Wined and Dined by Energy Industry Consultant, State Utility Regulators Met With Its Client

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Wine toasting

A consulting firm that organizes official missions abroad and conferences for state utility commissioners used the links it cultivated with these regulators to advance its own client’s interests, a DeSmog investigation has found.

Documents obtained from several state public utility commissions through open records requests provide a glimpse into the methods employed behind the scenes by Gee Strategies Group, a veteran energy consulting company.

According to its website, Gee Strategies provides “expertise in policy analysis, advocacy, and litigation support for the energy, utility, and critical infrastructure sectors.” Led by longtime energy consultant and former Department of Energy official Robert Gee, the firm has worked with the Edison Electric Institute (EEI), the utility industry’s powerful trade association.

EEI has been playing a key role in undermining efforts to advance renewable energy policies, as watchdog group Energy and Policy Institute has documented thoroughly.

The Osaka Gas Visit

Osaka Gas building
Osaka Gas Building, OsakaJapan. Credit: Mc681CC BY-SA 4.0

Alongside its consulting business, Gee Strategies has been organizing various conferences and forums within the U.S. and missions overseas, which provide meeting points between government regulators and private industry.      

In the summer of 2017, the firm arranged an official visit by a number of state regulators to China and Japan. The U.S. Department of Energy sponsored the mission and hired Gee Strategies as contractor to orchestrate the trip.

The trip’s itinerary included a visit to Osaka Gas, a Japanese energy company that owns liquefied natural gas (LNG) terminals, pipelines, and power-generating projects around the world. A client of Gee Strategies, the company has a variety of interests in the U.S., including fracking operations in Texas, ownership in the Freeport LNG terminal in Texas, and natural gas–fired power stations throughout the Northeast.

The state regulators on the China-Japan mission spent several hours at the company’s headquarters, lunched with senior management, met with the LNG trading department, and toured its R&D center. 

A month before the mission, Robert Gee emailed one of the trip’s attendees, Asim Haque – then chairman of the Public Utilities Commission of Ohio and now an executive at PJM Interconnection, the regional organization coordinating the multi-state grid in the Midwest –asking if he’d be willing to meet personally with Osaka Gas. The company was interested in exploring business opportunities in energy distribution, renewables, and microgrids in the U.S.

Gee reminded Haque he had met with Osaka Gas two years earlier, when the company sought investments in natural gas and power generation.

Haque agreed and shortly after met with Osaka Gas representatives at a conference in San Diego.

Susan Buehler, a PJM Interconnection spokesperson, said on Haque’s behalf that the trip to China and Japan was funded by the U.S. Department of Energy (USDOE). “Representatives from USDOE were on the trip,” she said. “Gee Strategies is a contractor that was hired by USDOE. For inquiries about that relationship, you should ask the USDOE.”

The Department of Energy did not respond to a request for comment.

In an email from June last year, Robert Gee extended a similar request for a meeting with Osaka Gas to the vice chairman of Connecticut’s Public Utilities Regulatory Authority, John Betkoski.

Betkoski, who also attended Gee Strategies’ 2017 mission to Japan and China, agreed.

Betkoski did not respond to a request for comment.

Robert Gee
Robert Gee of Gee Strategies Credit: Via U.S. Department of Energy

In an email to DeSmog, Robert Gee acknowledged he’s been representing Osaka Gas in the U.S. but said the trip to Osaka Gas headquarters in Japan was separate and unrelated to his work for the company. “The single-day visit was during a clean energy mission sponsored by the U.S. Government (for whom I am a contractor) to give the commissioners insights into the demonstration of cutting-edge clean energy technologies in Asia.”

The meeting in Osaka featured a visit to that company’s research and development center where the commissioners were able to see advanced energy efficient residential appliances, advanced applied materials, and advanced gas turbine technologies being demonstrated,” he added.

Perks on Wall Street

Two months before he agreed to meet Osaka Gas, Betkoski was keynote speaker at Gee Strategies’ annual Utility Commissioners/Wall Street Dialogue conference in New York City, which brings together regulators, investors, and industry. Asim Haque also attended that conference, along with a host of other state regulators.

According to the conference’s agenda, attendees dined at Manhattan’s Morton’s Steakhouse and had another reception and dinner at the Harvard Club of New York City, hosted by the investment bank Moelis & Company.

Gee Strategies funded the regulators’ travel and lodging expenses to the conference, as it had done for its other meetings and forums it organized in the U.S.   

This event is part of the cozy circuit funded by the utility industry to allow industry CEOs to get close with regulators,” said Matt Kasper, research director at the Energy and Policy Institute. “Ratepayers likely never benefit when Wall Street, along with utility lobbyists and executives, privately meet with regulators.”

Robert Gee said the meetings he arranged between his client and the commissioners from Ohio and Connecticut were “intended to provide Osaka Gas USA with background regarding those states’ existing regulatory policies (including legislative renewable mandates) and public discussions of potential programs in innovative energy technologies since the company neither owns regulated assets, nor has it had matters pending in either state.”

Gee added, “Those meetings were productive in potentially laying the groundwork for those states to benefit from clean energy investments from a new investor.”

It should be noted that last year Osaka Gas purchased minority ownership in two gas-fired power plants in Connecticut, the Kleen Energy plant in Middlebury, and the Tiwontic plant in Oxford.

Concerns of Bias

Industry observers acknowledge the increasingly important part financial analysts play in the nexus between utilities, regulators, and Wall Street. Utility managers must display solid ties with regulators for the analysts’ sake, as a major portion of a company’s assessment and determination of its value lies in the health of this regulatory relationship.

PJM Interconnection’s spokesperson Buehler said that all travel on behalf of the State of Ohio was vetted through the Public Utilities Commission of Ohio’s (PUCO) legal department, which ensures compliance with Ohio Ethics Laws. “For information about that process, you can check with the PUCO,” she said.

PUCO did not respond to a request for comment.

Even if the trips were vetted internally, industry observers add, it is their potential effects on regulators’ judgment that is concerning. “Regulators open themselves up to concerns about impartiality and bias when they accept invitations from utility lobbyists like Robert Gee to travel abroad and then meet with his clients,” said Energy and Policy Institute’s Kasper.

Main image credit: Pixabay/Skitterphoto

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