Research shows that even utilities that claim to support reducing carbon emissions are not investing in renewable energyResearch shows that even utilities that claim to support reducing carbon emissions are not investing in renewable energy. Photo credit: Sebastien Bozon/AFP via Getty Images
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By Karen Savage

For decades, a group of investor-owned utilities coordinated with coal and rail companies to cast doubt on climate science and to delay the regulation of greenhouse gas emissions, according to ­­new research.

The report was released by the Brown University Climate and Development Lab, examining business and political networks, lobbying, spending, and future climate change-related planning by 10 large utilities: Southern Company, American Electric Power, Duke Energy, Dominion Energy, FirstEnergy, Ameren, DTE Energy, Entergy, Consumers Energy, and Xcel Energy. The results, detailed in American Utilities and the Climate Change Countermovement: An Industry In Flux, were released earlier this month.

The research found that along with longtime business partners in the coal and rail industry, the 10 utility companies have been “deeply entrenched in the climate change countermovement.” 

“This group of utility companies has spent millions on candidates, lobbying, and think tanks, exerted political influence through coalitions and business associations, and ultimately established themselves as central in the climate change countermovement,” wrote Cole Triedman, Andrew Javens, Jessie Sugarman and David Wingate, who conducted the research as part of a fall semester undergraduate seminar titled “Engaged Climate Policy.”

Their research expands on work published earlier this year by Robert Brulle, professor emeritus of sociology and environmental science at Drexel, who studied organizations that have worked to delay efforts on climate change. Brulle found that between 1989 and 2015, utilities and coal companies belonged to many of the most politically influential organizations. 

The authors of the new research examined the influence networks of utility companies identified in Brulle’s work using publicly available information. 

To keep coal-fired power plants in operation, utility companies most often relied on Burlington Northern Santa Fe, CSX, Union Pacific, and Norfolk Southern railroads to deliver coal from giants Peabody Energy, Arch Coal and Murray Energy. 

The utility, coal and rail companies belonged to many of the same trade associations—including the Edison Electric Institute, the United States Chamber of Commerce and the National Association of Manufacturers—which lobbied lawmakers, ran public relations campaigns and provided legal work on their behalf.

And like fossil fuel companies, the utilities also belonged to (and in some cases provided leadership in) industry-funded climate denial coalitions—including the Global Climate Coalition, the American Coalition for Clean Coal Electricity and the American Legislative Exchange Council. Those groups cast doubt on climate science and worked to delay the regulation of greenhouse gas emissions. 

As the public has become more aware of the catastrophic effects of climate change, the link between the burning of coal and other fossil fuels has become more widely known. 

Some denial organizations, like the Global Climate Coalition—which ran a decades-long coordinated campaign to sow doubt in the minds of the public about climate change—are now defunct. Many coal companies have merged, been sold or filed for bankruptcy.

Utility companies examined in the report, however, continue to operate carbon-intense coal-fired power plants.

All have recently published plans to reduce emissions by 2050, but many are planning to replace coal with natural gas and are relying heavily on “not-yet-marketable” technology for their emissions reductions, according to the new report.

The utilities say a large portion of those reductions will come from carbon capture and storage (CCS), which has not yet been found to be feasible on a large scale. Current CCS projects capture less than one percent of the CO2 required to meet the Paris agreement targets for 2040, according to a 2018 report by the Global CCS Institute. None of the companies plan large investments in renewable energy. 

“While the utility industry’s transition away from coal may point towards historical coal-rail-utilities alliances fracturing, the outsized future reliance on natural gas and innovation demonstrated by many utilities calls the industry’s decarbonization commitments into question,” the authors wrote in the report.

That type of planning ignores the fact that that electricity generation does not have to depend on fossil fuels, said Javens, one of the co-authors.

“Utility companies are a potential ally in the transition to a decarbonized economy,” Javens said. “What’s holding us back is this entrenched political business ecosystem that makes breaking away the ties with coal and rail really difficult for the utility companies.” 

Whether utility companies will be a willing ally in that transition is yet to be seen and Javens said companies’ messaging doesn’t always match their business practices.

As an example, he pointed to Richmond Virginia-based Dominion Energy. When Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam recently announced the state is aiming to produce 100 percent of its electricity from carbon-free sources by 2050, Dominion President and Chief Executive Thomas F. Farrell II Farrell has said the company is “leading the country’s transition to clean energy.”

“We are transforming everything we do to build a more sustainable future for our customers, the planet and our company,” Farrell said in a press release announcing the October release of Dominion’s Sustainability & Corporate Responsibility report. “As we look to the future, one important priority will be addressing Gov. Northam’s executive order on clean energy. That will be a major focus of next year’s report.” 

Javens said what Farrell doesn’t mention is that Dominion’s Cove Point facility in Maryland has a 20-year contract to provide natural gas to a state-owned natural gas processing and distribution facility in New Delhi, India. 

“No one can change the trajectory on their own, including the electric and gas industries in the United States,” Farrell said in Dominion’s 2018 Climate Report. “A clean energy future will require the transportation sector to go completely electric or to clean natural gas, and it will require countries around the world to do their part—especially in areas of rapid industrialization.” 

So, Javans asked rhetorically, what can Dominion do with a new natural gas investment that can’t be used for electricity generation in its home state? 

“Sell it somewhere those restrictions don’t apply, and make sure its locked in with a 20-year purchasing deal. Still polluting! The company is deflecting blame onto others while positioning themselves as the supplier of fossil fuels for those same places and people they are blaming.” 

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