The Climate Bill’s Big Corporate Backers

Every piece of legislation has its own set of winners and losers, which means every piece of legislation has its own set of self-interested parties backing it. The new Senate climate bill, despite its planet-saving goals, is no different.

After the American Power Act was introduced last week by Senators John Kerry and Joe Lieberman, dozens of major corporations and trade groups stepped up in support (the NRDC’s Pete Altman has a nice starter list of companies and coalitions backing the bill).

Whatever their altruistic motivations, the fact is many of these companies stand to gain financially from the APA’s passage, in some cases substantially.

For instance, a cap-and-trade system for greenhouse gas emissions, which would be introduced nationally in a limited way under the APA, would make many low-carbon power sources like natural gas much more competitive with coal on price, and thus much more profitable.

Power companies and utilities that use a lot of gas, like Exelon and PSEG, have come out strongly in favor of the APA. Gas trade associations, like America’s Natural Gas Alliance, have complained that the bill does not do enough to favor gas, while circling the issue of a cap-and-trade system (perhaps reflecting a need for consensus among many different members).

Other companies coming out in support of the APA include utilities with a strong stake in nuclear power. The bill includes billions in loan guarantees to nuclear power plants (because of their perceived riskiness, new nuke plants have a hard time finding private financing). Entergy, which, according to the company, is the second largest generator of nuclear power in the US, called the APA an “excellent proposal.”

Smaller cleantech companies also have an obvious stake in the bill. Solar panel installers, cleantech financial analysts, hydrogen-powered car makers, energy efficiency consultants — all stand to make more money under the APA, which would stimulate spending in energy efficiency and investments in various clean technologies, through grants for scientific research and other incentives.

One belief shared by many, if not all of these companies — from Silicon Valley start-ups to APA supporter Shell Oil — is that the government must act on carbon emissions rules to provide regulatory certainty to businesses so they can plan for the future.

None of which is to say any of these companies’ sole reason for backing APA is self-interest. For one thing, there are dozens of major companies in favor of the bill, like the Gap, eBay, Best Buy, Nike and many more, who do not deal directly in the business sectors that would be regulated under the APA.

And it is entirely legitimate for a company to support the bill for financial (or public relations) reasons while also believing it is the right thing to do.

The fact is, it can be very difficult to disentangle financial motives from more altruistic ones, and in the near future it may not even be worth trying. In January, the Supreme Court removed most restrictions on corporate and union donations to political campaigns, opening the floodgates to corporate money in politics.

As a result, an adversarial system whereby each issue collects its own set of backers and goes to war with lobbyists, may soon be the only realistic way to get things done in Washington.

It could be pointed out that our justice system works on an adversarial basis, with each side presenting its case in opposition to the other, and despite some obvious miscarriages of justice, I think most people would agree it works most of the time — which is more than could be said of Congress right now.

Treehugging supporters of capping carbon emissions have found, through the American Power Act, their own corporate gorillas to send out against the lobbyists from coal companies, the American Trucking Association and other opponents.

The American Clean Skies Foundation, backed by Chesapeake Energy, a major gas producer, has even funded its own environmental news site, Clean Skies, to help get the word out about cleaner sources of energy, including gas. Clean Skies, which says it has complete editorial independence, has attracted some leading players in the climate change world, including Joe Romm of Climate Progress, who was recently on Clean Skies hawking his new book, Straight Up.

At the end of the day, the American Power Act’s chances are still slim, but at least it’s no longer so much of a David v. Goliath battle. Now it’s more like Goliath v. Goliath.

BC (Ben) Upham is a freelance writer based in Los Angeles. He has written for the New York Times, and was a writer and editor for News Communications, Inc., a local paper consortium serving Manhattan. When he's not blogging on green issues -- and especially renewable energy -- he's hiking in the Angeles Mountains or hanging out at El Matador.