Southwest Gas and a front group backed by allies of the gas utility are funding an effort to oust Democratic Assemblywoman Lesley Cohen. Last year, Cohen introduced legislation that would have set Nevada on a course to transition away from fossil gas in residential and commercial buildings and required Southwest Gas to demonstrate that future spending on gas infrastructure is compatible with the state’s long-term climate plans. Southwest Gas organized a coalition that included home builder associations and the Retail Association of Nevada to defeat the legislation. Over a year later, some of those involved now are supporting efforts to defeat Cohen in her June 14 primary.

Southwest Gas Corporation – one of the largest gas utilities in the nation, serving more than 2 million customers in Nevada, Arizona and California – contributed $10,000 to Cohen’s Democratic opponent, Joe Dalia, in March 2022. The contribution is the largest the utility has given to an individual’s campaign during this year’s election cycle, according to an EPI analysis of campaign finance reports. It is one of just a few contributions Southwest Gas has made to a candidate seeking to unseat an incumbent in the state legislature. 

Around the same time as Southwest Gas’ contribution, residents of Cohen’s district in Clark County began receiving political mailers smearing Cohen and demanding that she return “dirty money” from fossil fuel and energy companies. The mailers were paid for by Nevadans for Economic Opportunity (NEO), a 501(c)(4) “pro-growth, public policy” coalition whose website claims it has financial support from the Retail Association of Nevada (RAN), Associated Builders and Contractors of Nevada, Nevada Trucking Association, and Nevada Franchised Auto Dealers Association. Campaign finance reports detail that political action committees of the Associated Builders and Contractors of Nevada (ABC Nevada Chapter PAC) and the Nevada Homebuilders Association (NVHBA PAC) have contributed a total of $60,000 NEO. Additionally, RAN President and CEO Mary Lau is the Secretary and Treasurer of NEO. The address of RAN is also the same one for NEO in the state’s campaign finance disclosure database. 

Mailers provided to EPI feature NEO highlighting campaign contributions Cohen has received from specific industries, including $14,500 from fossil fuel and energy companies.  Ironically, NEO utilized this message as a smear tactic with a legislator who introduced strong climate legislation last year while its financial supporters helped defeat the bill. While Cohen has received campaign donations from the electric utility NV Energy, including a $1,500 contribution in March, it is unclear what companies NEO included as part of their analysis. 

One of the groups behind NEO is also directly funding Cohen’s challenger. RAN is Dalia’s second-largest contributor to date, giving a $2,400 monetary contribution and $2,600 in-kind contribution. The in-kind contribution was for a “Voter Data Services Subscription,” and it is the only occurrence of an in-kind contribution in the last three campaign cycles made by RAN. RAN’s April 2022 newsletter also announced that the group endorsed Dalia – one of two Democrats RAN endorsed compared to 10 Republicans. In October 2020, the Associated Builders and Contractors of Nevada, RAN, and the Nevada Trucking Association endorsed Donald Trump.

Southwest Gas quashes Cohen’s 2021 climate bill for stricter fossil gas planning

During Nevada’s 2021 legislative session, Cohen published an opinion piece in The Nevada Independent arguing for a transition away from fossil gas use in order to save ratepayers money and protect public health. Simultaneously, the Assemblywoman introduced AB380, legislation that would require gas utilities to employ a more rigorous planning process before expanding infrastructure. The legislation would have also aligned the state’s regulation of gas utilities with Governor Sisolak’s Climate Strategy, a climate planning document to get Nevada on the path towards achieving net-zero greenhouse gas emissions by 2050. 

Cohen’s actions came in the wake of a public release of a letter addressed to Governor Sisolak about the Climate Strategy signed by two mayors, six chambers of commerce, 17 trade groups, and two unions (IBEW Local 1245 has since announced it was mistakenly included). The letter was drafted and the signatories were organized by Southwest Gas, according to emails obtained by the Climate Investigations Center. The letter touted the benefits of fossil gas and advocated for its continued use and expansion, despite mounting evidence regarding risks of gas stoves to public health and the fact that methane – the primary component of fossil gas – has a climate warming potential that is 84 to 87 times greater than carbon dioxide over a 20-year period 

To combat AB380, Southwest Gas doubled its lobbying team, increased campaign contributions, and built a coalition of affiliated interest groups, which then deployed their own media strategies. This included the creation of a now-disbanded front group, Coalition for Cleaner Affordable Energy. The group sponsored Facebook content to “Stop AB380.” One of the videoes featured RAN’s Senior Vice President, Bryan Wachter, framing the climate bill as a fossil gas appliance ban. The bill legislation failed a few weeks after its introduction.

When asked by EPI if Southwest Gas contributes membership dues to any of NEO’s public financial backers, its representative responded “currently none.” Further, the SWG representative verified contributions given to Dalia’s campaign through shareholder dollars and provided the company’s political giving policy. In its policy, SWG explicitly states it “supports individuals who have best demonstrated a willingness to advance sustainable energy policies.” 

EPI research of Southwest Gas contributions in Nevada shows that the utility has already spent more this election cycle than in either of the two prior cycles.

Posted by Keriann Conroy


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