Utilities quit group over its opposition to climate change bill

McClatchy NewspapersSeptember 28, 2009 

WASHINGTON — Exelon, the nation's biggest operator of nuclear power plants, said Monday that it's quitting the U.S. Chamber of Commerce because of the business group's lobbying against climate and energy legislation.

Last week, two other large energy companies, Pacific Gas and Electric and PNM Resources, also quit the Chamber over objections to its stance on climate change.

The Chamber lobbied vigorously against the climate bill that narrowly passed the House in June. The measure would set an annually declining cap on emissions and set up a system of tradable emissions allowances, and also included incentives for renewable energy and efficiency. Sens. John Kerry, D-Mass., and Barbara Boxer, D-Calif., plan to unveil their draft of a Senate version on Wednesday.

Exelon chairman and chief executive John Rowe called for support for the legislation and announced the company's decision to leave the Chamber during a speech at a conference of the American Council for an Energy Efficient Economy.

The nuclear industry could benefit from legislation that raises fossil fuel costs, and the industry's interests are expected to be a key topic in the Senate debate. Roughly 50 percent of U.S. electric power is generated from burning coal, more than any other source.

"The carbon-based free lunch is over. But while we can't fix our climate problems for free, the price signal sent through a cap-and-trade system will drive low-carbon investments in the most inexpensive and efficient way possible," Rowe said.

The company said in a statement that its commitment to climate legislation was the reason it wasn't renewing its membership in the Chamber of Commerce.

The Chamber, the nation's largest business lobby, contends that the climate legislation would curtail energy from coal and other fossil fuels, creating energy scarcity that would increase prices. It's also argued that the legislation wouldn't result in a cut in greenhouse gases globally because the reduction would be outweighed by the growth of emissions from developing countries.

The proposed legislation would direct funds from the sale of allowances back to fossil fuel companies during a transition period, a plan aimed at preventing price spikes and shortages. It also provides incentives for the development of renewable energy.

"The bottom line is that there's rarely unanimous agreement among our membership on any given issue," said Chamber spokesman Eric Wohlschlegel, noting that the Chamber of Commerce represents more than 3 million companies.

Wohlschlegel also described the House climate bill as "fundamentally flawed" and said the Chamber was "focused on trying to find sensible solutions to the challenges of climate change."

William Kovacs, the Chamber's senior vice president for the environment, technology and regulatory affairs, said in August that that science of climate change should be put on trial, just as the 1925 Scopes trial helped decide whether evolution could be taught in schools.

John Scopes, a teacher in Dayton, Tenn., was convicted of violating a state law that banned the teaching of evolution. His conviction was later overturned, and the trial became the basis of a Broadway play and a film, "Inherit the Wind."

Last week, before it announced it was ending its membership in the Chamber, PNM Resources cited Kovacs Scopes trial analogy in a company statement.

"We strongly disagree with the Chamber's position on climate change legislation and particularly reject its recent theatrics calling for a 'Scopes Monkey Trial' to put the science of climate change on trial. We believe the science is compelling enough to act sooner rather than later, and we support comprehensive federal legislation to meaningfully reduce greenhouse gas emissions and protect customers against unreasonable cost increases," the statement said.

PG&E chairman and chief executive Peter Darbee wrote in a letter excerpted on a company blog that his employees "find it dismaying that the Chamber neglects the indisputable fact that a decisive majority of experts have said the data on global warming are compelling and point to a threat that cannot be ignored."

Exelon operates 17 nuclear reactors in the Midwest and mid-Atlantic states. The company also uses fossil fuels, hydropower and renewable energy to generate electricity. It sold many of its coal-fired plants in 2000, partly, Rowe has said, due to concern about climate change.

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