U.S. Chamber of Commerce President and CEO Tom Donohue charged today that recent defections of high-profile companies from his group are part of an "orchestrated pressure campaign" by environmental groups and signaled that his influential business association won't shift its stance on climate change policy.
"We're sorry to see them go," Donohue said. "But it is sort of interesting that we have turnover all of the time and these four companies sort of woke up one morning and all decided they were on their own going to quit and put it in the newspaper."
In the past two weeks, Exelon Corp., PNM Resources Inc., PG&E Corp. and Apple Inc. have either resigned or announced plans to do so because of the business association's opposition to potential U.S. EPA regulation of greenhouse gases and a House-passed emissions cap-and-trade bill. Nike Inc. resigned from the chamber's more than 100-member board of directors but vowed to remain a member company.
Donohue said he and other chamber staff members would "keep our minds open" to member concerns, but also underscored that the chamber's climate stance is the result of broad-based deliberations among the chamber's staff, its board and company officials. The chamber opposes EPA regulation of greenhouse gas emissions via the Clean Air Act but supports legislation on climate change at "the earliest possible time," he explained. The more than 3-million-member business association also supports a comprehensive international agreement to reduce global emissions of carbon dioxide and other heat-trapping gases.
Donohue said he is confident that the chamber's policy position is shared by the "great majority of the American people and the business community." He said fewer than a dozen executives of member companies are pressing him to change course.
"This is a time for business and those who represent the business community to be strong," Donohue added. "The current attacks on us will not weaken us. In fact, additional supporters are rallying to our cause all day long."
Donohue's remarks came during an hourlong meeting with reporters where he also discussed the chamber's position on climate science, EPA's proposed regulation of greenhouse gas emissions and how the business lobby crafts policy positions.
The meeting capped a two-week period in which the chamber has gradually but significantly shifted its response to the departure of members. The chamber has gone from not commenting on PG&E's Sept. 22 announcement that it would not renew its chamber membership, to downplaying the importance of two more utilities leaving, to Donohue issuing a statement about the chamber's climate policy position after Nike's board resignation.
Apple resigned from the chamber on Oct. 6, spurring Donohue to send a strongly worded letter to company CEO Steve Jobs and call for a question-and-answer session with national reporters. Former Vice President Al Gore -- who shared a Nobel Peace Prize for his advocacy for action on climate change -- is an Apple board member.
If the chamber is not worried about companies leaving, "it makes me wonder why they had to call a gaggle ... to speak to reporters," said Peter Altman, the Natural Resources Defense Council's climate campaign director. "It obviously worries them greatly."
Altman scoffed at Donohue's charge that environmental companies are mounting an organized campaign to spur chamber member defections.
"It's nice of Donohue to give the environmental movement credit for being able to convince Fortune 500 companies what group they should be a part of," Altman said. "But it's a red herring. These companies are making the decision on their own."
Donohue rejected claims made by Nike in a recent E&E article that the chamber's board does not vet decisions made on climate policy.
"That member of the board never raised that issue with us before," Donohue said. "That member is a vigorous participant in our transportation committee, attends meetings, participates in policymaking processes, and so fully understands how the policy works."
Donohue did not name Nike, but when asked if that was the company he was referring to, he said Nike was the business that had voiced concerns about governance.
Donohue said that the board voted on climate issues, but that they were part of a consent calendar, where members are voting on several items at one time. Neither Nike nor any other board member asked for those items to be pulled from the consent calendar and discussed more extensively, he said.
Kate Meyers, a Nike spokeswoman, declined to comment on Donohue's latest remarks.
"We are keeping our eye on the main goal of achieving the passage of meaningful climate change legislation," Meyers added.
Donohue said the chamber board did not vote whether to support or oppose the House-passed emissions cap-and-trade bill. He said that opposing the legislation was a staff decision because it did not meet the principles that the chamber already had approved through its committee and board process.
Fred Palmer, senior vice president of government relations for St. Louis-based Peabody Energy Corp., the world's largest private coal company and a member of the chamber's board of directors, said in an earlier interview that businesses that want to be heard have plenty of opportunity to voice their opinions.
Palmer also said that the chamber's position reflects what most members want.
An official who is knowledgeable of chamber energy policy, but who spoke with E&E on condition of anonymity, said the chamber board acts as more of an adviser than as the final word on policy.
"On policy, it only sets broad positions and principles," the official noted. "Groups within the chamber, like Bill Kovacs' Environment, Technology and Regulatory Affairs shop, develop detailed policy positions in concert with contributors, which include some board members."
"Companies with the largest contributions tend to hold more sway with chamber staff on setting final policy positions," the official added.
Talk of the town
Donohue's comments come as more than 150 clean-energy company executives and investors converge in Washington to make the economic and environmental case for cap-and-trade legislation. President Obama was slated to discuss climate change policy, along with health care and the economy, during lunch today with executives from Amazon.com Inc., FPL Group Inc., Eastman Kodak Co. and Kraft Foods Inc.
The House passed legislation in late June (H.R. 2454) that would cap U.S. greenhouse gas emissions at 17 percent below 2005 levels by 2020 and 83 percent by 2050. Under the legislation's cap-and-trade proposal, power plants and other regulated entities must pollute less or buy and sell emissions allowances to meet the federal targets. The bill, sponsored by Reps. Henry Waxman (D-Calif.) and Edward Markey (D-Mass.), also would set a 20 percent renewable energy and energy-efficiency standard by 2020.
Sens. John Kerry (D-Mass.) and Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.) introduced companion legislation last week that would cap emissions at 20 percent below 2005 levels by 2020 and 83 percent by 2050.
The chamber opposed the Waxman-Markey bill, charging that it would put U.S. businesses at a competitive disadvantage with companies in countries that do not cap their emissions. The business group has yet to offer a detailed critique of the Senate's companion legislation, which contains many of the House bill's provisions.
"It is good to have the Chamber of Commerce on board supporting the tenets of Waxman-Markey," Markey said upon hearing of Donohue's bullet points on what the business group supports. "Unfortunately, while the chamber says they are for everything the Waxman-Markey bill addresses, they are just not for the bill itself; the chamber should listen to the companies who would rather leave the group than wait for it to back up their talk with action."
The chamber's recent rift with some of its members has come up often in conversations among clean-energy advocates visiting Washington this week. The fly-in was organized by the investor coalition Ceres and the Clean Economy Network, which counts several chamber companies among its members.
"This issue has really divided the business community," said Nancy Floyd, who runs the San Francisco-based venture capital firm Nth Power LLC. "The divide is not really along traditional players versus technology players; it is across the board."
Floyd said she is not a chamber member but would like the association to get behind the Kerry-Boxer bill.
"This is the biggest economic opportunity to come our way," Floyd said. "It is the most patriotic legislation we can get behind."
Bill Keith, president of SunRise Solar Inc., a St. John, Ind.-based maker of solar-powered ventilation systems, said there has been "a lot of chatter" among executives this week about the chamber defections. Keith is not a chamber member but sits on the group's intellectual property committee.
"I fully respect the chamber, but I think they are missing the mark on the climate issue," Keith said. "For one, they are not scientists, they are the U.S. Chamber of Commerce. They are supposed to represent businesses."
'Scopes Monkey Trial'
Keith was referring to the chamber's August petition of EPA to host an on-the-record hearing, which a top chamber official initially likened to the Scopes Monkey Trial, in which environmental and business groups would engage in a weighing of the scientific evidence that global warming endangers human health (E&ENews PM, Aug. 25). EPA is drafting a finding that would declare that greenhouse gas emissions from new automobiles and their engines contribute to air pollution that endangers public health and welfare.
In recent months, chamber executives have vowed to sue if EPA rejects the chamber's call for scientific debate and moves ahead with the so-called endangerment finding.
Speaking to reporters today, Donohue said he regretted the "Scopes" trial comparison. However, he did not back away from the threat of litigation against EPA.
"If they didn't open the debate on the science and if they went ahead with a massive endangerment finding, there would probably be a line all of the way down the street of people that wanted to challenge," Donohue said.
Donohue's statements that the chamber is not questioning the science of climate change clash with the business group's previous remarks and efforts, charged Altman, who has chronicled the chamber departures on his NRDC blog and launched the Web site whodoesthechamberrepresent.org.
"They have a very clear track record of casting doubt and raising questions about the science on this," Altman said. "You can see that pattern constantly in their communications to the Hill, the general public and their own members. It's completely ludicrous for them to try and pretend that they have not been into climate science denial."
In the meeting with reporters, Donohue did not directly answer a question about whether he believes that humans are causing climate change, instead saying, "This is an issue that the world needs to deal with."