“Please tidy this letter up and print on Mayor letterhead”: Williams Companies Inc. and TC Energy Corporation provided ghostwritten letters to local elected leaders to boost political support for natural gas infrastructure projects. (Photo: Illustration: HuffPost; Photo: Getty Images)
For the past several months, local officials in Virginia and North Carolina, primarily elected Republicans, have been peppering federal regulators with glowing letters in support of gas projects in their states. Internal emails reviewed by HuffPost show that these letters all had something in common: They were ghostwritten by lobbyists and consultants of the two major pipeline firms behind those projects.
The communications show how Williams Companies Inc. and TC Energy Corporation worked to boost political support for a number of natural gas infrastructure projects currently under federal review to fill a void left behind by Dominion Energy and Duke Energy’s canceled Atlantic Coast Pipeline.
Industry watchdog group Energy and Policy Institute obtained the documents through a series of public records requests that it and others filed. It shared them exclusively with HuffPost.
Meanwhile, the United Nations’ Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, the world’s premier climate research body, has released its latest sobering reports on global warming. The most recent analysis, published in early April, warns that global greenhouse gas emissions must peak no later than 2025, then be slashed nearly in half by 2030 in order to stave off the worst effects of climate change.
On Jan. 10, Robert Crockett, the president of Advantus Strategies and a lobbyist for the Oklahoma-based Williams Companies, emailed Wayne Carter, the administrator of Mecklenburg County, Virginia, a draft letter of support for Williams’ Southside Reliability Enhancement Project. The proposed expansion of the company’s existing Transco natural gas pipeline would allow for more natural gas to be transported into North Carolina. The project includes the construction of a new, electric compressor station in Mecklenburg County.
“Attached is a draft letter expressing support to the Williams project that we have reviewed with you and your board previously,” Crockett wrote. “Please feel free to modify.”
Carter put his signature on the letter and sent it back to Crockett a couple of hours later with only minor tweaks.
“Thank you Wayne!” Jay McChesney, a community and project outreach specialist at Williams, responded. “If you wouldn’t mind putting this in the mail and sending to FERC [the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission] that would be much appreciated…Thank you again for your support of our project.”
The letter, which Carter submitted to the regulatory agency later that day on behalf of the county board of supervisors, notes that the project “will be done in a manner that is protective of the environment while providing much-needed benefits to our rural county” and applauds Williams for being “transparent and forthright as an existing corporate citizen in the state.”
“We strongly encourage the FERC to approve this proposed project,” the letter reads.
At least three Republican state legislators — state Sen. Frank Ruff and state Delegates Tommy Wright Jr. and Les Adams — submitted letters to FERC that contain language identical to or closely mirroring the language in Carter’s letter, indicating the extent to which the company worked behind the scenes.
Ruff and Wright also submitted nearly identical letters to FERC in March in support of Williams’ separate Commonwealth Energy Connector Project, another Transco expansion aimed at increasing natural gas supply to southeastern Virginia.
The Transco pipeline runs more than 10,000 miles from Texas to New York, transporting approximately 15% of the nation’s natural gas, according to the company’s website.
Neither Carter nor 10 elected Republican officialswho wrote to FERC to throw their support behind the gas projects responded to HuffPost’s request for comment.
Ruff did address HuffPost’s specific questions but said via email that “Williams has been a good corporate citizen that has been involved in the region for over fifty years.”
“They serve businesses that hire my constituents,” Ruff said. “If I did not agree with their value to the region, I would not have endorsed their efforts. I believe others would agree with that.”
Williams Companies did not respond.
Two Transco pipelines used for transporting natural gas at the edge of a cornfield in Lebanon, Pennsylvania, in 2017. (Photo: Robert Nickelsberg via Getty Images)
Around the same time Williams was pulling political strings in Virginia, Wayne King, a lobbyist and former vice chairman of the North Carolina Republican Party, was working to boost support for the project in the Tar Heel State. In January, King’s emails to the offices of two Republicans, North Carolina House Speaker Tim Moore and Mooresville Mayor Miles Atkins, emphasized the need for stakeholders to weigh in.
“For your convenience, I’ve attached a number of talking points,” King wrote in one exchange.
Several of those talking points are included verbatim in the letters Moore and Atkins submitted to FERC, including how Williams is “a responsible corporate citizen, environmental steward, and reliable service provider” and how the project will “stimulate economic development in eastern North Carolina by providing increased access to clean, reliable, and affordable natural gas.”
North Carolina Republican state Sen. Bob Steinburg’s letter to federal regulators also features some of the company’s talking points, including a statement about Williams demonstrating its “commitment to environmental stewardship.”
Columbia Gas Transmission, a wholly owned subsidiary of TC Energy, took similar action to garner support for two related projects it is pursuing in Virginia: the Virginia Reliability Project and Virginia Electrification Project. The projects would replace approximately 50 miles of existing pipeline near Petersburg and upgrade compressor stations in the system to boost natural gas capacity in Virginia’s Hampton Roads region.
Emails show TC Energy distributed model letters that the Republican mayors of Virginia Beach and Chesapeake submitted in support of the company’s Virginia Reliability Project.
“Thank you so much for taking the time to speak with Aaron Thompson and me regarding TC Energy’s Virginia Reliability Project,” Esmel Meeks, a consultant for TC Energy, wrote to Virginia Beach Mayor Robert Dyer in late February. (Thompson is a government and community relations adviser at TC Energy).
“We appreciate your willingness to draft a letter of support to FERC and I am writing to follow up. We are in the process of submitting letters and I have attached a draft letter for your review.”
The letter that Dyer submitted to FERC three days later is a carbon copy of the draft that Meeks provided and that was released as part of a public records request.
Climate activist groups protest the Atlantic Coast Pipeline in front of the Supreme Court in February 2020. Duke Energy Corp. and Dominion Energy Inc., the companies behind the controversial project, canceled it later that year “due to ongoing delays and increasing cost uncertainty.” (Photo: Mark Wilson/Getty Images)
Earlier that same month, Meeks provided a similar draft letter to the office of Chesapeake Mayor Rick West. Sandy Madison, one of the city’s deputy clerks, promptly informed Meeks that she’d printed the letter for the mayor to sign. “Please tidy this letter up and print on Mayor letterhead,” Madison later wrote to a colleague.
West’s letter applauding the project and the company was submitted to FERC on Feb. 8.
“Please know that the people and communities who would be most impacted by VRP are enthusiastic about its benefits,” it reads. “As mayor, I am proud to support it.”
Lynn Godfrey, community outreach coordinator for the Virginia chapter of the Sierra Club, said the communications “tell you the whole story” about industry political influence in the Commonwealth. A native of Hampton Roads, she took particular issue with West’s assertion that the “most impacted” communities are in favor. Many communities are only just learning about the projects, she said.
“These pipelines are coming through communities that are already cumulatively impacted by all types of pollutants,” she said. “People don’t want this poison in their neighborhood.”
TC Energy did not respond to HuffPost’s questions about its role in the letter-writing. Instead, it said the project will help meet the growing economic needs of the Hampton Roads area.
“Local officials, community leaders, businesses, and citizens in the area recognize this project meets their needs and is important for the future of the region, and that is why a broad bipartisan spectrum enthusiastically support the Virginia Reliability Project,” the company said in an emailed statement.
In its application for Virginia Reliability Project, TC Energy said the project would help Virginia Natural Gas, a distribution company, meet growing gas demand not only from residents and businesses but more than a dozen military installations and the shipbuilding industry. Virginia Natural Gas is a subsidiary of Southern Company Gas, one of the original partners in the defunct Atlantic Coast Pipeline. The planned pipeline would have stretched 600 miles through West Virginia, Virginia and North Carolina and was met with fierce opposition from Indigenous and other local communities.
In addition to the internal communications, a HuffPost review of the FERC docket found that four Republican state legislators in Virginia — Delegates Emily Brewer and John McGuire III and Sens. Bryce Reeves and Mark Peake — had submitted nearly identical letters in support of TC Energy’s Virginia Electrification Project.
The project “will produce environmental benefits as it lowers emissions through the electrification of equipment, all while enhancing capacity,” they wrote.
HuffPost is unable to confirm what role, if any, TC Energy played in crafting those letters; however, they are part of a clear trend.
Godfrey said that if there is a need for more energy in the Hampton Roads area, it should be satisfied by renewables rather than gas projects that won’t come online for another 2-3 years.
“The opposition is mounting,” she said. “All of these things are converging for another big fight.”
This article originally appeared on HuffPost and has been updated.