Climate Stances Put Pressure on Major Trade Groups

Departures from two coal lobbying firms highlight split between companies and associations.

The Reid-Gardner power generating station near a farm on the Moapa Indian Reservation in Moapa, Nev.
AP Photo/Julie Jacobson
Jason Plautz
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Jason Plautz
Aug. 29, 2016, 8 p.m.

When it comes to climate change, some companies are increasingly out of step with the major trade groups representing them in Washington, creating a political opening for greens.

A report released this month examined some recent membership losses from the National Mining Association and the American Coalition for Clean Coal Electricity, two major coal trade groups that have been bulwarks in the campaign against President Obama’s climate agenda.

According to the report from the Climate Investigations Center, seven of the 12 companies that had given ACCCE more than $1 million in 2008 have left, including industry giants such as Arch Coal, Consol Energy, and Ameren. NMA has seen the exit of companies that include Chevron, Pacificorp, and insurance giant Zurich in recent years.

The reasons for the departures differed, according to statements provided to CIC, but among them was a split over how to address climate change. Volvo, for example, publicly split with NMA in December over the group’s opposition to climate action, saying in a statement to Greenpeace that NMA’s lobbying was “quite crazy” and the company stood with the U.S.

“Many of these individual companies may not be exactly the most helpful players when it comes to climate policy, but at least they have a more nuanced position,” said Joe Smyth, a CIC researcher and author of the report. “They’re seeking to slant or adjust climate-policy efforts to their advantage. The position of these lobbying groups doesn’t have a lot of nuance. They’re pretty much flatly opposed.”

Climate-change opposition has emerged as a potent irreconcilable difference for several trade associations. Apple and Nike both left the U.S. Chamber of Commerce in 2009 over the group’s opposition to a climate-change bill. A steady trickle of companies, including tech giants Microsoft and Google and oil firm Shell, left the American Legislative Exchange Council, a state-level policy group that had been pushing anti-climate legislation.

The lines, however, aren’t always clear. American Electric Power, an Ohio-based utility, publicly ditched ALEC in December, saying it was “reallocating our resources as we focus our work with the states around the Clean Power Plan.” But AEP remains a member of ACCCE, albeit at a lower funding level. AEP spokeswoman Melissa McHenry told National Journal: “We don’t agree with or share every position that they take, but we continue to engage with organizations like ACCCE to advocate for climate solutions that include coal,” including technology to capture carbon dioxide emissions from coal power plants.

The coal groups’ departures also signal the declining power of the industry, which has been crippled by the dropping price of natural gas. Several companies listed in the CIC report had simply gone bankrupt (like Arch Coal, which filed for bankruptcy in January) or were diversifying away from coal. Chevron Mining Inc, a subsidiary of Chevron, left NMA in 2014 after the closure of the Questa Mine that year, the last of the company’s active mining operations.

Luke Popovich, a spokesman for NMA, said that “a couple” of companies had left over climate policy, but most of the membership departures were market-related.

“This may come as news to CIC and its Greenpeace allies, but it is normal for trade associations representing diverse companies to lose members over policy differences and far more often to market conditions,” Popovich said.

“Of late, we have seen members leave due to ever-increasing regulations that are dictating market conditions and their future planning decisions,” said Laura Sheehan, spokeswoman for ACCCE. “For others, these regulations have had even greater impact, forcing layoffs, shuttering communities, and driving them into bankruptcy.”

Environmentalists and Democrats have increasingly tried to turn a spotlight on trade groups as barriers to climate action. In June, eight Senate Democrats released a report challenging that the U.S. Chamber of Commerce did not “accurately represent the positions, input, and knowledge of its membership” on climate change and tobacco use, saying that nearly half of the Chamber’s board-member companies had policies in opposition to the Chamber’s positions.

In a June editorial in Forbes, Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse, one of the Democrats on that report, even called out companies for not lobbying on climate change while trade groups made it a priority on the Hill. By staying members of groups like the Chamber of Commerce and not lobbying on climate change, Whitehouse said companies’ effect was a “net negative; the lobbying they support actually runs against their stated positions on sustainability and climate.”

ACCCE and NMA were among the fiercest opponents of congressional action on climate change and have been involved in legal challenges against EPA regulations on power plants. But environmentalists are hopeful that individual companies—and their more nuanced climate positions—can start to take primacy in the public eye.

“Increasingly, companies are being held accountable not just for positions they take, but positions they fund and support,” said Kathy Mulvey, manager of the accountability campaign at the Union of Concerned Scientists.

The American Petroleum institute has even begun to reevaluate its stated opposition to a carbon tax as its member companies seek to adapt to new climate policies. Politico reported in July that API was holding a task force on the group’s climate-change message that could lead to larger policy changes (an API spokesman offered no update on the task force).

“When you see membership dropping and public distancing from these positions, as we have with ALEC, then I think these groups will start to see consequences,” Mulvey said. “There will probably be some distinctions with these trade associations and their broader agendas.”

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