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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