UPDATE (Sept. 2, 9:44 a.m.): Duke Energy left the American Coalition for Clean Coal Energy on Tuesday over differences with "influential member companies who will not support passing climate change legislation in 2009 or 2010," the company said.
As the Senate prepares to return to Washington and resume its debate over climate change legislation, energy companies are walking a fine line. Many have dual membership in groups on opposing sides of the issue, and their attempts to play both sides are becoming increasingly apparent -- and potentially damaging to the companies and the coalitions alike.
General Electric, Alstom Power and Caterpillar are members of both the American Coalition for Clean Coal Electricity and the U.S. Climate Action Partnership. The former is a pro-coal group that opposed the recent House energy legislation, and the latter is an industry-environmentalist coalition whose recommendations provided much of the basis for the that bill, which passed the House by a vote of 219-212 in June. On a similar note, ConocoPhillips, Siemens and BP America are members of both the American Petroleum Institute (which opposed the bill) and USCAP.
These dual memberships shouldn't be surprising but could be problematic if they become more common, according to Burdett Loomis, a lobbying expert who teaches political science at the University of Kansas. "It seems to always be a mix of motivations," Loomis said. "And, as coalitions have become increasingly important on all sides of the issue, it's not surprising that there are some real or perceived conflicts."
Dave Levinthal, spokesman for the Center for Responsive Politics, said that companies may associate themselves with various coalitions to put themselves in a more favorable light. "It's advantageous for companies to appear as if they're taking a less hard-edged stand than some people may accuse them of taking," Levinthal said. Energy companies may want to "shed an image of being some polluting, dirty corporation that doesn't care about the environment."
Signing up for a coalition may have its benefits, but two recent controversies illustrate potential risks. Since coalitions are so large, member companies may not always keep tabs on their coalitions' activities. That can lead to potential embarrassment, as when the American Petroleum Institute sent a memo to its members asking them to recruit employees for "grassroots" rallies against the House legislation. ACCCE, meanwhile, is in hot water for hiring a firm that sent out numerous fake letters telling members of Congress to vote against the bill.
Loomis suspects that these types of dual memberships will become more common because coalitions themselves are becoming more common -- USCAP and ACCCE, for example, are both less than 3 years old. That won't necessarily be a good thing if the goal of coalitions is to influence legislation. "It dilutes the power of not only that coalition but of coalition formulation in general because politicians are going to look at them and view them with greater cynicism than they already do," Loomis said. "The whole point of coalitions is that you have this breadth, but then you may find out that that breadth may simply be an eighth of an inch deep."
In a statement to NationalJournal.com, Caterpillar explained its membership in a group that favors the bill: "We are confident that through our participation in USCAP, our messages -- representing key customer interests -- like clean-coal technologies -- have resonated with many." Caterpillar is one of the world's largest producers of diesel and natural gas engines.
A balance, however, can be hard to strike. Duke Energy, the nation's third-largest electric utility, had been a member of both USCAP and ACCCE; spokesman Tom Williams explained the company's dual membership last month by saying, "We have had a moderating influence on the [ACCCE's] membership, on the whole effort." Or, in Loomis' words, "you're inside, and you try to exert that moderating force without appearing hypocritical."
But on Tuesday, Duke left ACCCE because "as the debate evolved, it became clear that there were some influential members who would never support climate legislation no matter what," Williams told NationalJournal.com this morning.
It was the second time this year that Duke terminated its membership with a group it didn't see eye-to-eye with on policy. In May, it severed ties with the National Association of Manufacturers, due, "in part, to diverging perspectives on climate change legislation," Williams said.
Duke publicly supported the House bill but would like to see parts of it tweaked in the final version. The company uses coal to produce 70 percent of the energy it generates in the U.S.
Representatives for both ACCCE and USCAP said that overlap between their groups isn't surprising since they share broad goals. Joe Lucas, spokesman for ACCCE, said both want to bring technology into the marketplace to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. He said ACCCE's opposition to the House energy legislation came down to just a few differences, including cost-containment mechanisms and regulatory jurisdiction over carbon storage.
That's where the lobbying landscape gets a bit blurry, though. "Once you get into complex legislation, two coalitions that don't seem to be at odds may be at odds," Loomis said. As the Senate begins debate on at least two pieces of energy legislation -- one from the Environment and Public Works committee and another from the Finance Committee -- as early as next month, things will get complicated very quickly. The legislative goals of coalitions likely will not be set by all their constituent companies, but by the "big dog" members who contribute the most money and encourage other companies to get on board.
Loomis advised that those curious about a coalition's ultimate goals heed the old saw and follow the money: "One of the difficulties in parsing coalitions is really seeing who the major members are who are really contributing."