways to get the most bang for our campaign buck.
From our experience running a similar campaign in New Jersey, we were able to identify the most cost-effective tactics for getting our messages to people who were most likely to speak out in support. Our first step was the development of the smarternyenergy.org website and Facebook pages. They would become the hub of the campaign, feeding visitors critical, updated information about the problems with Climate Action Council (CAC) plans.
We placed a link to the “Take Action” software the National Propane Gas Association (NPGA) provided that allowed people to send letters to the CAC public comment box easily. (We also use the software to send letters to legislators and the governor in parts of the campaign that don’t use PERC funding.)
Our voter polls gave us great insight into the kind of messaging that would be most impactful. We created multiple ads and 40-second videos that could run on social media, YouTube, Connected Television, display, search, and targeted email. (We have also used cable TV, radio and newspaper ads in other campaigns, but they didn’t make the cut here.) You can view the videos on YouTube and Smarter NY Energy.
Our media placement partners have extraordinary lists and targeting tactics. We are able to target our ads based on variables like age and gender (polling showed women changed their opinions about this most, but tracking software showed men were more likely to write letters), homeowners versus renters (homeowners were more likely to act), general interests, political inclinations, search histories and much more.
Once we started getting people visiting our website, liking our Facebook posts or submitting letters, we could use their data to create “look-a-like audiences,” which Google or Facebook could use to expand our reach to likeminded people. We used “retargeting” so that if someone visited our site, our ads would follow them, and often result in a subsequent letter being sent.
One of the coolest things we did was add special code to the letter writing software so we could tell which specific ads were most effective at getting letters written, not just reaching people. We utilize software that optimizes the advertising spend for desired result, so we were able to seamlessly and automatically adjust our ad spend to shift money to where it would have the biggest effect. We now have literally millions of data points to guide our spending.
We created a marketer toolkit that included sample letters, post cards, email messaging, etc., for propane marketers to use with their customers. This was significant because their customers have skin in the game, and they are more likely to act if requested by their company. Some companies were initially hesitant to engage their customers this way, fearing backlash. But they’ve found that most of the feedback was very positive, and besides, the time for worrying about upsetting a few customers has long since passed. If these plans are enacted, we will lose far more than a few. So far, members have sent more than 200,000 emails. One company, which also has a large chain of convenience stores, also started running the video ads on the monitors at their gas pumps. We also produce a two-sided bill insert called “Propane Matters in NY,” which has been funded with state PERC dollars for years. It is a phenomenal asset for reaching many propane customers with our messages inexpensively. Ninety-two companies ordered them this past fall, and our distribution is up to over 200,000 each run.
Our Smarter New York Energy campaign would take several months to go live, and we didn’t want to wait. In spring 2021, we set our sights on a carbon tax bill that was introduced in the legislature, before the CAC plans were even delivered. It allowed us to start engaging members, alerting the public and cultivating a group of resistors. (Everyone who writes an email gives us their email address, and we can continue to engage them to share with their networks or write subsequent letters.) Visit stopnycarbontax.com to see how this was positioned. We then turned our attention to the CAC public comment period. Our intel suggested that it was really designed to give political cover for the radical plans that were to be enacted. They expected a coronation. Instead, we crashed the party.
Delivering Big Numbers
By the end of the public comment period, we had generated letters from over 11,000 people. This is something like 40% of all the letters that were received. When you include the Carbon Tax and general CLCPA letters sent to the governor and legislators, we reached over 19,000. That’s just the tip of the iceberg. As a result of our efforts:
Our work is just beginning. This is going to be a long, hard fight. The recent Supreme Court decision gutting the EPA’s role in climate change regulation has galvanized our opponents to double down on their intra-state efforts. However, the reach of our campaign has been an asset in attracting more allies to the cause.
Recently, four other organizations from the heating oil, hearth products, convenience store and natural gas industries joined our coalition, and we are working with them to expand our war chest and public reach. We also helped fund a CLCPA investigation by one of the most respected think tanks in New York — the Empire Center. It has continued to surface troubling aspects of the plans, and we make sure they reach a broader audience.
We are working on generating stories in media outlets, as well. We have kept some powder dry so that we can be a factor in either the pre- or post-election period. But we will need more marketer contributions to continue our momentum. It is ridiculous to me that we don’t have 100% participation from propane companies in the state. Many propane companies spend tens or hundreds of thousands of dollars to advertise their businesses, and yet they are reluctant to pay $10,000 toward industry efforts designed to prevent them from going out of business.
New York — along with California and Vermont — are canaries in the coal mine. Carbon reduction efforts are now ramping up throughout New England, the Mid-Atlantic and the entire West Coast, as well as select states in between. Even if state governments aren’t fully on board, cities and counties can kill us.
The key takeaway is that not only can we successfully engage the public to help fight this battle — we absolutely must. We can sit back in hopes that the downsides of forced electrification will eventually start to surface with sufficient force to stem the tide, but a tremendous amount of damage will be done to our industry, and the state, before then. If we are not all in, we will surely be left out.