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Your electric bill payments may be funding climate delay
If your electric utility is a member of the Edison Electric Institute, then we have some unfortunate news.
If you’re like most people in America, you pay an electric bill every month.
And if you’re like most people in America, you pay that bill to a monopoly electric utility, meaning you have no choice in the matter of what company receives your money.
Almost all of these monopoly electric utilities—be it Pepco, ConEd, PG&E, Duke, FirstEnergy, Xcel, or one of the many, many others—are members of the Edison Electric Institute (EEI). The main lobbying group for U.S. utilities, EEI is an influential political force: It spent more than $10 million on lobbying last year and more than $6 million so far this year. (For comparison, the oil and gas industry’s most powerful lobbying group, the American Petroleum Institute, spent $4.3 million last year and $2.6 million this year).
From the profits of your electric bills, utilities pay between $4,000 to $6,000 per year to be associate members of EEI; more than $40,000 to be Power members of EEI; and more than $80,000 to be Power Plus members of EEI.
In other words: if your electric utility is a member of EEI, then the money EEI spends on political advocacy is, in part, your money.
And it also means that, as of today, your money is funding an effort to oppose the nation’s first-ever climate regulations on existing power plants, which make up about 25 percent of the country’s climate pollution.
It’s just the latest example of electric utilities using money from captured customers to delay action on climate change.
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The climate rule your electric bill money is opposing
The Biden Administration proposed its new climate regulations on existing coal- and gas-fired power plants in May. They were lauded as an “important step forward” in tackling climate change—but were also much weaker than they could have been, containing many compromises to allow utilities to keep burning fossil fuels.
These compromises, however, apparently still aren’t enough for EEI to support the rule. On August 1, Reuters first reported that the trade association would submit public comments opposing the regulations because of the required timeline to deploy carbon capture technology. On Monday, Floodlight and the Guardian reported the same.
EEI is expected to formally file its opposition to the rule today, the final day public comments can be submitted. Leah Stokes, an associate professor at the University of California, Santa Barbara, and author of a book on utility industry climate delay, told HEATED the group’s opposition could result in weakening the final rule.
“If EEI publishes comments that are critical of the rule, it makes it harder for the Biden administration to stick with its existing plan,” she said.
How utilities have stymied U.S. climate action
If EEI succeeds in weakening the regulations, it won’t be the first time it's used customer money to achieve climate delay. The group “has long been involved in climate denial and climate delay,” said Stokes, who co-authored a peer-reviewed article on the group’s role in slowing the clean energy transition last year.
In a striking similarity to ExxonMobil, electric utilities knew about the climate risks of fossil fuels as far back as the 1960s. Along with the Electric Power Research Institute (EPRI), EEI sponsored climate research in the 1970s and 1980s that clearly stated carbon emissions would cause global warming.
Rather than seeing this science as a threat to the world, however, the utility industry saw it as a threat to their profits. Between 1993 and 2004, Southern Company alone spent more than $60 million on climate disinformation campaigns, according to the Energy and Policy Institute, a utility watchdog. Electric utilities also co-founded powerful corporate lobbying groups that undermined climate policy, including the Global Climate Coalition, which spearheaded many of the climate denial campaigns in the 1990s.
Today, like the oil and gas industry, utilities have switched tactics from denial to delay. Utilities that once promoted “clean coal” now advertise for “clean energy” via methane gas.
“We’ve seen utility groups create front groups, pay actors—like in the case of Entergy—and do things that are really dishonest,” said Stokes. And their latest dishonest tactic is greenwashing.
How to call out utility industry climate hypocrisy
At the same time they invest heavily in climate delay, utility companies are promising customers that they’re part of the clean energy transition.
For example: this year, EEI founded the Institute for the Energy Transition, to show their commitment to climate solutions. “Going forward, electric companies will continue to make significant carbon reductions,” EEI says in its page on sustainability. Southern Company also now promises they will reduce their greenhouse gas emissions by 50 percent by 2030. Similar statements have been made by Duke Energy, FirstEnergy, ConEd, PG&E, and many others.
The way these utilities pledge to reduce greenhouse gases is through carbon capture and storage. In an analysis of EEI and EPRI journals from 2000 to 2019, Stokes found that “carbon capture and storage was discussed as much as all other carbon-free technologies combined.”
But now that carbon capture is going to be legally mandated via regulation, EEI suddenly has concerns about the technology—which is why they say they’ll be opposing the power plant rule on Tuesday.
“These people are talking out of both sides of their mouths,” Stokes said. “They’re dishonest. And they need to be called out.”
Because most of these utilities are monopolies, customers have limited options to express their displeasure about this, Stokes said. They can push for new laws, like this proposal in Connecticut, that would prohibit utilities from using ratepayer funds for political activities. They can also pressure their local utilities to either leave EEI, or file public comments of their own that disavow EEI’s position on the power plant regulations. (The environmental nonprofit Evergreen Action has a toolkit to help people who want to do that.)
A pressure campaign won’t likely get all U.S. electric utilities to disavow EEI’s climate delay campaign. But it could move some, Stokes said.
After all, at least one is already taking a stand against the powerful group. In a statement on Monday, Constellation, a utility that operates in six states and D.C., made their opposition known.
“Anyone who has lived through this record-shattering summer can plainly see that we need to move faster to address the climate crisis,” said Constellation CEO Joe Dominguez. “I am disappointed to see many of my peers represented by the Edison Electric Institute and others working to block these very practical measures rather than offering constructive solutions and recognizing the imperative of moving our industry toward a carbon-free future, as we inevitably must do.”
In other news…
There’s a growing demand for climate accountability in the Senate. Senator Bernie Sanders and a group of Democrats are formally calling for Department of Justice lawsuits against the fossil fuel industry “for its longstanding and carefully coordinated campaign to mislead consumers and discredit climate science in pursuit of massive profits.” Last week, Sanders wrote in an MSNBC op-ed:
When a criminal walks into a store and shoots the clerk behind the counter, we make the moral judgment that this behavior is socially unacceptable, and that the gunman should be punished. … Yet, when fossil fuel executives make calculated decisions that threaten millions of lives—and the planet itself—we are told that “it’s just business.” That’s not acceptable.
Meanwhile, on the Republican side of town… Senator Ted Cruz and a group of Republicans are formally calling for a DOJ investigation into… the National Resources Defense Council, for its “substantial ties to the Chinese Communist Party.” Apparently the NRDC has a China program which works to accelerate clean energy development—but that program has never once mentioned “that the Communist country is responsible for emitting over one-fourth of global carbon dioxide and a third of the world’s greenhouse gases.” We didn’t realize Ted Cruz cared so much about greenhouse gas emissions—especially considering all he’s been doing to increase them at home.
In all seriousness, here’s the NRDC’s response: In a statement to HEATED, NRDC director of strategic engagement Bob Deans said, “The NRDC receives no funding from the government of China and does the bidding of no government anywhere. Assertions to the contrary are false. The NRDC is an independent, non-profit, public-interest group working to protect the environment and public health. In setting our institutional priorities—in China, as in the United States and elsewhere—we rely on our U.S.-based board of independent trustees, and no one else. Of course we work in China. We’re there for one reason: there isn’t a single global environmental problem the world can confront unless China is part of the fix.”
Activists are slowly loosening Big Oil’s grip on Harvard. After a months-long pressure campaign from student organizers, Harvard environmental law professor Jody Freeman announced last week that she’s stepping down from the board of ConocoPhillips, one of the world’s worst-polluting companies. Freeman had recently been awarded a grant by Harvard to research corporate climate pledges, all while ConocoPhillips was paying Freeman more than $350,000 a year. Freeman’s resignation is a major win for student activists, but they told the Guardian, “many other high-profile academics, including at Harvard, have similar corporate roles which raise questions about conflicts of interests.” So the work to rid Harvard, and other universities, of insidious fossil fuel industry influence continues.
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