Originally published in BPN Magazine
In 2019, the New York Legislature quietly passed the most radical climate change legislation in the country — the Climate Leadership and Community Protection Act (CLCPA). With a stroke of a pen, then-Governor Andrew Cuomo committed the state to extraordinary reductions in carbon emissions that would affect every aspect of life in NY.
Conveniently, the law didn’t specify how NY would achieve these changes or how much they’d cost. That fell to a Climate Action Council (CAC), which had two years to evaluate options and put forth its “scoping plans.” The law did pack a hell of a punch, however. It empowers any citizen to sue the state if the goals are not met. This is the playbook we see not just in NY but in multiple blue states.
Our worst fears realized
Fast forward to December 2021. The CAC released three proposed “pathways” for public comment — think of them as the environmentalist version of good, better, best. Even though propane has always been one of the cleaner traditional fuels, it is marked for extinction, along with natural gas, heating oil, and gasoline. Among other things, the plans would:
One of the pathways includes a carve-out for renewable energy like biofuels, renewable propane, etc., but only as a bridge fuel until all combustion is eliminated.
Bill Overbaugh, the executive director of the New York Propane Gas Association (NYPGA), characterizes the plans as reverse-engineering on steroids. They started with the goals of the law and figured out ways it could happen, regardless of the practical realities and costs of the plan.
The plans seem to assume a best-case scenario for technological breakthroughs and include little detailed analysis of cost. To make the cost and benefits equal out and avoid public outcry, the council projected absurd benefits, like:
It may strike us as absurd, but no one is laughing. In fact, precious little scrutiny has been given to this 1,000-page document, especially among the political class that wants to please voters thirsty for climate action or the media that overwhelmingly supports it. Typical New Yorkers don’t have a clue of what’s in store for them.
After a six-month public comment period (which ended July 1), the plans will be finalized and submitted to the new Governor for modification and implementation/ at the end of 2022. The legislature is sure to jump in as well.
Mobilizing the NY Propane industry to fight back
Faced with a “clear and present danger” to its future, the leadership of the NYPGA decided that this battle could not be won by simply lobbying friendly legislators. That ship had sailed. Besides, most propane customers and companies are in rural or suburban areas, where most legislators wear red ties. The Governor and legislators that currently control the NY government dress in blue, live in downstate NY and have vocal constituents arguing for eliminating carbon emissions right now by any means necessary.
According to Matt Meehan of Mirabito Energy, who was President of the NYPGA board, “We didn’t feel we had a choice. We were not going to go down without a fight. And I remain hopeful that sanity will prevail if we buy enough time.”
The board looked at the Smart Heat NJ campaign my firm (Warm Thoughts Communications) was running in neighboring New Jersey on behalf of the Fuel Merchants Association (FMA). NJ’s Governor, Phil Murphy, had announced a new “energy master plan” that included the forced conversion of every home to heat pumps. In response, Eric DeGesero, FMA’s VP, had us conduct a voter poll to determine whether the public supported this mandate or whether there was a pathway to galvanize significant opposition.
We surveyed 700 voters of all political affiliations. Sure enough, the results proved that while the public supported the overall goal of reducing carbon emissions and fighting global warming, they did not buy into shelling out tens of thousands of dollars in forced heat pump conversions and higher energy costs. This was true for a majority of both Democrats and Republicans.
Armed with the poll results, FMA leadership decided to go all-in with a statewide advertising campaign leading up to the 2021 elections. FMA members built a war chest of $1.2 million, approximately half from member donations and half from their rainy-day fund. The goal: alert the public to the true implications of the plan, generate thousands of letters to legislators and the governor advocating a broader path than electrification, and turn the master plan into a matter of debate, not a done deal.
Warm Thoughts put together hard-hitting videos, TV ads, social media and digital display ads that were carefully targeted and tracked and reached millions of people in the state. We characterized the mandate as a new heat tax. Many heating oil dealers engaged their customers to support the cause. We generated more than 14,000 letters in just five months. The heat pump mandate became a topic in the gubernatorial debate. Bipartisan legislation overwhelmingly passed in the Democratically-controlled Senate to pause the conversion mandate until a true accounting of the costs could occur (though it died in the Assembly). Governor Murphy barely won reelection after being ahead in polls by double digits. While the fight is far from over, we clearly changed the political calculous around this issue.
Incorporating the lessons for NY
In NY, the landscape, resources and objectives are somewhat different, but many of the same lessons apply. First, as in NJ, we realized this is not a fight that propane can win alone; we are too small a percentage of the energy mix. We needed to make this a battle over “electrify everything” and attract natural gas, heating oil and wood-burning voters to the cause. Our goal is to educate the public and activate a community of resisters who would voice their concerns loudly enough to open the ears of moderate Democratic officials. As I said in the first part of this article, politicians aren’t good at many things, but they can definitely count.
As in NJ, our voter polls showed that New Yorkers overwhelmingly supported the goal of reducing carbon emissions and transitioning to electricity. But they knew very little about the actual plans themselves. Their support dropped dramatically when they were confronted by the potential for higher energy costs, increased power grid vulnerability, forced expensive conversion to heat pumps, carbon taxes, etc.
The NYPGA board formed a small steering committee called the CLCPA Committee, which I facilitated in the early months as we put together our game plan. Here were the key priorities:
We charted a two-pronged strategy. On the one hand, we would continue to promote the benefits of propane as part of a reduced carbon future, with Propane Education & Research Council (PERC) funding and messaging playing a big role in that. It would be an important part of our lobbying effort. But we knew it would only matter if we changed the political calculus.
To that end, we would run a much larger, aggressive, fuel-neutral campaign aimed at slowing down the CLCPA electrification freight train. We needed to engage the public on a large scale, not just in propane country but throughout the state. We needed their anger and worry to foreshadow the political costs politicians would incur if they continued down this narrow, risky electrify-everything path. Only then would they open up to us as part of the solution — however reluctantly.
We called the campaign Smarter NY Energy (check out SmarterNYEnergy.org). Our hope was that we could attract other allies under that umbrella, but we were willing to go it alone if need be.
Executing The Campaign
The NYPGA launched a drive to raise money from members and associate members to fund the battle. More than 35 companies have stepped up with contributions ranging from $5,000 per year to several who have given $20,000 to $75,000. We raised almost $300,000 in the last 12 months and are still attracting more support. Combined with NY’s traditional PERC funding (which we could use but with much more restriction), we had a nice war chest. But NY is a big, expensive state, so we had to find ways to get the most bang for our campaign buck.
From our New Jersey experience, 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 SmarterNYEnergy.org. It would become the hub of the campaign, feeding visitors critical information about the problems with CAC plans. We placed a link to the Take Action software NPGA provided that allows people to send letters to the 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.)
The voter polls gave us great insight into the kind of messaging that would be most impactful. We created ads that could run on social media, YouTube, connected TV, display, search and targeted email.
The technology available to maximize our dollars is frankly scary. 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 vs. 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 posts or submitting letters, we could use their data to create look-alike audiences, which Google or Facebook could use to expand our reach to like-minded people. We were able to target 1.5 million Republican-leaning New Yorkers with multiple emails or Democrats who showed indicators they might be more moderate based on certain criteria. We used retargeting so that if someone visited our site, our ads would follow them and often result in a subsequent letter.
One of the coolest things we did, which was evidently a first for NPGA, was ask their software vendor to put special code on the Take Action software so we could tell which ads were actually getting the most people to send letters. Interestingly, some ads and videos that were watched longer or generated more clicks actually generated fewer letters than some that were watched less. We utilize software that optimizes the ad spend for the desired result, so we were able to seamlessly, automatically adjust our ad spend to shift money where it would have the biggest effect. We now have literally millions of data points to guide our spending.
Engaging Members in the battle
We created a marketer toolkit that included sample letters, postcards, email messaging, etc., for propane marketers to use with their customers. This was significant because their customers had skin in the game, and they were more likely to take action if requested by their company. More than 200,000 emails have gone out this way to propane customers.
We also produce a two-sided 8 ½ by 11 bill insert called Propane Matters in NY, funded with state PERC dollars for years. It is a phenomenal asset for inexpensively reaching many propane customers with our messages. Ninety-two companies ordered them this past fall (we do them twice a year), and our distribution is up to over 200,000 each run.
Crashing Their Party
Our Smarter NY Energy website and ads would take several months to get live, and we didn’t want to wait. So back in spring 2021, we set our sights on a carbon tax bill that was introduced in the legislature. It really didn’t have much chance of passing back then, but it was emblematic of what would be coming. It allowed us to start engaging our members, alerting the public and cultivating our group of resisters (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). You can check out StopNYCarbonTax.com to see how we positioned it.
We subsequently decided to focus a great deal of resources on the CAC public comment period. Our intel suggested that the comment period was really designed to give political cover for the radical plans that were to follow. They expected a coronation. Instead, we crashed their party.
Delivering Big Numbers
By the end of the comment period, we had generated letters from over 10,000 people. This is something like 40% of all the letters they received (in fact, we believe they extended the comment period four times in hopes they could counter us, but we kept up the pressure). When you include the Carbon Tax and general CLCPA letters sent to the governor and legislators, we are up over 17,000.
That’s just the tip of the iceberg. In the past five months:
Our work is just beginning. This is going to be a marathon, not a sprint. The leadership is engaging with allies from other industries to collaborate more. We helped fund a CLCPA investigation from one of the most respected think tanks in NY — 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 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 always struck me as insane that most propane companies don’t actively support or participate in efforts like this. Many propane companies spend tens or hundreds of thousands of dollars to advertise their businesses. Yet they are reluctant to pony up $10,000 towards industry efforts designed to prevent them from losing many or most of them. It just leaves you scratching your head.
New York — like California and, more recently, Vermont — is your canary 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 choke our fuel.
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, eventually, the downsides of electrification will start to surface with enough force to stem the tide, but a tremendous amount of damage will be done to our industry before then. If we are not all in, we will surely be left out.