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New Groups Revive the Debate Over Causes of Climate Change

By Steven Mufson
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, September 25, 2009

Sen. Max Baucus (D-Mont.) may be grappling with health care, but in Montana a new advocacy group opposed to climate legislation called C02 Is Green is taking aim at the next big battle for Congress.

The group is already running television ads: "This will cost us jobs," one says. "There is no scientific evidence that CO2 is a pollutant. In fact higher CO2 levels than we have today would help the Earth's ecosystems." It urges voters to contact Baucus, who in the past has backed bills to cap emissions and allow companies to trade pollution allowances.

The man behind the latest entry to the climate legislation wars is H. Leighton Steward, a veteran oil industry executive, co-author of the "Sugar Busters!" dieting books, and winner of an Environmental Protection Agency award for a report on damage being done to Mississippi wetlands. Now retired, he says he wants to "get the message out there" that carbon dioxide, which the Supreme Court has ruled a pollutant and which most scientists regard as a dangerous greenhouse gas, "is a net benefit for the planet."

Steward has joined forces with Corbin J. Robertson Jr., chief executive of and leading shareholder in Natural Resource Partners, a Houston-based owner of coal resources that lets other companies mine in return for royalties. Its revenues were $291 million in 2008. They have formed two groups -- CO2 Is Green designated for advocacy and Plants Need CO2 for education -- with about $1 million. Plants Need CO2 has applied for 501(c)(3) tax status, so that contributions would qualify as charitable donations, said Natural Resource Partners general counsel Wyatt L. Hogan, who also serves on the group's board.

Fractious Debate

The new groups join an increasingly fractious debate over climate legislation that has roiled corporate and environmental groups alike. Earlier this month, Duke Energy, Alcoa and Alstom all pulled out of the American Coalition for Clean Coal Electricity, an industry group whose ads have asserted that the House climate bill would make energy unaffordable. "We thought [the bill] had evolved in ways to be affordable for our customers," said Duke spokesman Tom Williams.

This week, a group of large corporations -- including New Mexico utility PNM Resources, California utility PG&E, power generator Exelon and Nike -- denounced the U.S. Chamber of Commerce's opposition to climate legislation.

PNM said it would let its membership in the Chamber lapse at the end of the year. "At PNM Resources, we see climate change as the most pressing environmental and economic issue of our time," the company said in a statement.

Earlier in the week, PNM took aim at a Chamber official who had suggested holding a climate change trial like the 1925 Scopes "monkey" trial over evolution. "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," said the company, whose chief executive, Jeff Sterba, is a former Chamber board member. "We believe the science is compelling enough to act sooner rather than later."

The head of the Chamber, Thomas J. Donohue, said earlier this week that the group opposed the EPA's potentially far-reaching regulatory power over CO2, but asserted that "we have not ruled out all cap-and-trade systems or a carbon tax."

Exelon, which has paid as much as $100,000 in dues to the Chamber, said Thursday it also objected to the group's participation in town hall meetings organized to oppose the House's climate bill.

"They have asked us to increase our presence or contribution for years," said Elizabeth A. Moler, Exelon's executive vice president for government and public policy. "We have never done that because of the position they have taken in opposition to competitive electricity markets and particularly wouldn't increase our contribution in light of what they're doing on climate."

The town hall meetings were organized over the summer by Energy Citizens, a coalition that received substantial financial and organizational support from the American Petroleum Institute. Shell and BP declined an API request to assist the effort.

Assumptions Challenged

For much of the early part of the year, climate debate centered on how to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, and there was little challenge to the widely accepted notion that carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases are responsible for climate change. But some independent groups and associations are now questioning those assumptions, and they are clamoring to be heard.

"We thought that the debate had moved from the science of global warming to what to do about it," said Josh Dorner, spokesman for Clean Energy Works, a recently formed coalition lobbying for climate legislation.

In addition to the ads aimed at Baucus, the CO2 Is Green group has taken out television ads in New Mexico, home to Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee Chairman Jeff Bingaman (D), and a half-page ad ran in Monday's Washington Post. The group's founder, Steward, said that higher carbon dioxide levels would spur more growth of plants and trees. He said that past temperature changes had preceded changes in levels of CO2 and sometimes did not correlate with them at all.

Dorner charged that the group's position was linked to Steward's financial interests. Steward, former vice chairman of Burlington Resources, received more than $600,000 in fees, stock and options for being a director of another oil firm, EOG Resources.

"I'm not getting a penny for this," said Steward, who said he owned oil company stocks but no coal stocks. "It's just something I thought people should know."

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