The giant private gas utility Spire Energy is using what I believe are misleading statements and fear-mongering to bilk more money out of us. In an email that customers received on Nov. 4, Spire painted a picture of impending winter disaster. The email claimed that a lawsuit by New York environmentalists threatened to shut down the STL Pipeline that supplies gas to the region. Using words like “critical” and “emergency,” Spire President Scott Carter claims that there might be gas outages this winter, with “no guarantees [the pipeline] will operate beyond Dec. 13.”
For people unfamiliar with the history of the STL Pipeline, the email must sound terrifying indeed.
What Carter does not tell the customers is the truth: The STL Pipeline — which comes from Illinois, and was only just built two years ago — was never needed. Natural gas is abundant in the United States. Americans have so much gas we are exporting it to Mexico and elsewhere. St. Louis has always had access to plenty of gas. And demand for natural gas in the St. Louis region has been basically flat for more than 20 years. There is no energy crisis. Spire did not need a new pipeline, and we did not need more gas.
But what Spire wanted was a way to make more profit. Private utilities — including Ameren as well — can only make more profit off of consumers by building new things like pipelines or transmission lines. Then they can pass on those costs to the public while getting a profitable return for private investors. The problem is that, a lot of times, the public doesn’t really need this new infrastructure. It is simply a way to justify raising rates and sending more money back to Wall Street.
That’s what is happening with the STL Pipeline. Spire put out a call for companies to build a new pipeline, but nobody bid. At the time, demand was flat. So Spire arranged an underhanded, inside deal. It basically conspired to hire itself to build the pipeline.
During the Trump administration, the national regulatory agency that approves interstate pipelines — the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission — gave its approval to the deal. This was despite the fact that, by law, the utility must show a market need for new infrastructure. Now we know that the approval circumvented the rules. So the Environmental Defense Fund, which represents Illinois landowners whose property was seized by Spire for the pipeline, sued. Eventually the courts agreed and the approval was revoked. Nonetheless, as the case wound its way through the system, Spire had pushed ahead and built the thing anyway. Now it is a huge steel snake underground — unnecessary, expensive and of dubious legality.
And yet Spire wants us to pay for it anyway. Using misleading statements and a pliable media, Spire is stirring up fear of a cold winter for vulnerable St. Louisans. Carter and his attorneys are trying to prepare us to accept higher rates and then to pass the blame on to the government. It is dishonest, and we are going to have to pay for it.
What St. Louis and Missouri need is to get off of global warming fossil fuels like coal and gas. We need to electrify energy systems through a rapid transition to wind and solar. We need to reduce gas consumption by electrifying household systems and forcing Ameren to rapidly shift to renewable energy. While we are at it, I believe we need to take true public control over these utilities. The commissioners who regulate them are too cozy with them to exercise independent regulatory oversight.
All of that means there’s a lot of work to do. It won’t be easy. But the one thing that is easy to see is that we did not need a new pipeline. So Spire is misleading the public. They are certainly going to gouge us this winter and raise our rates. It won’t be because of Biden, the environmentalists or the government. It will be because Spire built a giant pipeline that we did not need, and now somebody has to pay for it. And guess who that somebody is.
Bret Gustafson is a professor of anthropology at Washington University in St. Louis. He researches the politics of energy.