This week, as President Trump reportedly prepares to begin unwinding the EPA’s Clean Power Plan, and as Congressional Republicans continue their systematic dismantling of environmental protections, the heads of electric utilities are showing up in Washington, D.C. to raise money for the GOP leadership.
On Tuesday night (March 14), the Edison Electric Institute (EEI), the major trade association for investor-owned utilities, hosted a big money fundraiser — the cheapest seats cost $1,000 and ran up to $25,000 for the dinner — to benefit Speaker of the House Paul Ryan. On the Senate side, Majority leader Mitch McConnell reaped the rewards of a benefit reception that cost attendees between $2,500 and $5,000.
Earlier in the day, the group held a lunchtime fundraiser for the Chairman of the House Energy and Commerce Committee Greg Walden ($1,000 per individual; $2,500 per PAC; $5,000 per host). On Wednesday, House Ways and Means Committee Chair Kevin Brady and Democratic Whip Steny Hoyer will pocket plenty of checks from utility agents attending their respective fundraisers.
These events were exposed by the newly launched UtilitySecrets.org, a project of the Center for Media and Democracy and the Energy and Policy Institute. The watchdog groups obtained invitations to the five fundraisers, hosted this week while utility executives are gathered in the capital for an EEI conference.
The events themselves reveal a deliberate effort by electric utilities to influence decisionmaking around the very environmental regulations and policies that impact power production — and utility profits. And they coincide with the steady rollback of key environmental protections meant to prevent harmful impacts from coal- and gas-fired electric generation, such as the Stream Protection Rule and the Obama administration’s Clean Power Plan, which would limit greenhouse gas emissions from power plants.
“At the same time that Republicans in Congress are rolling back environmental protections, the fat cat CEOs from electric utilities are writing big checks for Republican leadership,” said Nick Surgey, research director at the Center for Media and Democracy. “The utilities might occasionally talk a good game on the environment, but those words are meaningless when they continue to fund politicians who are standing in the way of positive change to tackle climate change.”
Revolving Door Lands an Enemy of Solar at Energy Department
Meanwhile, utilities that perceive the spread of rooftop solar as a threat to their business model just landed a key ally in the Department of Energy (DOE). As also reported on UtilitySecrets.org, longtime solar antagonist Brian McCormack was just named as chief of staff under Sec. Rick Perry at the DOE. McCormack worked as EEI’s vice president of political and external affairs and served as EEI’s liaison of sorts to the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC), where he helped cultivate an official policy to undermine rooftop solar by combatting net metering.
Brian McCormack, former Edison Electric Institute vice president and new chief of staff in the Department of Energy. Credit: UtilitySecrets.org
McCormack was also an editor of a 2015 report funded by EEI and released by Louisiana State University (LSU). His contributions — which EEI asked LSU not to acknowledge though it ultimately did — included stripping out mentions of solar’s positive environmental impacts and cutting sections about rising prices of electricity delivered by utilities.
David Pomerantz, executive director of the Energy and Policy Institute, called McCormack “one of the people pulling the strings of the utility industry’s war on distributed solar power.”
Possible Conflict on Auto Emission Standards
While the EEI member utilities will be steadily working with Republican leaders to push back on the Obama-era climate and environment protections that directly impact utilities' generation of electricity, there is one legacy climate policy that puts the utilities at odds with GOP leaders. President Trump is expected to announce this week that the administration is pressing reset on fuel efficiency standards that could prove critical in speeding up the adoption of electric vehicles.
Most Republican leaders side with the automakers which would rather not comply with California’s relatively strict emissions standards, which — long story short — formed the basis of the federal rules that the Obama administration negotiated with Detroit, and which help catalyze sales of plug-in vehicles. Utilities, however, see EVs as a lifeline to help bolster sagging revenues, and support policies that promote the wider deployment of plug-in cars.
As EEI members seek to curry favor with the Republican leadership, it will be interesting to see if utilities can compete with the oil and gas interests that wish to keep Americans driving expensive, inefficient gas guzzlers for as long as there’s oil to be drilled.