Business & economy, Special Reports

Local legislators journey to Denmark with costs picked up by special interests

Northwest Natural Gas, the utility fighting the state’s climate regulations, recently orchestrated a European trip for Oregon legislators to educate them about its industry.

The fact-finding mission in September focused on Denmark, where the ambitious energy conservation effort to curb climate change is a national ethic.

Trip organizers hoped the five legislators might see lessons for Oregon. Washington state legislators and officials from a Washington utility also were along.

Northwest Natural’s lobbyist picked the Oregon legislators to go on the five-day trip.

They included state Senators Janeen Sollman, Democrat of Hillsboro, and Lynn Findley, Republican of Vale, and three representatives – Republicans Mark Owens of Crane and Bobby Levy of Echo and Emerson Levy (no relation), Democrat from Bend.

“We will all get to know each other quite well during our week together.”

–Trip organizer in message to participants

Nels Johnson, Northwest Natural’s lobbyist, arranged on their behalf to get state ethics officials to sign off on the trip. For Sollman and Findley, such a trip also requires approval of the state Senate secretary, but it was Johnson and not the senators who applied for that approval.

The Oregon utility also routed money through a Washington state firm, helping fund “scholarships” of $6,200 to each legislator to cover the trip’s costs. Owens and Findley were handed checks for the airfare portion of their scholarship while they were in Europe, legislative officials reported.

Northwest Natural and I-Sustain of Seattle wouldn’t disclose what the company spent to underwrite the trip.

Four days before departing for Denmark, Findley and Owens each reported getting a $2,500 campaign contribution from Northwest Natural’s political action committee. A company spokesman said there was “no link” between the campaign money and the European trip.

The company sent its lobbyist and two top company executives to accompany the legislators on their energy tour that ran from Sept. 10 to Sept. 15. They were joined by yet another lobbyist, representing the Oregon-based Northwest Gas Association.

“We will all get to know each other quite well during our week together,” an I-Sustain official wrote to all participants ahead of the trip.

The trip occurred as Oregon implements its own plans to reduce greenhouse emissions. That requires utilities such as Northwest Natural to reduce their carbon emissions by half by the year 2035 under the state’s Climate Protection Program. The plan is intended to have Oregon play its part in slowing the warming of the planet, being cited by scientists for increasing droughts, the intensity of wildfires and melting polar ice caps.

Last year, Northwest Natural sued the state, challenging the Oregon program, saying it shouldn’t be covered by the mandates to reduce carbon emissions. The company also this summer endured pushback from state regulators, who questioned the gas company’s plan for how it would reduce its reliance on damaging fossil fuels.

Northwest Natural’s lawsuit was active as the Oregon legislators packed for Europe. Two legislators paid I-Sustain $1,500 to take along relatives – one his wife and another, a son.

They gathered in Copenhagen, the party staying their first nights at a four-star hotel which boasts of being “decorated with extravagance and charm.” They met for a “welcome” dinner at a restaurant that promises “seafood of the highest quality, wonderful wines & lots of cozy moments.”

Owens said in a Facebook post with photos of a group dinner in Denmark, “We know how to have a good time.”

Days of tours of energy projects and presentations followed, according to the agenda. One legislator, Emerson Levy, took notes throughout the trip, she said.

She was the only one.

Owens didn’t take any notes the entire trip and ignored repeated requests for an interview. Sollman and Findley didn’t take notes either. Findley’s later Facebook report describing the trip was largely plagiarized from the trip’s agenda.

Bobby Levy, the Echo legislator, confirmed in an email that she hadn’t taken notes or spoken to anyone about the trip.

Pressed to explain, Levy said by email, “I am beginning to feel like your line of questioning is bordering on being rude and I don’t appreciate it.”

No climate activists in Oregon were invited. Some are concerned by the extended time shared by legislators and Northwest Natural officials.

“The company’s goal in sponsoring the trip was clearly to buy airtime with key leaders – all with the ultimate aim of influencing state policy to prevent needed change,” said Damon Motz-Storey, Oregon chapter director for the Sierra Club.

The logistics for the trip, funded by several sponsors, were handled by I-Sustain, the Seattle consulting company. Patricia Chase and Jayson Antonoff founded the company while living in Denmark and now lead overseas study trips.

Antonoff said the company was approached by utilities “who wanted some ideas on how places like Denmark are pivoting their natural gas infrastructure into becoming more carbon neutral.”

“The trip was all about looking at what can be done to decarbonize the natural gas grid.”

–Jayson Antonoff of I-Sustain

Northwest Natural was one of those utilities.

“The natural gas utilities in the region understand that there’s a strong push toward decarbonization,” Antonoff said. “They want to understand what their role could be … The trip was all about looking at what can be done to decarbonize the natural gas grid.”

A delegation of legislators from Oregon attend a briefing on an energy project in Denmark during a fact-finding mission in Denmark in September 2023. (Janeen Sollman Facebook)

Kathryn Williams, a Northwest Natural vice president, said the company is striving to use more biogas, so-called renewable natural gas.

I-Sustain noted in its briefing paper that Denmark’s innovations now mean that biogas makes up about 40% of the natural gas supply. At the same time, the country’s natural gas production has fallen by half, according to I-Sustain’s data.

“We wanted to learn ourselves but also have folks in both states in which we operate to see how Denmark has done it,” Williams said.

Northwest Natural buys some biogas outside of Oregon, and state energy officials in 2018 reported that “there is potential for a substantial amount” of biogas to be produced in the state.

“No biogas plants in Oregon currently produce RNG and inject it into a common carrier pipeline,” the report said, noting substantial investments would be needed.

The Oregon Public Utility Commission said in a January 2023 report, “Decarbonization of the natural gas sector is still in its earliest stages.”

Northwest Natural’s ambition to use substantially more alternates to natural gas borders on “magical thinking that is not realistic or affordable,” said Meredith Connolly, Oregon director of Climate Solutions, a clean energy advocacy nonprofit.

“We can only dream of the day that NW Natural would embrace Denmark’s actual climate path of drastically downsizing their gas system largely through energy efficiency and electrification solutions,” Connolly said.

Williams said legislators could help develop more biogas by creating incentives.

“We’re going to need federal and state policy support to really capture all of that biogas that is out there,” she said.

In Denmark, remaking the natural gas supply is part of the country’s goal to achieve climate neutrality by 2050, according to a briefing paper by I-Sustain.

“That’s a pretty lofty goal,” Findley said in a recent interview. “I don’t see how they can do that.”

Findley said Oregon’s own goals appear “unattainable” and “unrealistic.”

“We’re overly zealous,” said Findley. “We have a strong desire by a lot of people to eliminate natural gas. I do not share that opinion.”

Findley is vice chair of the Senate energy committee. Sollman is chair. Owens, Emerson Levy and Bobby Levy all serve on the House counterpart.

Williams and Antonoff note that Denmark has advanced ambitious energy policies because of a common vision among political parties and interests. I-Sustain, in its briefing paper for legislators, noted “long-standing cultural and social cohesion” in Denmark.

Such cohesion isn’t evident in Oregon, where rural counties are toying with becoming part of Idaho and Senate Republicans jam legislative progress by skipping Senate sessions.

State Sen. Janeen Sollman of Hillsboro gets a cart ride powered by Senator Lynn Findley fact-finding mission in Denmark in September 2023. A lobbyist from Northwest Natural Gas invited the legislators and the utility helped pay their foreign travel costs. (Janeen Sollman Facebook)

Findley said there is “tremendous opportunity” in Oregon to develop renewable natural gas.

But the PUC report from earlier this year cautioned such a strategy is “uncertain” because of costs, availability and current technology.

And Motz-Storey of the Sierra Club noted that Denmark is continuing to drive down the use of natural gas.

“Oregon should follow suit since it is clear that biogas could only ever play an extremely limited role in phasing out fossil fuels,” he said.

Williams said company officials didn’t discuss specific legislation while overseas with Oregon legislators.

 “We talked about Northwest Natural’s objectives,” she said. “We asked them to kind of look and imagine what Oregon could be in a decade or two.”

Motz-Storey noted the absence of climate advocates.

“NW Natural lobbyists had close access to lawmakers on this trip that Oregon voters who support climate action and environmental justice do not get,” he said. “If lawmakers want to learn about the best practices for decarbonization, they should consult impartial experts and not lobbyists.”

Findley said he’s not planning to make time for climate activists or environmentalists.

“I do not have it on my calendar to meet with 1000 Friends of Oregon in the near future,” said Findley.

Contact Editor Les Zaitz: [email protected].

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