Utilities amp up lobbying over climate debate

Fifty of the nation's largest electric utilities amped up spending on lobbyists by 30% late last year to influence the debate in Congress just underway on one of the biggest issues facing lawmakers: climate change.

From Duke Energy, with 4 million customers, to American Electric Power (AEP), which sells energy in 11 states, the companies spent a total $51 million in the last six months of 2008, $12 million more than the same period in 2007, a USA TODAY review of lobbying reports shows.

"It's what industry does with legislation. They make it better for their bottom line," said John Coequyt of the Sierra Club, an environmental group.

Buoyed by President Obama's support, House Democrats want a "cap-and-trade" system requiring utilities to cut carbon emissions 20% by 2020 from 2005 levels or buy credits from lesser-polluting firms to offset emissions above the limit. Critics, including House Minority Leader John Boehner of Ohio, say those costs will fall to consumers.

Climate change has become a boon to lobbyists on all sides of the issue, despite Obama's attempt to lessen the influence of special interests. A Center for Public Integrity analysis shows interest groups involved with climate change hired 2,430 lobbyists in the past year, up 300% from five years ago.

Work on the legislation began last October when Rep. John Dingell, D-Mich., introduced a similar cap-and-trade bill. Momentum increased after Obama's election, and in March two Democrats introduced the current "discussion draft" bill.

Some utilities, including AEP, say they support cap-and-trade but want to shape how it will work. A key question is whether the government will initially sell emission credits or distribute some free.

Mike Morris, AEP's CEO, called the proposal a good start but said unresolved details may determine how much electric bills will go up. The company's lobbying increased to $8.4 million in the second half of 2008, up from $1.4 million in 2007.

"It has everything to do with our customers," said Morris, who said much of the increase was due to issues other than climate change. "It has a direct and immediate effect on my customers."

Duke's lobbying jumped 57% to $3.4 million in 2008, lobbying reports show. Spokesman Thomas Williams said the company reported lobbying differently in 2008, throwing off the comparison.

Environmental groups increased lobbying, too, including the Sierra Club, whose expenses nearly doubled to $450,000 over the same period.