The oil industry is trying to crush the booming electric car movement.
Groups backed by industry giants like Exxon Mobil and the Koch empire are waging a state-by-state, multimillion-dollar battle to squelch utilities’ plans to build charging stations across the country. Environmentalists call the fight a reprise of the “Who Killed the Electric Car?” battles that doomed an earlier generation of battery-driven vehicles in the 1990s.
Oil-backed groups have challenged electric companies’ plans in 10 states, according to utility commission filings reviewed by POLITICO, waging regulatory and lobbying campaigns against the proposals. The showdown is taking place as utilities, eager to increase the demand for power, push for approval to build charging networks in locations such as shopping centers and rest stops in more than half the nation.
“Fossil fuel interests control 90 percent of the transportation fuel market in the U.S. and are really feeling threatened,” said Gina Coplon-Newfield, director of the electric vehicle initiative at the Sierra Club.
The counterattack involves an array of trade associations and industry-funded political groups representing every segment of the petroleum sector.
In the Midwest, the American Fuel and Petrochemical Manufacturers, a trade group for gasoline makers, has filed comments against charging plans in Kansas and Missouri, and has opposed Colorado’s new zero-emission vehicle mandate as part of a “Freedom to Drive” coalition of auto dealers and oil groups. The typical consumer, they say, should not have to pay for incentives or charging stations that mainly benefit people wealthy enough to afford cars like Teslas.
“We feel like we’re on the side of the angels here in terms of wanting this to be a free market and not wanting people who don’t use the service to have to pay for service,” said Derrick Morgan, senior vice president at the fuel and petrochemicals group.
In Illinois and Iowa, the American Petroleum Institute joined with Americans for Prosperity — a political group funded by the Koch oil empire — to oppose utilities’ electric vehicle investments. The owner of a large refinery joined other industrial interests to oppose utility charging and shared mobility plans in Minnesota.
In Massachusetts, API teamed with gasoline marketers and convenience stores to oppose an electric vehicle charging buildout from the utility National Grid. The Western States Petroleum Association has opposed utility charging plans in Arizona alongside AFP, as well as electric vehicle legislation in California. And in Maryland, API aligned with convenience stores, gasoline stations and truck-stop owners to oppose utilities’ electric vehicle plans.
Oil groups are far from alone in critiquing the utility charging proposals. Consumer advocates and some independent charging firms argue that utilities, which operate as monopolies, are using electric vehicle infrastructure to pad their balance sheets because their captive customers will have to pay for the investments.
Utilities say the upfront cost of charging stations is minimal for ratepayers, and that customers’ bills may actually drop as electric vehicle adoption grows because the cost of power grid infrastructure will be spread over a larger base of power demand. In Maryland, four utilities proposed building 24,000 chargers last year at an estimated cost of 25 to 42 cents per ratepayer per month. The proposal from three Exelon utilities and one owned by FirstEnergy would have been the largest utility plan outside California, with power companies installing chargers in homes and apartment buildings and at workplaces and public locations like grocery stores or rest stops.
So far, the oil sector hasn’t seen much success combating utility plans. Though the American Fuel and Petrochemical Manufacturers celebrated a Kansas utility’s decision to withdraw a charging plan last year, analysts say that in most cases where regulators scale back utility plans, they aren’t doing it in response to the oil industry’s pleas.
“So far, the main consequence [of oil lobbying] I’ve seen has been some delays, but I think the fight is ongoing,” said Samantha Houston, a clean vehicles analyst at the Union of Concerned Scientists. “I wouldn’t attribute modifications to electric vehicle programs to API, but they are certainly making a good attempt to muddy the waters in their interventions.”
In Maryland, regulators scaled back the utility proposal, allowing them to build only 5,000 chargers at public sites over the next few years. But the state’s head regulator said the decision largely hinged on competition and price concerns, and that the oil industry’s arguments were underdeveloped.
“I personally did not find those arguments to be compelling,” said Maryland Public Service Commission Chairman Jason Stanek. “There is obviously a push toward the electrification of transportation and [these are] parochial concerns pushed by the petroleum industry to preserve its market share.”
Even so, Stanek, Houston and others expect oil companies to keep up the fight as the threat of electric vehicles grows.
“I think the struggle here will probably continue for a while,” Houston said. “Internal combustion engines still have a pretty significant market share and the oil and gas industry doesn’t want to see that go anywhere.”