Under pressure from regulators and elected officials, Spire tones down pipeline messaging

Staff of the Missouri Public Service Commission said it appeared Spire was trying to ‘mobilize public opinion through fear’

By: - December 3, 2021 8:00 am

Spire Missouri President Scott Carter discusses the fate of the Spire STL Pipeline at a press conference in November 2021. The Missouri Public Service Commission criticized Spire for its messaging about risks to natural gas service if it were forced to shutter the Spire STL Pipeline. (Screenshot via Facebook).

Under pressure from Missouri regulators, and with assurances from federal regulators that certainty would come soon, Spire Missouri ratcheted down its campaign warning St. Louis area customers they could experience outages this winter. 

Spire was widely criticized by state and federal regulators and environmental groups when it sent an email to St. Louis area customers warning of dire consequences if the Spire STL Pipeline shuts down. The pipeline, an affiliate of Spire Missouri, supplies natural gas to the utility’s customers in St. Louis and is awaiting authorization from the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission to keep operating through the winter. 

Without that authorization, the pipeline doesn’t have permission to operate after Dec. 13. 

Environmental advocates and local officials in St. Louis called Spire’s warnings of potential outages fear mongering and a “manufactured crisis,” and U.S. Rep. Cori Bush said her constituents were frightened they could lose heat and freeze this winter. 

“Their priority should be doing what they can to provide quality service….and that quality service looks like not self dealing and not causing panic to the very people that keep your company afloat,” said Bush, who also expressed alarm at the substantial hike Spire customers will see on their bills because of higher-than-normal natural gas prices in the aftermath of the February deep freeze.

Staff of the Missouri Public Service Commission said Spire’s November email appeared an attempt “to mobilize public opinion, through fear” to pressure federal regulators. The commission ordered Spire to turn over copies of communications with its customers and draft a new notice to customers that PSC staff would approve. 

That notice went out Wednesday. 

“Although we still lack the certainty of an official approval for continued operation of the Spire STL Pipeline for the full winter heating season, we’re encouraged by the FERC Commissioners’ statements committing to act before the current approval expires on Dec. 13,” Spire said. “Based on these impressions, the Spire STL Pipeline seems poised to receive approval from the FERC to operate throughout this winter.”

That email struck a more measured tone from Spire’s initial note to customers in early November. 

“We want to keep you informed and prepared for potential natural gas disruptions — and outages — this winter if the pipeline is not kept in service,” the Nov. 4 email said, blaming a “New York-based environmental group” that challenged the pipeline in court.

Their priority should be doing what they can to provide quality service....and that quality service looks like not self dealing and not causing panic to the very people that keep your company afloat.

– U.S. Rep. Cori Bush, D-St. Louis

Spire STL Pipeline won approval from regulators in 2019, but under the Natural Gas Act, the federal agency needed to find the pipeline “is or will be required by the present or future public convenience and necessity.” 

Spire STL Pipeline and Spire Missouri, which are affiliates, entered a contract for the overwhelmingly majority of the pipeline’s capacity.

This summer, a federal appeals court struck down the pipeline’s permission to operate, following a challenge from the Environmental Defense Fund, saying federal regulators ignored evidence of self-dealing. 

The pipeline is currently operating under a 90-day extension from federal regulators that expires Dec. 13. 

Spire spokesman, Jason Merrill, said the company had also complied with the PSC’s request for copies of all of its communications with customers, though the company said in a filing with the agency that the request was “overly broad and unnecessary” because there was no evidence of wrongdoing by the company. 

PSC staff are expected to review that information and decide whether to lodge a formal complaint against the utility for “false and misleading communications to its customers and the public; failure to ensure the availability of sufficient gas supplies for the upcoming winter heating season” and any other matters that come up as the result of staff’s investigation.. 

“If the Missouri Public Service Commission is saying that they need to approve statements going forward, that it was not rooted in fact and in truth,” Bush said. 

Merrill stressed that Spire sent its initial message to customers before it received assurances from federal regulators that they would make a decision before the pipeline’s temporary certificate expires on Dec. 13. 

“It’s important to be open with your customers and tell them what’s going on and be transparent, and we didn’t have assurances that past Dec. 13 that the pipeline would be in operation,” Merrill said. “If there was no temporary certificate past Dec. 13, telling people on Dec. 13 would not be the right thing to do. Telling them in advance that this is a possibility is the right thing to do, and we did.”

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Allison Kite
Allison Kite

Allison Kite is a data reporter for The Missouri Independent and Kansas Reflector, with a focus on the environment and agriculture. A graduate of the University of Kansas, she’s covered state government in both Topeka and Jefferson City, and most recently was City Hall reporter for The Kansas City Star.