If you live in western Washington, chances are you get your power or your natural gas or both from Puget Sound Energy. The state’s largest utility company serves more than a million customers in 10 counties.
But it’s not just energy that PSE trades in. The company also helps power campaigns and elections in Washington through political contributions.
Puget Sound Energy and its predecessors have a 135-year history — from building the region’s first hydroelectric dam at Snoqualmie Falls to Puget Sound Power and Light’s role in keeping the lights on through the Great Depression. From the arrival of natural gas in the 1950s all the way to the first wind facilities in 2005.
Today, PSE is a privately-held company whose ownership group includes foreign investors. But its headquarters remain in Bellevue and it’s regulated by Washington’s Utilities and Transportation Commission. That helps explain why the company is an active player in state politics.
Contributing campaign cash
“I think from a company perspective we believe civic involvement is important and part of that civic involvement is political involvement,” said Nancy Atwood who heads up state government relations for PSE.
Since 1997, the company has contributed more than $4 million to Washington campaigns and elections. Some of PSE’s biggest spending has gone to defeat local public power initiatives that threaten its service areas.
So far this election cycle the utility has made nearly $250,000 in political contributions mostly to individual candidates for the legislature — both Democrats and Republicans. But it’s also written some bigger checks including $30,000 to Enterprise Washington, a business-backed political action committee that’s worked to keep a Republican majority in the state Senate.
“We do give to Enterprise Washington which is a business group,” Atwood said. “We also give to Democratic organizations as well. It’s not as much about a party affiliation as it is about sharing the goals that we have for our customers.”
Atwood said those goals include providing safe, dependable and efficient energy at reasonable prices, while also looking to the region’s future energy needs.
More political firepower
It’s not just campaigns and elections that PSE is involved with. The company also has a strong lobbying presence in the halls of the State Capitol. Earlier this year, the Washington legislature passed a law that creates a funding mechanism for PSE to wean itself from coal-fired power in Montana. It took two legislative sessions and complex negotiations to hammer out the final bipartisan deal.
Through it all, Doug Howell with the Sierra Club, which sued PSE and the other owners of the Montana coal plant in 2013 under the federal Clean Air Act, said he was reminded of PSE’s political firepower.
“They had a very big team and sometimes when they would congregate after a hearing you would see eight of them huddled,” Howell said.
Howell offered praise for PSE in the negotiations. After the law passed, the Sierra Club and PSE settled the 2013 lawsuit with the company agreeing to shutter its two Montana coal units by 2022. But Howell anticipates future political fights with the company over natural gas which he calls “as bad as coal” when it comes to climate change.
In fact, a couple of years ago Washington lawmakers passed favorable tax legislation for Puget Sound Energy to build a liquefied natural gas plant at the Port of Tacoma. It was another example of the kind of influence the company has in Olympia.
PSE and LNG
Democratic state Rep. Jake Fey recalled how a lobbyist for PSE tracked him down at the end of the 2014 legislative session. He said the lobbyist was concerned that the tax bill for the new natural gas plant was about to be amended to death in the Washington House.
“They came to me and asked me if I could help facilitate getting to the finish line,” Fey said.
Fey had received political contributions from Puget Sound Energy, but he said that’s not why he agreed to help. Fey represents Tacoma and has a background in energy issues. He viewed the liquefied natural gas project as good for his district and good for the environment because it would allow ships leaving the port to burn cleaner fuel.
A deal was hammered out and on the next to last day of the legislative session an amended version of the bill made it through. It wasn’t everything PSE had wanted, but it was still a significant win — especially for a short 60-day session when most tax-related bills weren’t going anywhere.
More recently, PSE has joined a lawsuit challenging Gov. Jay Inslee’s new carbon cap rule. The company also put $25,000 into a campaign to defeat a carbon tax initiative on the November ballot. These are positions that potentially put PSE at odds with its politically liberal and environmentally-minded customer base in the Puget Sound region.
The company said it supports reducing greenhouse gas emissions, but in a fashion that’s cost-effective.