Many of the nation’s largest electric utilities have begun making pledges to reduce their carbon emissions, in response to growing pressure from major investors on the companies to align their business plans with the goals of the Paris climate agreement. So far, most of those goals fall short in a variety of ways. For example, Duke Energy’s announcement last week that it aims for net-zero carbon emissions by 2050, and a 50% reduction by 2030, is undercut by the company’s plans to continue building gas plants over the next decade. A review of Southern Company’s “Low- to no- carbon” pledge shows that the company could meet its goal and still remain one of the largest carbon polluters in the country. And while American Electric Power accelerated its 2030 emissions reduction goal from 60% to 70% and announced an “aspirational” zero emissions goal this month, it still hasn’t committed to zero emissions, as investors have called for.

But there’s one area where every electric utility is falling far short: aligning their lobbying efforts to support policies that address climate change.

For example, despite their recent pledges, Southern Company and American Electric Power both remain members of the American Coalition for Clean Coal Electricity (ACCCE), a coal lobby group that promotes climate science denial, and supported the Trump administration’s efforts to withdraw the U.S. from the Paris Agreement.

Other major companies have left ACCCE over the years, including most electric utilities. Duke Energy left the group a decade ago over differences with “influential member companies who will not support passing climate change legislation in 2009 or 2010,” and several other utilities have also left since then. Of the seven electric utilities that were major funders of ACCCE when it launched in 2008, only Southern Company and American Electric Power remain members.

American Electric Power and Southern Company are also on the board of directors of the National Association of Manufacturers, and both are also members of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, two of the most powerful and aggressive opponents of federal climate policies, according to a report this month by InfluenceMap focused on trade associations’ climate lobbying. American Electric Power reported that it paid $600,000 to the U.S. Chamber of Commerce in 2018 “for lobbying or political purposes.” Southern Company reported that it paid $337,500 in 2018 to the U.S. Chamber of Commerce for lobbying.

In addition to American Electric Power and Southern Company, other major electric utilities are also represented on the National Association of Manufacturers board of directors, including DTE Energy, Dominion Energy, and Arizona Public Service Company. The U.S. Chamber of Commerce board of directors includes Southern Company, Florida Power & Light Company, Entergy Louisiana, and Sempra Energy, the parent company of San Diego Gas & Electric, Oncor, and Southern California Gas Company.

In addition to their memberships in trade associations, electric utilities are also major lobbying forces in their own right, at both the federal level and state levels. For example, American Electric Power lobbied in support of legislation in Ohio that subsidized coal plants and gutted the state’s renewable energy standard, called the “the worst energy bill of the 21st century.” 

Investors urge utilities to align their climate lobbying with the Paris Agreement goals

Institutional investors are increasingly focused on this disconnect between companies’ climate pledges and the lobbying efforts of those companies and their trade associations. Last week, 200 investors with a combined $6.5 trillion in assets called on major companies to align their climate lobbying with the goals of the Paris Agreement. 

In letters to 47 of the largest U.S. publicly-traded companies, the investors noted that “companies have significant influence on climate and energy policies and we are concerned about lobbying activities that are inconsistent with addressing the risks posed by climate change. In particular we ask for a review of your own corporate lobbying activities as well as the trade associations and other politically active organizations of which you are a member that represent business interests but, unfortunately often lobby against public policy initiatives addressing the climate crisis.”

Electric utilities that received the investors’ letters included American Electric Power, Dominion Energy, Duke Energy, Exelon, FirstEnergy, NextEra, NRG, PPL, AES, Southern Company, Vistra Energy, WEC Energy, Xcel Energy, and Berkshire Hathaway, which owns Pacificorp, Midamerican Energy, and NV Energy.

New York State Comptroller Thomas P. DiNapoli, trustee of the New York State Common Retirement Fund, explained: “Many companies talk the talk when it comes to building a lower-carbon global economy, but some continue to support agendas and groups that oppose the goals of the Paris Agreement. We need greater transparency and accountability from our portfolio companies. We need to know if they are lobbying — or supporting trade organizations that are lobbying — against the worldwide effort to rein in climate change.”

The investors’ letter requests that companies publish by November 8, 2019 the steps they have taken or are taking to align with the Investor Expectations on Corporate Climate Lobbying.

Posted by Joe Smyth

Joe Smyth is a Research and Communications Manager for the Energy and Policy Institute.