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Utility companies are pushing back on climate policy, report says

The Climate 202

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A report said utilities were pushing back on climate policy. In response, utilities pushed back on the report itself.

Almost half of the 25 largest investor-owned utilities in the United States are actively pushing back against climate policy aligned with the Paris agreement, according to a new analysis released today by the climate think tank InfluenceMap.

The report concludes that while some utilities have rallied around climate action at the state and federal level, others have emerged as obstacles to curbing planet-warming emissions from the power sector.

However, the main trade association for U.S. utilities questioned the report's methodology and findings, calling it a “laughable” analysis that failed to mention utilities' progress in reducing their own emissions.

The authors of the analysis looked at several corporate activities that constitute engagement with climate policy, including lobbying, advertising, direct contact with elected officials, and funding of campaigns and political parties. They also examined the trade associations to which utilities belong.

The authors gave the utilities scores from 0 to 100 to indicate how supportive or opposed the company is toward climate policy aligned with the 2015 Paris agreement, which sought to limit global temperature rise to “well below” 2 degrees Celsius (3.6 degrees Fahrenheit) above preindustrial levels — and preferably to 1.5 degrees Celsius (2.7 degrees Fahrenheit).

InfluenceMap found that just four utilities broadly support robust climate policy, while 10 utilities demonstrate mixed engagement and 11 utilities are actively obstructing policies aligned with the Paris climate accord. In addition, they found a “clear correlation” between the success of individual states in passing climate legislation and the engagement of their largest utilities.

“Utilities have huge influence to make or break climate policy, especially at the state level,” Kendra Haven, a co-author of the report and U.S. program manager at InfluenceMap, told The Climate 202. “So shifting this sector is going to be key for the U.S. to meet its Paris agreement targets.”

The main findings of the analysis specifically include:

  • Edison International in California, Exelon in Illinois, Public Service Enterprise Group in New Jersey, and Pacific Gas & Electric in California received the best scores — 77 or higher — for supporting climate policies at the state and federal level. For example, Edison International and PG&E have advocated for building electrification codes.
  • CenterPoint Energy in Texas and Southern Company in Georgia received the lowest scores — 32 and 37, respectively — for opposing climate policies or supporting anti-climate measures. For example, in 2021, CenterPoint Energy and Southern Company both supported state bills preempting municipal bans of natural gas use in new buildings.
  • FirstEnergy Corp. in Ohio received a low score of 45 because of its involvement in an alleged $60 million corruption scheme to bail out two nuclear plants in the state.
Pushback from EEI

The Edison Electric Institute (EEI), a trade association for investor-owned utilities, took issue with the report.

“We find the overly simplistic approach this piece takes to evaluating the complex path to a carbon-free future to be laughable,” EEI spokesman Brian Reil said in an email to The Climate 202. “Our industry is highly regulated and is subject to strict reliability standards, two key dynamics that are entirely absent from this piece. We also fail to understand the opaque scoring process that is used to posit that natural gas is bad, with no recognition of the role that natural gas plays in enabling more renewables.”

Asked to respond to these allegations, InfluenceMap spokesman Simon Cullen said in an email that the group's scoring process was robust and its methodology is publicly available on its website.

Regarding natural gas, Cullen said: “It is not InfluenceMap that has decided that ‘gas is bad.’ Our scoring uses benchmarks based on what scientists say is necessary to achieve Paris agreement goals, and the clear advice from the [U.N. Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change] is that unabated fossil gas is in fact making climate change worse.”

Spokespeople for individual utilities touted their climate commitments when asked to comment on the analysis.

  • FirstEnergy spokeswoman Jennifer Young said in an email that “the report overlooks a series of concrete steps our new leadership team has taken to support our [greenhouse gas] reduction goals and the energy transition.” Young noted that FirstEnergy released a climate strategy in 2020 that calls for becoming carbon-neutral by 2050, adding that the utility plans to retire its two coal-fired power plants in West Virginia by 2035 and 2040.
  • CenterPoint Energy spokesman Geoffrey Castro said in an email that the company is striving “to be the first combined electric and natural gas utility with electric generating assets to achieve Net Zero for its Scope 1 and Scope 2 greenhouse gas emissions by 2035.”
  • Southern Company spokesman Schuyler Baehman said the utility plans to reach net-zero emissions by 2050. He noted that the number of coal units owned and operated by Southern Company decreased by 73 percent since 2007, adding that, “pending regulatory approval, those reductions will continue.”

Pressure points

Climate pledges are improving — but the world is still on a disastrous path

Humanity can hit a key target of the Paris agreement only if countries fully live up to their long-term pledges to zero out emissions by the end of the century. However, most countries are nowhere near on track to turn their ambitions into reality, according to a new study published Wednesday in the journal Nature, Brady Dennis and Sarah Kaplan report for The Washington Post. 

This is the first study to find that the world has just over a 50 percent chance of limiting temperature rise to 2 degrees Celsius (3.6 degrees Fahrenheit) above preindustrial levels — a significant sign of progress from only a few years ago. The likelihood of hitting the 1.5 Celsius target is between 6 and 10 percent, unless countries adopt unprecedented and more rapid climate actions this decade.

California outlines plan to phase out new gas-powered cars by 2035

California on Wednesday unveiled an ambitious plan to mandate an increase in the sale of zero-emissions vehicles, a move toward enacting its goal of banning new gasoline-powered cars by 2035, the New York Times’s Lisa Friedman reports. Transportation is the leading source of greenhouse gas emissions and other pollutants in the state. 

“These emission reductions will help stabilize the climate and reduce the risk of severe drought and wildfire and its consequent fine particulate matter pollution,” the state plan says.

If adopted, the proposed rule from the California Air Resources Board would require 35 percent of new passenger vehicles sold in the state by 2026 to be battery- or hydrogen-powered. It would also dramatically cut the state’s greenhouse gas emissions and raise the bar for the global auto industry and for other states to follow suit.

But the rule would be a big leap. According to the board, 12.4 percent of new vehicles currently sold in California are zero-emissions vehicles, and this number would need to jump to 100 percent by 2035. 

Corporate commitments

Intel is the latest Silicon Valley giant to promise net-zero emissions

Intel Corp., a California-based technology company, on Wednesday announced it aims to reach net-zero greenhouse gas emissions across its direct operations by 2040, Dieter Holger reports for the Wall Street Journal. Most of its emissions currently come from chemicals used to manufacture its computer chips. 

“The impact of climate change is an urgent global threat,” Intel CEO Pat Gelsinger said in a statement. “Protecting our planet demands immediate action and fresh thinking about how the world operates.”

The company said it might have to use carbon offsets to achieve its goal if no other options are feasible, despite environmentalists saying offsets are unreliable. Intel added that it would work with customers and suppliers to reduce its scope 3 emissions, or those from the company's indirect operations.

International climate

Nature could become a casualty of the war in Ukraine

Research on past conflicts shows that the war in Ukraine could have a profound environmental impact, the New York Times’s Emily Anthes reports. Wars typically alter ecosystems for decades after destroying habitats, killing wildlife and generating massive amounts of pollution. 

Ukraine, an ecological transition zone, is home to bountiful wetlands, forests and rare species. But since Russia invaded in February, troops have already entered or conducted military operations in more than one-third of the nation’s protected natural areas, leaving landscapes vulnerable to bomb scars, fires, flattened vegetation and toxic gases. 

“We see what’s happening in Ukraine,” said Thor Hanson, an independent conservation biologist and expert on how wars affect the environment. “And we are shocked and horrified for the human cost first and foremost, but also what’s happening to the environment there.”

Pollution is an especially pressing concern in Ukraine, which is home to a number of chemical plants, coal mines, gas lines and other industrial sites that could release massive amounts of pollution if damaged. 

In the atmosphere

Viral

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