Three major electric utility companies donated to Donald Trump’s inauguration, despite efforts to distance themselves from Trump’s attacks on the Environmental Protection Agency.

Here is a look at the three utilities that contributed to Trump’s inauguration, and why it matters.

NextEra Energy, Inc. – $250,000

NextEra Energy donated a quarter of a million dollars to Trump’s 58th Presidential Inaugural Committee on December 28, 2016, according to a report filed with the Federal Election Commission.

But a week before the donation, Florida Power & Light – a subsidiary of NextEra – announced plans to shut down the Cedar Bay coal-fired power plant. The company said that would cut carbon dioxide emissions and save customers millions of dollars. Additionally, some experts have also pointed to FPL’s investments in utility-scale solar projects (not to be confused with its attacks on rooftop solar) as evidence that utilities are not marching to the beat of Donald Trump’s drum.

In 2015, NextEra defended the EPA’s Clean Power Plan in court. However, CEO of FPL Eric Siligay is also a member of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce’s board of directors. The U.S. Chamber is a longtime leading opponent of EPA limits on carbon dioxide pollution. Both NextEra and FPL were silent when Trump signed his executive order targeting the Clean Power Plan.

FPL has also opposed EPA’s recent expansion of the Clean Water Act and even tried (and failed) to force customers to pay for its attacks. Trump signed another executive order targeting the EPA after just one week in office.

Southern Company Services – $100,000

Southern Company donated a hundred grand to Trump’s inauguration on January 10, 2016. Southern Company’s support for Trump is not a huge surprise. Thomas Fanning, the company’s CEO, recently made some rather Trump-like remarks when he denied that carbon dioxide emissions are a primary contributor to climate change. Southern Company has also aggressively fought the Clean Power Plan, and was caught funding the professional climate change denier Willie Soon in 2015.  

Nonetheless, The New York Times ran a story on April 5 in which Jeff Burleson, Southern Company’s vice president of system planning, made light of Trump’s executive order that likely marked the beginning of the end for the Clean Power Plan.

“For us, it really doesn’t change anything,” Burleson told The Times.

Burleson suggested the company plans to invest more in renewable energy and natural gas, and has no plans to build coal-fired power plants in the future. The Times made no mention of Southern Company’s long record of opposition to EPA limits on carbon dioxide emissions or the fact that, at last check, the utility’s power plants are ranked among the worst in terms of their carbon footprint.

Xcel Energy – $25,000

Xcel gave $25,000 to Trump’s inauguration committee on January 19, 2016.

“Xcel Energy’s plans make economic and environmental sense regardless of the future of the Clean Power Plan … We intend to keep moving forward with a low-priced, clean energy strategy that provides the economical, clean energy our customers want,” Ben Fowkes, CEO of Xcel, told reporters after Trump signed his executive order revoking the Clean Power Plan.

“At this point, we really don’t see that it will affect our plan,” Laura McCarten, a regional vice president for Xcel, also said.

Xcel has apparently sat out the court battles over the fate of the Clean Power Plan. But Xcel still generates a hefty chunk of its electricity from coal, at least according to data from 2015 that’s posted on the company’s website.

Trump’s inauguration donors received benefits, including access

All three utilities donated at levels that made them eligible for certain benefits that included tickets to inauguration events that featured appearances by President Trump, Vice President Mike Pence, and their spouses. NextEra and Southern Company would also have received “premier access tickets” to the VIP ballroom at the Inaugural Ball.

In addition to inauguration day benefits, companies that donated to the inauguration committee might begin to see further benefits. It was reported by the Associated Press that Dow Chemical, which wrote a $1 million check to fund Trump’s inaugural festivities, is asking the Trump administration to ignore the findings of federal scientists research that concludes Dow’s pesticides are potentially harmful to hundreds of endangered species. Michael Biesecker writes,

“Lawyers representing Dow, whose CEO is a close adviser to Trump, and two other manufacturers of organophosphates sent letters last week to the heads of three of Trump’s Cabinet agencies. The companies asked them ‘to set aside’ the results of government studies the companies contend are fundamentally flawed … The industry’s request comes after EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt announced last month he was reversing an Obama-era effort to bar the use of Dow’s chlorpyrifos pesticide on food after recent peer-reviewed studies found that even tiny levels of exposure could hinder the development of children’s brains.”

The utility industry’s disinformation playbook in action

Beyond these contributions to Trump’s inauguration committee, the Edison Electric Institute (EEI) also gave $5,000 – the maximum amount allowed under federal law – to Trump’s transition team. EEI later put out a statement that called President Trump’s executive order on the Clean Power a “significant development” – but then suggested the utility industry would for the most part move on with business as usual:

“President Trump’s Promoting Energy Independence and Economic Growth Executive Order, which will revamp the Clean Power Plan among other actions, is a significant development … Regardless of what major policy initiatives are put in place going forward, our emissions likely will continue to decline due to historically low prices and a stable supply for natural gas, decreasing costs for renewables, and increasing efficiencies. We look forward to working with EPA, states, and other stakeholders as they revisit the Clean Power Plan and other clean energy and environmental initiatives. A diverse, domestic, and balanced energy mix is essential to an affordable, reliable, and secure energy future. EEI’s member companies are committed to a healthy environment and to using resources that are most cost-effective, protect the environment, and provide the range of energy and technology options our customers want.”

EEI’s statement is another example of the utility industry’s new disinformation playbook in action. Developed by the public relations firm Maslansky + Partners, the playbook recommended (among other things) that utilities should try to avoid talking about so-called “clean coal” and focus instead on promoting their investments in renewable energy, however modest they may be. The playbook was designed to help repair the utility sector’s tarnished image after years of unpopular attacks on the environment and the rooftop solar industry.   

It’s paid dividends for utilities like Southern Company, which has essentially received a free pass in the media for its role in halting the Clean Power Plan, and abandoning the United State’s role as a global leader on addressing climate change. But beyond the alternative facts put out by the utility industry’s spin doctors, Southern Company and Xcel still rely on coal more than renewable energy. And so far they have done nothing to stand up to the Trump administration’s attacks on our climate.

Posted by Dave Anderson

Dave Anderson is the policy and communications manager for the Energy and Policy Institute. Dave has been working at the nexus of clean energy and public policy since 2008. Prior to joining the Energy and Policy Institute, he was an outreach coordinator for the climate and energy program at the Union of Concerned Scientists. He is also an alumnus of the Sierra Club and the Alliance for Climate Protection (now the Climate Reality Project). Dave’s research has helped to spur public scrutiny of political attacks on clean energy and climate science by powerful special interests, such as ExxonMobil and the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC). His work has been cited by major media outlets, such as CBS News and the Wall Street Journal, and he has served as a speaker on panels at national solar industry conferences. Dave holds a MA in Political Science from the University of New Hampshire, where he also received a BA in Humanities.

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