The Business Divide Over Climate Legislation

by The New Republic | May 9, 2009

Via Marc Ambinder, this story from Bloomberg is worth flagging:

Duke Energy Corp., the owner of utilities in the U.S. Southeast and Midwest, won't renew its membership in the National Association of Manufacturers partly because of differences over climate policy.

"We are not renewing our membership in the NAM because in tough times, we want to invest in associations that are pulling in the same direction we are," Duke Chief Executive Officer Jim Rogers said last month in an interview. The association, the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and Republicans "ought to roll up their sleeves and get to work on a climate bill, but quite frankly, I don't see them changing."

Charlotte, North Carolina-based Duke is a founding member of the United States Climate Action Partnership, a coalition of business and environmental groups that seeks to influence legislation on greenhouse gases linked to global warming. The National Association of Manufacturers has opposed mandatory controls, arguing they will harm the economy.

Now, Duke has been relatively fickle in its support for action on climate change. The company has endorsed the idea of a cap-and-trade bill, but it has a very specific wish list. Last year, CEO Jim Rogers opposed the Lieberman-Warner climate bill because he wasn't keen on having the government auction off pollution permits, preferring them to be handed out to companies for free instead. (Not surprisingly, Duke's motivated by self-interest and is angling for the sort of cap regime that will give it a leg up on competitors.)

Still, we're not seeing businesses line up monolithically against mandatory curbs on greenhouse-gas emissions. Last week, Politico reported that the Chamber of Commerce was facing criticism from several of its own members, including Johnson & Johnson and Nike, for attacking the Waxman-Markey climate bill in the House. And now Exelon, a major electric utility, is running national ads in favor of cap-and-trade. (Exelon has the biggest nuclear fleet in the United States, which helps explain why its executives are less discomfited by carbon regulations, though they too are no doubt looking to shape legislation in ways that will be maximally advantageous to themselves.)

To return to the 1994 health care analogy, though, it's worth noting that, back then, you also saw a slew of business groups, including the National Association of Manufacturers and the Chamber of Commerce, initially back Bill Clinton's goals of covering everyone and containing health costs. But as the months creeped on and details about Clinton's plan emerged, most of those groups switched sides, and the reform-loving remnant found itself overwhelmed. As my colleague John Judis described it in 1995, "Those businesses that sold health care or that didn't provide health insurance to their workers were able to outgun those like Ford or Bethlehem Steel that saw their interest in a universal health plan." So it's much too early to say which side will win this fight.

--Bradford Plumer

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