Natural Gas Industry Is Behind Restaurant Group’s Challenge to Berkeley Gas Ban, Environmentalists Say

The California Restaurant Association last month sued Berkeley over its natural gas ban, arguing the measure violates state law and will hurt the city's restaurants. (Matthew Green/KQED)

Environmental groups say the oil and gas industry is behind the California Restaurant Association’s lawsuit challenging Berkeley’s ban on natural gas pipes in new construction.

The Natural Resources Defense Council, Earthjustice and other groups contend that the gas industry has partnered with the restaurant association and other trade groups in a surreptitious campaign to block such bans and discourage other cities from pursuing similar electrification efforts.

“We think it’s clearly intended to thwart the movement’s momentum,” said Pierre Delforge, a scientist with the NRDC’s Climate and Clean Energy Program. “It’s very likely the lawsuit is intended to send a chill and scare city councils into not adopting or delaying these decisions. It’s part of their calculus.”

In July, the Berkeley City Council unanimously approved the first-in-the-nation legislation to ban natural gas pipes in most new residential and commercial construction, starting in 2020, as a means of achieving greenhouse gas reduction goals. The measure was hailed by environmentalists, who say scaling back use of the planet-warming fossil fuel is essential in the fight against climate change. Since then, more than a dozen other cities in California, including San Jose, have passed similar measures to scrap gas.

The suit, filed in late November by the restaurant trade group, “copy-and-pastes” misleading talking points from the oil and gas industry’s public relations playbook, Delforge argues, while resorting to scare tactics to bolster its claims, including warnings of power shutoffs and price spikes.

“The restaurant association is aligning itself with fossil fuel interests in a way that may not be in the interest of its members,” he added.

Environmentalists also note that the gas industry has consistently, if modestly, contributed to the restaurant association (CRA): Since 2016, Southern California Gas Company and San Diego Gas and Electric, both subsidiaries of Sempra Energy, a Los Angeles-based company with major gas holdings in the U.S. and Mexico, have collectively given the group more than $142,000 in charitable contributions and membership dues, according to California Public Utilities Commission records.

“I’d be surprised if this [lawsuit] wasn’t funded by the gas industry,” said Earthjustice staff attorney Matt Vespa. “It’s not cheap to file this.”

CRA declined to say how the suit was being funded. “We do not provide information about our members or their financial commitments to our various advocacy efforts, including this lawsuit,” said CRA spokeswoman Sharokina Shams in an email. “The funding for the lawsuit is not part of the case or the issues involved.”

CRA President and CEO Jot Condie was quick to dismiss any allegations of his group being tethered to the gas industry.

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“Suggesting that the restaurant industry has ‘ties’ to the natural gas industry is like saying restaurants have ties to knife manufacturers. Both of these things are essential to restaurant operations today,” he said in a statement. “If a local government tried to ban cutting tools in restaurant kitchens, we would take issue with that, too. Critics of the legal action we took appear to be looking for monsters under the bed — perhaps because they’re unable to dispute the actual substance of the claim — the serious impact to restaurants from a ban on a critical energy source, not to mention, a flagrant violation of law.”

Vespa, though, argues that such claims are “disingenuous,” as the city’s ban will not impact any restaurants operating in existing buildings, and apply only to the tiny percentage of restaurants that move into future sites.

In the suit, filed last month in U.S. District Court for Northern California, CRA argues that Berkeley bypassed state and federal energy regulations when it approved the natural gas ban. The group, which represents some 22,000 restaurants throughout California, argues that forcing restaurants to switch to electric cooking sources will significantly increase costs and fundamentally alter the cooking process. Most chefs depend on natural gas “for cooking particular types of food, whether it be flame-seared meats, charred vegetables, or the use of intense heat from a flame under a wok,” according to the suit.

In addition, Berkeley and other cities that have followed its lead clearly bypassed state energy code regulations, said Courtland Reichman, managing partner of Reichman Jorgensen LLP, which is representing CRA.

"I don't think a lot of facts are in dispute,” Reichman said. “They know this doesn't comply with state law. … It's about the principle of the matter and how it affects other cities across California and perhaps the country."

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Claiming that CRA is acting on behalf of the gas industry, Reichman added, is “like saying the environmental groups are acting as a front for the electric companies.”

Reichman’s firm has also represented Sempra Energy but “they are not my major clients,” he said, and the firm is not currently involved in any pending litigation with them.

In response, Berkeley City Attorney Farimah Faiz Brown said the city is confident the measure complies with the law, and is prepared to “vigorously” defend it in court.

Delforge from NRDC said this suit, like other fights waged against local gas restrictions, clearly indicates the threat that electrification efforts pose to the natural gas industry. He notes how industry groups like the Western States Petroleum Association have recently underscored the urgency of the issue, urging energy companies to find creative ways to engage with the public and form alliances with diverse groups.

At a gas industry conference in August, covered by S&P Global, Western States Petroleum Association President Catherine Reheis-Boyd said, "Wow. Can you imagine if every local municipality takes up this issue? It's death by a 1,000 cuts."

In another address to gas industry leaders the following month, documented in the same publication, Reheis-Boyd stressed the importance of building coalitions across industries. She credited coordinated opposition from the Los Angeles restaurant industry and other allies in helping to defeat a 2017 CPUC proposal ordering Southern California Gas Company to temporarily halt service to commercial and industrial connections in parts of Los Angeles County.

Given the industry’s vigilance, Delforge said, the CRA suit against Berkeley is hardly surprising.

“Whether it’s through CRA or through some other group, we do expect to have this kind of challenge,” he said. “It seems to be only way the fossil fuel industry thinks they can stop this.”

Even though Berkeley’s gas ban won’t affect the vast majority of restaurants in the city, any suggestion of not being able to cook with natural gas raises concerns for many professional chefs.

“For home cooking, it doesn’t matter. For restaurants, it’s going to be a problem because you need to cook really fast,” said Olivier Said, who co-owns Kitchen on Fire, a cooking school in North Berkeley. “You’re going to have to retrain everybody. It’s going to be a very different concept for cooking. … Also, it’s way more expensive.”

There’s something “very primal” about cooking with fire, Said added, joking that if he switched to electric, he’d have to rename his business.

“It’d be ‘Kitchen Without Fire.’ ”

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