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National Fuel's conservation program under fire

National Fuel CEO David Smith was the focus of a large protest in Buffalo Wednesday.
Jim Levulis
National Fuel CEO David Smith was the focus of a large protest in Buffalo Wednesday.


National Fuel CEO David Smith was the focus of large protest in downtown Buffalo Wednesday. The demonstrators say they’ve been trying to meet with Smith for more than a year-and-a-half about the natural gas provider’s program to lower heating bills.

Speaking into a megaphone, one of the protest’s 250 or so attendees urged the throng to march over to National Fuel headquarters.

“We’ve got to go ask David where he is and whether he’s planning on coming over here. So let’s go over to that office and talk to him!”

Some carried drums, most toted signs with Smith’s face plastered next to facts and figures, like his annual compensation of $7 million.

More than 15 local non-profits say they have petitioned Smith for 18 months to agree to a meeting to discuss his company’s Conservation Incentive Program (CIP). Western New Yorkers pay an average of $17 a year for that fund, which is meant go toward lowering ratepayers’ heating bills. That adds up to $10 million, only a third of which is actually spent on weatherizing Buffalo’s aging housing stock.

Buffalo City Councilman David Rivera says he doesn’t understand why Smith refuses to meet with the groups to discuss his company's strategy for the CIP, which is 100% customer funded.

“It’s poor judgment on his part. I think if he sits down with these people he’ll find they’re well intentioned. They’re only looking out for the best interests of ratepayers and taxpayers. They have some very good and creative ideas,” Rivera says.

National Fuel Spokeswoman, Donna DeCarolis says her company has been transparent with activist groups like Voice Buffalo and PUSH Buffalo, who have been pushing for more involvement and influence in how the CIP is spent.

“Over the course of the last year, we’ve had meetings with Voice Buffalo and others to provide details about the program,” DeCarolis says.

But PUSH Buffalo founder Aaron Bartley says National Fuel simply hasn’t returned phone calls from his group or any other.

“We have never been granted a meeting with National Fuel and we’ve been asking for a year and a half. Nor has the National Fuel Accountability Coalition, which includes more than 15 major community organizations from across the region. I think that’s a duplicitous statement,” Bartley says.

David Smith did not emerge from National Fuel’s headquarters to meet with protestors Wednesday.  

Bartley says National Fuel has used too much of the Conservation Incentive Program to buy self-promotional advertisements.

“When you buy 2,000 commercials in one year with customer money and put your logo on those commercials and they don’t seem to be in any way enhancing weatherization or insulation of our housing stock, I call that misallocation,” Bartley says.

Protestors say they are using data released by National Fuel on its website. But National Fuel spokeswoman DeCarolis questions the groups' assertion the company spent more on self-promotional commercials than making homes more energy efficient.

“That’s simply not accurate,” DeCarolis says, of the protestors' math.

The Public Service Commission called hearings in western New York this week to invite the public to provide feedback on the program. DeCarolis says the hearings should not be taken as an indication that the energy company has done anything wrong.

“The Public Service Commission has asked for hearings to seek public input, typical of what they would do with utility programs that they administer from time to time,” DeCarolis says.

National Fuel customers can testify in front of the Public Service Commission Thursday in Cheektowaga and Amherst. 

WBFO/Western New York reporter for the Innovation Trail.
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