The number of power companies lobbying on climate-related issues at the federal level nearly tripled in the first quarter of 2019 over the prior quarter as the topic became a key focal point of Democrats who took over the U.S. House of Representatives, according to lobbying disclosure records.
Of the 50 biggest U.S. power companies by market capitalization, 20 said climate was one of the focuses of their federal lobbying efforts during the first quarter of 2019, up from seven companies that mentioned the word in the fourth quarter of 2018. Most of those large electric utilities focused on broad climate and energy policies while stressing the progress the power sector has made already in curbing emissions.
In addition, nearly two dozen energy companies and interest groups lobbied U.S. federal agencies and lawmakers or paid lobbyists to track the Green New Deal resolution introduced in Congress that called for a massive shift away from fossil fuels. The sweeping proposal, which included jobs and healthcare guarantees for all Americans, was instantly panned by Republican lawmakers and met with skepticism from moderate Democrats, causing the proposal to stall in the U.S. Senate.
The United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change has warned that the world needs to slash emissions over the next decade to limit and mitigate the physical impacts of climate change such as extreme storms, flooding, wildfires and droughts. For the U.S. to meet its pledges under the Paris Agreement on climate change, environmental experts have suggested federal-level leadership will be needed.
However, President Donald Trump has said he will pull the U.S. from the Paris Agreement on climate change and his administration has moved to roll back major federal environmental rules. Thus, over the past two years, most of the discussion of climate change and needed actions has been by the business community and local governments. But the Democrats' takeover of the House has raised climate change's profile in Congress and prompted more companies to add the issue to their lobbying portfolio.
One utility that has been publicly advocating for a price on carbon for at least several years is National Grid PLC subsidiary National Grid USA. The utility in a white paper in 2018 urged Northeastern states to adopt an economy-wide price on carbon emissions because doing so would be the most effective way to reduce U.S. carbon emissions.
"National Grid strongly supports developing an economy-wide price on carbon, along with other climate change mitigation strategies and policies that are bold yet actionable," utility spokesman Kevin O'Shea said in an email. "We welcome the renewed and increasing interest amongst policymakers on this issue and have continued to work closely with bipartisan members of Congress to advance and develop proposals that adopt a broad and balanced approach to decarbonization."
A number of top utilities that did not mention climate change in their filings still lobbied on measures that would affect their carbon output. Power companies met with lawmakers on increased funding for carbon capture and storage deployment, potential legislation to create a national clean energy standard, and a proposed bill to expand eligibility for energy storage systems that qualify for a federal investment tax credits.
As members of Congress mull those environment-related proposals, utilities are making sure their voices are heard. Shannon Brushe, an integrated advocacy senior manager for Duke Energy Corp., said the company is making sure that any climate legislation "considers both nuclear power and natural gas" as key parts of the clean energy transition. "That's just not the case for all the drafts we've seen," Brushe said.
Green New Deal makes its lobbying debut
At least 23 energy companies and key industry trade groups mentioned the Green New Deal or resolutions calling for the plan's implementation in first-quarter federal lobbying reports, according to an analysis by S&P Global Market Intelligence of lobbying disclosures through April 22. According to the S&P data, that list included five of the 50 largest U.S. power companies by market capitalization: Ameren Corp., Exelon Corp., FirstEnergy Corp., Pinnacle West Capital Corp. and Vistra Energy Corp.
Despite an uptick in companies and groups weighing in on climate issues in the halls of Congress, some remained largely tight-lipped about their strategies and views on potential federal climate policies.
"We have reviewed the resolution and are monitoring it as Congress considers it," FirstEnergy spokesman Mark Durbin said.
The Nuclear Energy Institute, which reported lobbying on the Green New Deal, declined to comment on the conversations it had with lawmakers. But in an emailed statement on the resolution, NEI President and CEO Maria Korsnick reiterated the group's argument that the use of nuclear power should be included in any efforts to curb greenhouse gas emissions.
Ameren did not reply to requests for comment and Marathon Petroleum Corp., which also mentioned the Green New Deal in its quarterly report, declined to comment.
At least a handful of companies may not have lobbied on the Green New Deal despite having it mentioned in filings. For instance, the lobbying firm Kanner & Associates included the Green New Deal in its lobbying reports on behalf of clients Missouri River Energy Services, American Municipal Power Inc., Northern California Power Agency and the Public Power Council, which represents some of the biggest municipal utilities in the U.S. But Marty Kanner of Kanner & Associates in a phone interview said: "We had zero lobbying contacts on the Green New Deal." Instead, he said the firm provided clients information on the legislation.
Trade groups focus on industry-specific topics
Despite hitting a wall in the Senate, the Green New Deal has raised attention on climate action in Congress and pushed power industry lobbyists to dedicate more resources to the issue — whether to advocate climate policies they support or defend the emissions cuts the industry has already made and assure lawmakers those cuts will continue with or without additional legislative action.
"We have been focused on getting up there and frankly just telling our story," said Alex Bond, associate general counsel for energy and environment at the Edison Electric Institute, or EEI, the main trade group representing investor-owned electric utilities. Part of that story, according to Bond, is the 27% drop in the U.S. power sector’s carbon dioxide emissions since 2005.
EEI reported lobbying on "climate change issues generally" and on a bill that seeks to make the U.S. honor its commitments under the Paris accord. That legislation, H.R. 9, is slated for a vote by the House the week of April 29 after Congress returns from its Easter holiday break. But despite the raft of climate bills lawmakers have introduced so far this Congress, EEI has yet to take sides on particular policies.
"Right now we’re not taking positions on any of the sort of like bigger climate [legislation]," Bond said. "It’s really an education campaign. We’re supportive of policies that help continue the fleet transformation [path] that we’re on."
Some large utilities, such as American Electric Power Co. Inc., are echoing that strategy. "Our meetings earlier this year involved very general discussions focused on sharing how AEP has already significantly cut our CO2 emissions," AEP spokesperson Melissa McHenry said. "We did not discuss specific policy views beyond making the point that climate change needs to be addressed on an economy-wide basis since the utility sector has already made significant emission reductions."
Power companies, including National Grid, have praised the nine climate legislation principles developed by Rep. Paul Tonko, D-N.Y., who chairs the House Subcommittee on Environment and Climate Change. The principles include national adoption of science-based targets to achieve greenhouse gas neutrality by midcentury and incentives and standards for energy efficiency, grid modernization, electrification and carbon dioxide removal.
"I think that there are certainly parts of his principles that are very consistent with where we want to go, and we’re going to continue to work with [Tonko]," Bond said.
Republicans’ hold on the Senate and White House will make passage of more aggressive climate legislation unlikely in the year and a half leading up to the 2020 elections. But Bond indicated utilities hope to see some more modest legislation enacted in the meantime.