Big U.S. corporations commit to invest in clean energy, but not all of them buy Obama’s Clean Power Plan

By Lisa Friedman | 07/28/2015 09:00 AM EDT

The leaders of 13 major corporations showed off their green bona fides yesterday, committing $140 billion in low-carbon investment and pledging to develop 1,600 megawatts of clean energy.

The leaders of 13 major corporations showed off their green bona fides yesterday, committing $140 billion in low-carbon investment and pledging to develop 1,600 megawatts of clean energy.

But not all the companies that signed the White House’s climate change pledge are ready to put their weight behind the Obama administration’s effort to tackle global warming pollution in the United States by regulating emissions from coal-fired power plants.

Metals manufacturer Alcoa Inc., for example, which said it will slash the company’s emissions in half by 2025, has raised concerns that the proposed U.S. EPA Clean Power Plan could force manufacturing jobs overseas. Other companies, like Apple Inc., Goldman Sachs Group Inc. and Cargill Inc., haven’t taken a public position on the controversial rule, and their representatives yesterday sidestepped questions about whether the companies vowing support for climate action will use their political capital to lobby in favor of the domestic regulations.


"I can’t comment on the specifics of individual legislation, but … anything that can help bring greater certainty to the market is a good thing," said Kyung-Ah Park, director of environmental markets at Goldman Sachs.

Microsoft Corp.’s chief environmental strategist, Robert Bernard, added: "At this point, the majority of our discussions are around how do you leverage IT [information technology] to catalyze the transformation of society."

The White House pledge comes at a key moment in both domestic and international efforts to rein in greenhouse gas emissions. Next week, the administration is expected to release a final version of the proposed Clean Power Plan rule. That regulation will be central to the United States’ meeting its international pledge to slash emissions 26 to 28 percent below 2005 levels by 2025 — a commitment that will help make up a new global accord that could be signed in Paris in December.

Energy analysts yesterday called the business pledge significant and argued that when major multinational corporations from a variety of sectors — some of which, like PepsiCo Inc. and Coca-Cola Co., are also competitors — join together to pledge major action on global warming, potentially, it sends a powerful message.

Ranks include the mainstream of U.S. business, mostly

In addition to clean energy investment, the companies collectively called for an agreement in Paris that "takes a strong step forward toward a low-carbon, sustainable future" and declared that delaying action on climate change will ultimately cost more than moving to a low-carbon economy.

"Both clean energy and now climate change have gone totally mainstream and are increasingly bipartisan," asserted Dan Reicher, executive director of Stanford University’s Steyer-Taylor Center for Energy Policy and Finance.

Reicher also said it stands to reason that companies still have mixed positions on the Clean Power Plan, particularly since the final rule has not yet been unveiled.

"I’m not surprised that this very diverse group of companies has not taken a position on the Clean Power Plan. But it’s gratifying to see that they’ve taken a broader commitment to address climate change," he said. "Going into Paris, to be able to kick off a list of major U.S. companies with international reach that have signed onto an initiative like this, it’s important."

The other companies that signed the White House pledge include Bank of America Corp., Berkshire Hathaway Energy Co., General Motors Co., Google Inc., UPS Inc. and Wal-Mart Stores Inc. The commitments vary. Apple, for example, vowed to bring on about 280 megawatts of clean power generation by the end of 2016; Coca-Cola said it will reduce the carbon footprint of "the drink in your hand" by 25 percent by the end of the decade by reducing emissions across the value chain; and General Motors committed to reducing energy intensity from its facilities 20 percent by 2020 while also reducing carbon and water intensity.

Google, Microsoft and Wal-Mart are members of Business Forward, which has advocated in favor of the Clean Power Plan and argued that the EPA proposal will ultimately save businesses more than it will cost by helping to avoid the supply-chain interruptions caused by extreme weather events. Google in its public comments on the regulation applauded EPA for giving states flexibility, also arguing that smart implementation could promote economic growth.

Berkshire Hathaway Energy also submitted a public comment in favor of the rule, making some technical suggestions and saying the "continued development of North American non-carbon generation will be an important compliance tool in state plans to achieve emission reductions."

A Coca-Cola spokeswoman, asked if the company supports the Clean Power Plan, declined to answer directly.

"Our sustainability priorities are women, water and well-being — all areas that tie closely to our business. We focus our company efforts on these areas and matters that can impact our business," the spokeswoman said.

A Cargill spokesman said the company has not taken a position on the rule but noted that the company is part of the climate project Risky Business. "One of the many ways to ensure food security in a changing climate is through trade, and we pursue trade policy through the U.S. Chamber and the American Farm Bureau. We also advocate for greenhouse gas reduction within our trade associations and among our supply chain partners," the spokesman said.

Self-enforced commitments

Yet the U.S. Chamber of Commerce — which also counts pledge signers Google, PepsiCo, Coca-Cola and Alcoa among its members — is one of the Clean Power Plan’s fiercest opponents.

Asked if his company would consider leaving the Chamber of Commerce over the disconnect, Alcoa’s chief sustainability officer, Kevin McKnight, said the chamber has broad constituencies.

"There are times when they take positions that are not exactly aligned with the positions of most of their members," he said. Alcoa has argued that states should be allowed to take into account the "measurable and verifiable" carbon reductions made by utilities and industrial power generators since 2005, but overall, it has pledged to work constructively with EPA to design the regulation.

Meanwhile, he said, Alcoa is fully behind the Paris climate change agreement.

"We think Paris is a big deal. We think it is critical that the business community get behind governments, and we really do use Paris to move the world in a different direction," McKnight said. He called for a global deal that "drives a level playing field around the world."

All of the companies that signed the White House pledge have made previous efforts to rein in emissions or boost clean energy, but the White House said all of yesterday’s commitments are new. More pledges are expected later in the year. There will not, however, be any organized effort to monitor the companies’ efforts.

"The good news is, in a world of increased transparency, I think the public market will enforce any company that makes a pledge," said Microsoft’s Bernard. "We will remain accountable to our shareholders and ourselves."