Fossil Fuel-Backed Lobbying Group Is Up to Its Old Tricks, This Time Duping Wisconsin's Utility Customers

Consumer Energy Alliance (CEA), a fossil fuel industry group that claims to advocate for “fair” electric rates for all consumers, was caught red-handed this month falsifying a customer petition to support a handful of hotly-contested electric rate restructuring proposals from Wisconsin’s major utilities. 

Surprising? No.

Disappointing? You bet.

Petition Fails all Tests for Truth and Accuracy

CEA claims to be “the voice of the energy consumer” and to “provide consumers with sound, unbiased information” on energy issues. But its recent actions demonstrate just the opposite.

Earlier this month, the Houston-based firm (which has no on-the-ground presence in Wisconsin), sent the Public Service Commission a petition with the names of 2,500 electric customers hailing from We Energies and Madison Gas & Electric (MG&E)’s service areas, claiming these consumers support recent rate restructuring proposals. It stated that those listed on the petition “believe changing the current rule will ensure that all ratepayers are treated fairly and electricity bills remain affordable.”

But where were these “supporters” when residents came out in droves to protest the We Energies and MG&E hearings last month?

As I wrote about last month, the rate changes — two of which have been largely approved — are like kryptonite for customers looking to invest in energy efficiency and rooftop solar. And I didn’t see one person at the MG&E hearing heralding the proposed near-doubling of fixed charges as “fair” and “affordable” for consumers.

Also sensing something amiss, the Capitol Times started calling folks on the petition soon after it was filed. It didn’t take them long to discover that CEA had cooked the books.

The Times spoke with an MG&E customer who is one of thousands of highly-engaged residents in Wisconsin actively tracking the rate hikes. She opposes MG&E’s plan to increase the fixed charge portion of her bill from $10 to $19 per month. Yet CEA listed her as a supporter on the pro-rate restructuring petition. While she recalls speaking on the phone with a CEA staffer and letting the group use her name, she states that she was under the impression that the petition would be opposing the utility plan.

Other MG&E and We Energies customers contacted by the Capitol Times have similar accounts — they either don’t recall ever speaking with anyone from CEA, or do recall such a conversation but never signed a petition.

Just this last Monday, State Representative Christine Sinicki called on District Attorney John Chisolm to open an investigation of possible criminal behavior on the part of CEA, after her husband was listed as a supporter on the petition filed in the We Energies case. Both Rep. Sinicki and her husband have made clear that they vehemently oppose any of the fixed charge increases, noting that they would harm “homeowners, seniors, and clean energy development.”

And the judge overseeing the utility proposals is the latest to cite CEA’s antics.

Amidst serious concerns about the petition’s authenticity, in the last few weeks the Public Service Commission declined to accept it into the record on both the WE Energies and MG&E cases. Not only did the petition omit the necessary evidence proving that the signatures were real, but the judge also found that it “fail[ed] all the Commission’s tests for truth and accuracy it typically applies to comments.”

Did CEA Make a Mistake? Not Bloody Likely

The group’s top advisor, lobbyist Michael Whatley, denies that any Wisconsin residential customers contacted by CEA were misled about the group’s intentions or duped into allowing their names to be submitted to the Public Service Commission.

This claim seems implausible, though, given the number of customers — and lawmakers’ family members — who have come out of the woodwork denying their inclusion.

But that’s not the only reason to question CEA’s intentions. A few years back, my colleague Liz Barratt-Brown dug into CEA’s attack campaigns against the shift to cleaner fuels, specifically rooted to Canada’s tar sands. She discovered that, while CEA masquerades as a “consumer voice” it actually specializes in “astro-turfing,” i.e. crafting public relations campaigns designed to appear as grassroots support. At that time, CEA shared many members with EnergyCitizens, the API campaign that organized town halls back in 2009 against climate legislation pending in Congress.

So, if CEA’s “voice” was suspect that many years ago, is it to be trusted now as the mouthpiece for Wisconsin’s energy consumers? As it would appear, no.

Setting aside the very damaging fact of the misleading petition filed in the We Energies and MG&E cases, a perusal of CEA’s website reveals that the group does not even purport to represent Wisconsin’s residential energy consumers. Its list of 250 members is heavy on fossil fuel and business groups, but lacking in any clear residential or consumer protection organizations.

Tellingly, the national groups that typically advocate for fair energy rates for low-income communities, senior citizens, and minorities are nowhere to be found amongst CEA’s members. Yet these very groups, including AARP, National Consumer Law Center, NAACP, and several Wisconsin-based consumer organizations, were outspoken opponents of the utility proposals.

Moreover, there are only three Wisconsin-based organizations that CEA lists as members—Wisconsin Manufacturers and Commerce, Wisconsin Motor Carriers Association, and Wisconsin Industrial Energy Group. But these are heavy-hitting industrial and large commercial trade associations, none of which represent the everyday residential energy consumers that CEA listed on its petition. And none of these three Wisconsin-based groups are even amongst those affected by the residential and small commercial rate hikes at issue in the MG&E proposal.

Thus, there can be no truth to CEA’s claim that is the “voice of the energy consumer” when it comes to Wisconsin.

CEA is Running Scared, But What Does that Mean for Consumers?

Oddly, even though the petition had already been rejected by the Public Service Commission, CEA still saw fit to submit a formal letter a few weeks ago withdrawing its comments from the two cases.

While conceding defeat on the petition, it closes its letter with a request for a “sensible, balanced approach” to electricity pricing in Wisconsin.

But this statement is the crux of the problem with CEA’s involvement in these cases. As countless opponents of the rate restructuring have made clear, the proposals pending in Wisconsin are anything but balanced. If CEA were truly “the voice of the energy consumer” then the petition would have opposed the rate restructuring, rather than supporting it.

One thing is for sure, the petition shines a spotlight on the duplicity of fossil fuel-backed lobbying organizations increasingly claiming to represent grassroots interests. As State Representative Chris Taylor pointed out with respect to the MG&E proposal, “public input is supposed to be a really important piece of consideration in rate cases.”

But the events of the last few weeks reveal only one clear thing about CEA — just how ill-equipped they are to represent that public.