Environmentalists accused Spire Inc. of fearmongering after the company sent an email Nov. 5 warning customers their natural gas service might be shut off this winter if a major pipeline is shut down Dec. 13. However, a Spire STL Pipeline representative said the email was sent out in the name of clear and open public information.
Spire officials said an extended Federal Energy Regulatory Commission Permit would allow them to avoid a shutdown, and commissioners indicated they would approve the permit during their Nov. 18 meeting.
Even so, the Missouri Public Services Commission is investigating Spire’s emails and other communications with customers, which PSC staff said: “appear to reflect an attempt by Spire to mobilize public opinion, through fear, in order to potentially pressure federal authorities to extend the pipeline’s authorization, at least through the winter.”
About 650,000 people rely on Spire for their residential and commercial gas and heating across the St. Louis region, and most of that natural gas is provided through the Spire STL Pipeline. Running 65 miles and connecting to other pre-existing pipelines and gas facilities in Illinois before reaching St. Louis, the $280 million pipeline has operated since 2019.
The Spire STL Pipeline is currently operating under a temporary emergency permit issued by the FERC, but that permit is set to expire Dec. 13. In Spire’s email, the company said unless the FERC grants them another temporary emergency permit, residents should prepare for the possibility of gas shutoffs.
“We’re confident that we’ve done everything we can to demonstrate the critical role the pipeline plays in providing the St. Louis community with energy, but there are no guarantees it will operate beyond Dec. 13,” Spire wrote in the email. “Natural gas outages are extremely rare. However, a St. Louis winter without the STL Pipeline in service is a different situation.”
The email suggested some residents may be asked to turn down their thermostats or limit their stove use during the winter months to conserve energy unless the pipeline remains operational.
‘There are no guarantees’ about shutoffs
In January 2020, the Environmental Defense Fund filed a lawsuit against the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission on behalf of Illinois residents whose land was seized through eminent domain to build the Spire STL Pipeline.
The lawsuit alleged the commission did not thoroughly review Spire’s application to build the pipeline, and Spire had not followed proper procedures in constructing and running the pipeline. The U.S. Federal Court of Appeals ruled the initial 2018 approval of the pipeline’s construction was unlawful because Spire had failed to demonstrate a need for the pipeline.
However, by the time the original permit was overturned, the Spire STL Pipeline had already been pumping gas for two years.
Natalie Karas, senior director and lead counsel in EDF's Energy Program, said in a Nov. 11 press conference the EDF has no intention of jeopardizing St. Louis consumers’ access to heating. The EDF called Spire’s Nov. 4 email “fearmongering,” stating that Spire is “falsely suggesting that utility customers could be left without gas heat this winter due to a ruling by the U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit.”
Spire STL Pipeline representative Jason Merrill said the email was sent out in the name of clear and open public information.
“We hope that the FERC will greenlight a temporary emergency certificate to get us through the rest of the winter, but … there are no guarantees,” he said. “We wanted to be transparent with our customers and let them know this is a possibility if there's not a Spire STL pipeline after Dec. 13. It would not be the right thing to do to communicate that to people on Dec. 13.”
The Spire STL Pipeline brings in gas from the Marcellus Shale in Appalachia and the Rockies. According to Spire, pipelines operating in the St. Louis region before 2019 brought in primarily gas from Texas and the Gulf Coast region.
Spire spokespeople have repeatedly noted when Winter Storm Uri left thousands in Texas without power for days, St. Louis was unaffected because, with the new pipeline, the region is no longer reliant on gas from that area.
“There would have been up to 133,000 homes and businesses that would not have had reliable gas supply because there was not enough gas coming from that region to other places,” Sean Jamieson, general counsel for the Spire STL Pipeline, said. “It would have cost this region up to $300 million to procure that gas.”
The EDF also accused Spire of self-dealing because Spire’s primary supporting documentation to get the pipeline permit was a contract with its own subsidiary, Spire STL Pipeline.
“It feels like a powerless situation”
U.S. Rep. Cori Bush, D-St. Louis, called on the company Nov. 17 to “immediately issue a public correction of the decontextualized Nov. 4 email for all its customers.”
“I am gravely concerned that Spire Inc. may be actively weaponizing the fears of our community members — many of whom are low-income individuals, families with small children and older adults — for their own personal gain and profit,” she wrote. “If Spire Inc. is deliberately provoking widespread fear instead of directing all efforts to preventing service interruptions, that would be tantamount to corporate malpractice.”
Bush also requested the FERC begin a full investigation into the pipeline.
Sarah Watkins, an organizer with the housing rights advocacy group Homes For All, said many of the community members she works with are scared of what a gas shutoff could mean.
“It’s the extortion of more money from us as the pandemic continues. It’s completely unfair that we have to suffer from Spire, a corporate entity, from their wrongdoings,” Watkins said, adding that a Spire customer she spoke with is “really scared … it feels like a powerless situation. She was talking about getting a generator … almost in a state of panic.”
Watkins said this fear comes at a time of consistent utility rate increases across the board, while many renters and homeowners are still reeling from the economic effects of the pandemic. Even though some city and state rental assistance programs can also provide aid for utilities, a utility shutoff could mean that “section eight tenants lose their vouchers.”
St. Louis County Councilwoman Lisa Clancy said people in her district are worried because of the email.
“This is a manufactured crisis,” she said. “Spire needs to take responsibility for their role in this.
Six St. Louis aldermen and two members of the St. Louis County Council submitted a letter to Spire asking for more communication from the company and a rate increase cap on gas costs.
“We are demanding that Spire Missouri issue clarifying information to its customers as soon as possible, in the same manner, and to the extent, they sent the Nov. 4 communication,” they wrote. “Customers deserve to know that there will not be anyone in the St. Louis region who goes without heat this winter because of the ongoing regulatory proceedings.