As the 2020 legislative session closed, the National Propane Gas Association (NPGA) announced several goals for the propane industry were achieved with the passage of the $1.4 trillion legislative package. Michael Baker, NPGA’s senior director of legislative affairs, said, “Congress wrapped several beneficial provisions for the propane industry into the large package.”
The year-end legislative package contained research and development funding opportunities through the Department of Energy, including $5 million for vehicle engine technology and the use of dimethyl ether (DME) as well as extensions of the Alternative Fuel Tax Credit and the Alternative Fuel Refueling Infrastructure Credit through the end of 2021.
At the time, Baker said COVID-19 had mandated a shift in lobbying techniques and strategies in 2020. “We’re not lobbying in person anymore, but there have been other effective ways to communicate our wishes to Congress,” Baker said. “The NPGA’s focus has been on transitioning to virtual meetings with legislators and their staff and continuing to work closely with propane industry coalitions. Despite the challenges of the COVID-19 pandemic, NPGA was still able to accomplish its goals.”
“During the last several weeks of the year, NPGA helped lead a small industry coalition to meet with tax-writing committee legislators and sent a letter to Congress with signatures from over 400 organizations, a majority of which are propane associations and companies,” he continued. “These efforts helped secure extensions for the alternative fuel credits. These tax provisions provide certainty to the propane industry and its customers and help transition more Americans to autogas vehicles.”
New Challenges for State Lobbyists During COVID-19
The NPGA team was not the only industry lobbyist who has had to navigate new, choppier waters during the COVID-19 pandemic; most Propane State Associations have encountered similar challenges as they work to encourage legislative action for their members.
“As a lobbying firm, we are still able to meet with our elected officials here in Michigan,” said Derek Dalling, executive director of the Michigan and Ohio Propane Gas Associations. “What has been impacted is that all meetings now have to be scheduled in advance. There is no ability for us to gather in the halls and lobbies outside of session. Before COVID-19, we often found a lot of success building friendships in the lobby as legislators chatted with us in between votes.”
Dalling noted other challenges in both Ohio and Michigan as large groups have been prevented from meeting. “For lobbying, this means that Michigan Propane Safety Awareness Day and the Ohio Day at the Statehouse have been canceled and/or postponed. Both events are large grassroot lobbying events where members come to the capitol to help discuss the industry, show off propane vehicles and other propane appliances and discuss the importance of grill safety while cooking lunches on propane grills.”
“When you are relying on texts, calls and emails, it is very easy for them to ignore you, so you have to be even more persistent,” said Steve McClain, director of communications and public affairs for the Kentucky Retail Federation. “There have been some meetings, but very sporadic. We did increase our letter-writing and memos to get our message to legislators, relying on old-fashioned “pen and paper” efforts. In some respects, lawmakers may have had more time to read the letters and information sent to them because they didn’t have as many meetings.”
Shelby Bell, executive director of the Pennsylvania Propane Gas Association, said, “As legislator fundraisers have continued, many in person, we have been able to continue contact that way as well, although we try not to mix legislative conversations with fundraising. It has certainly affected the environment in Harrisburg in general. With the recent reopening of the Capitol to the public, we are able to have more in-person meetings, however the legislators and their staffs are still not fully in the office as they were pre-pandemic.”
She noted it has also been hard to meet with other government employees as many are working at home.
“One legislator reported getting over 200 emails from constituents asking for follow-up meetings in one day,” said Leslie Anderson, president and chief executive officer (CEO) of the Propane Gas Association of New England (PGANE). “Getting ahold of new legislators on committees is very difficult as we don’t have their personal contact information. Besides the lack of physical lobbying, the hardest challenge has been technical. Some of the committee chairs have made mistakes operating their zoom meetings. Having a clerk operating the zoom technology works better, but several states have the chair running the zoom, and I have twice been skipped mistakenly by the committee chair. Once they got off track and skipped over me on a list, and once they didn’t see my hand up. Unfortunately, there is no way to let them know when this happens.”
Anderson also noted that technology problems have stood in the way of communications. “No matter how many emails you send, propane marketers are not lobbyists and are not familiar with the hoops they have to navigate to testify, which is another complication,” she said. “Then there is the excitement of getting your members online in the right committee with their own unique link to be in the queue to testify. It was a lot easier to tell members to show up at the statehouse. All you had to do was tell them where to try to park. Association heads and lobbyists have had to become IT assistants in addition to everything else we do.”
“We are using a new tool to send letters to our legislators,” said Deb Grooms, president and CEO of the Iowa Propane Gas Association. “We use NPGA’s CQ Engage online grassroots tool to send letters to our legislators. It is AWESOME! Lesley Garland has been very helpful with getting the letters we need out to our members.”
According to Barry Aarons, Arizona’s executive director, improvisation is key. “Obviously, we still have work to do, hearings to testify before and legislators we need to visit with on whatever basis they will allow. I can’t say that we lost legislation or have been unsuccessful due to the pandemic. We have had to improvise,” he said.
Success Stories in the Legislatures During COVID-19
“Our 2020 legislative session was wrapping up just as COVID-19 was starting to become a major issue in March last year,” said Dawna Leitzke, executive director of the South Dakota Petroleum & Propane Marketers Association. “Our state never closed down. During the 2021 session, only two lobbyists got COVID-19, and both cases were not serious.”
She noted that more legislators, many of whom did not wear masks, got COVID-19. “In the Senate, masks were required on the Senate floor but in the House of Representatives, masks were only recommended. We originally thought we could watch a lot of the session virtually to avoid unnecessary contact with others.” As it turned out, Leitzke and her team felt it was important to be engaged with lawmakers at the Capitol. “We needed to be there. I felt it would be OK if I wore my mask diligently and practiced social distancing.” Leitzke met regularly on the floor with a House member helping with her legislation. Both wore masks regularly, and despite almost every legislator with desks around the House member getting sick with COVID-19, she and the House member stayed well.
In North Dakota, the Petroleum & Propane Association’s Executive Director Mike Rud said the legislature was very fortunate to only have a few COVID-19 cases. “Senate Bill 2065 was our hallmark piece of legislation this year,” he said. “The bill approved grants to experiment to see if three salt caverns in Western North Dakota can safely store natural gas and propane. Initial studies look very positive. If we are able to use these salt caverns long term, storage of 2.2 MMbblds of propane and cost-effective delivery within North Dakota and surrounding states could really alleviate some supply constraints here. This could really end the need for a lot of long hauls for our members.”
“North Carolina’s governor may be signing House Bill 220 into law soon, which is ‘Assuring Choice of Service’ legislation,” said the state association’s President and Chief Executive Officer (CEO) John Jessup. “So far, it has passed the House and is in the Senate committees. This is good progress, as last year was a complete washout as far as visiting legislators and holding our annual Legislative Day at the Raleigh Legislative Building.”
Florida Propane Gas Association’s Executive Vice President Dale Calhoun said Florida’s Legislature has been more open to making sure that everyone has access to energy, and this has helped shepherd along their energy choice legislation.
“We were successful in New Mexico in quashing a bill that would have enabled cap and trade on fossil fuels and to modify another bill to include industry participation on a board that will be looking to establish sustainable energy,” said Colorado and New Mexico’s Executive Director Dan Binning. “We have been successful in Colorado in keeping propane from being named in legislation that requires natural gas utilities to ‘offset’ greenhouse gas emissions from production, transportation and use. The Colorado session still has two months to run [as of April 7, 2021] so we need to stay vigilant.”
Binning also said that despite losing in their effort to introduce a “Ban the Ban” bill in Colorado, the effort allowed his team to gain insight on how various committee members think.
Pennsylvania's Bell said that in February 2021, the association’s board directed the Governmental Affairs Committee executive director and their lobbyist to pursue the possibility of introducing “Ban the Ban” legislation.
“The very next day, a senator introduced a bill on this topic. Our lobbyist was able to have the senator’s chief of staff ‘attend’ our virtual membership meeting to discuss the bill, and other legislation before the Senate Environmental Resource & Energy Committee that he serves on as executive director,” Bell said.
Kentucky Propane Gas Association’s (KPGA) Director of Communications and Public Affairs Steve McClain said, “Kentucky joins the relatively few states that have passed a ‘Ban the Ban’ bill. The government affairs team was able to secure a change in the Senate to include propane as a protected energy source, and the bill became law without the governor’s signature.” He noted that in seeking the change, the KPGA was careful to ensure that propane was not incorporated anywhere under the jurisdiction of the Public Service Commission. “This measure would also prohibit local governments from banning the use of any energy sources, including propane, except for zoning and planning purposes. KPGA also joined with other groups in getting a COVID-19 liability protection bill passed, but we are currently waiting to see if the governor will veto or sign the bill,” McClain said.
“We have been able to form alliances with others with similar goals during the session,” said Dave Wager, executive director of the Minnesota Propane Gas Association. “It is actually easier and more efficient to meet with multiple people and facilitate working together on key issues. We have been able to coordinate and use our combined resources more effectively. Also, during online testimonials and meetings, it sometimes helps to facilitate listening. People have become accustomed to using mute and not interrupting as much.”
“There is an advantage to zoom,” said Anderson. “As a regional association, zoom meetings have given me more of an opportunity to testify than I normally have. ... It is easier to monitor multiple zoom hearings at the same time and predict when your time will be for testifying. As a result, I have found myself testifying on more bills this session than I normally would. … In this way, it has been an educational opportunity to educate our policy makers and we have had multiple successes tabling bills related to energy sitting, railcar storage, zero emission vehicles and energy battery storage.”
Anderson said the increased opportunities to testify have given her a chance to determine which pro-propane arguments are influencing policymakers. “The top two arguments that I have found to resonate the most in New England this year are about propane’s role in energy security and diversity, especially following the events in Texas and the importance of propane’s role in environmental justice and equity.”
“Educating legislators about the role propane plays globally to reduce emissions, improve gender equality, and provide affordable energy to local environmental justice zones has been a powerful story,” she said. “In particular, the argument that we should not create environmental injustices through the mining of rare earth metals in areas of the globe where the most vulnerable of all disadvantaged communities exist, just to reduce emissions in one U.S. state, has resonated and helped to table numerous bills this session. Propane’s role as an alternative solution to battery storage is one that we should be screaming from the mountaintops.”