Defiant Energy

How the American electric utility industry pushed climate denial, doubt, and delay

This story launches Deny and Delay: Inside the Climate Disinformation Machine, a series on the effects of climate misinformation on democracy. Co-produced with Columbia Journalism Review and guest edited by Sandra Steingraber, Deny and Delay will continue with a second story later this year and two more in early 2023.

Since electricity became mainstream a century and a half ago, burning coal, oil, and fossil gas has allowed us to power our lives. Whether it’s lighting our homes, running machines like dishwashers, or more recently connecting to the internet, electricity is central to modern life. Still, most people do not find the electricity system particularly interesting. The companies that create and deliver our electricity—electric utilities—come in a dizzying variety of shapes and sizes: from investor-owned corporations, to municipally-run nonprofits, to rural electric co-ops. Utilities are often governed by arcane regulatory agencies called “Public Utility Commissions.” These institutions run complex proceedings with dockets identified by long alphanumeric character strings stored on websites that look like they were last updated in 2006. It all seems rather dry, and difficult to navigate.

But electric utilities are critical to understand because they create a significant share of America’s carbon pollution. This is its dark side: it fuels the climate crisis. Electric utilities have understood that burning fossil fuels endangers our stable climate since the 1960s. Rather than face these facts, utilities joined with fossil fuel companies to promote climate denial over several decades, as my research shows. 

Yet, electricity is Janus-faced: it is both the problem and the solution to the climate crisis. Clean electricity combined with electrification can solve the majority of the climate crisis and provide a massive opportunity for electric utilities—if they could only see it. 

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Several years ago, before I started researching electric utilities’ role in promoting climate denial, I came across a memorable advertisement from 1991. It showed a cartoon chicken running around with the caption: “Who told you the earth was warming… Chicken Little?” The ad was funded by a climate denial campaign called “Informed Citizens for the Environment.” Utilities spearheaded this work, including the private utilities such as Southern Company and Arizona Public Service, as well as the utility association, the Edison Electric Institute (EEI). Even though climate science was well established by the early 1990s, the ad argued there was “no hard evidence” for global warming. 

As research from Justin Farrell shows, these talking points made their way into the daily news, speeches on the floor of Congress, and even the President’s remarks. A decade later, when I first learned about climate change in my high school geography course, my otherwise brilliant teacher would parrot the same lines this ad was promoting. Correlation isn’t causation. Carbon dioxide shmarbon dioxide. Maybe warmer weather would be better. 

These ads made me curious. I knew oil and gas companies were well known for promoting climate denial, but it wasn’t clear what role electric utilities played in spreading misinformation. In 2017, the utility watchdog group, the Energy and Policy Institute, published a report that traced utilities’ early knowledge of climate change as far back as the 1960s. Despite knowing that climate science was solid, this report showed that utilities decided to deny the science. Inspired by their work, I wrote about utilities’ role in promoting climate denial in my 2020 book, Short Circuiting Policy. But when I completed that project, I knew there were still more stones left to overturn. 

I decided to undertake a systematic academic study examining the role utilities played in promoting climate denial, doubt, and delay. I recruited a star doctoral student to the project, Emily Williams. She was completing her dissertation in geography, and had led campaigns in our community on fossil fuel divestment, and against oil projects. Along with the invaluable help of lab manager Sydney Bartone and former undergraduate Emma Swanson, we started looking for evidence. We would spend the next several years poring over hundreds of utility documents.

Like fossil fuel companies, electric utilities also set up front groups to attack climate science.

We modeled our work after Geoffrey Supran and Naomi Oreskes’ landmark 2017 paper on ExxonMobil, an oil and gas company. Their research revealed the company had publicly promoted climate denial, even as ExxonMobil’s own internal scientists confirmed climate change was real. This paper had a massive impact, with more that 200,000 downloads. Journalists wrote up the paper in hundreds of news articles, and it even led to Congressional testimony from Oreskes, alongside former Exxon scientists.

But studying one company is different from studying an entire industry. How could we get a handle on what electric utilities, broadly, were saying about climate change over many decades? One of our biggest challenges was figuring out the scope for the work, including constructing our sample. We aimed to find all the publicly available documents in which electric utilities promoted climate denial and doubt. Thankfully, Kert Davies at the Climate Investigations Center had set up an online archive with hundreds of historical documents. Since the 1990s, Davies has collected whatever information he could find on the main climate denial groups, like the Global Climate Coalition (GCC). Initially it was scraps of paper here and there, but eventually he scanned entire boxes of documents and put them up online. His archive is now the go-to source to understand climate denial, and it includes dozens of documents linked to the electric utility industry.

While those documents could show us that organizations in the utility industry promoted climate denial, they wouldn’t be able to tell us how common it was over time. To get a sense of average utility messaging, we needed to build a representative sample. Luckily, we were able to find two industry journals with issues dating back decades. These journals are run by EEI, the trade association for investor-owned utilities, and the Electric Power Research Institute (EPRI), the non-profit research arm of the industry. We collected all the available issues from these journals and then drew a random sample so we could read a manageable and representative set of articles more closely. Ultimately, we built a sample of 188 primary documents published between 1968 and 2019. 

We read each of these documents carefully, analyzing what the utility industry was saying over time. Beginning in the 1960s and 1970s, it was clear that the utility industry was aware of climate science and its implications. One article from an industry journal published in 1977 said “if [climate change turned] out to be of major concern, then fossil fuel combustion will be essentially unacceptable.” But rather than change their behavior, utilities cast doubt on the science. Disturbingly, as the science became clearer, electric utilities’ messaging became worse, shifting to outright denial by the early 1990s. In 1993, an EEI article claimed that climate change would lead to “cooler days, warmer nights, and better vegetables.” A 1997 article from EPRI argued that “aggregate damages to the U.S. economy are likely to be substantially lower than previously estimated, with some sectors realizing net benefits.” 

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It wasn’t just official utility industry organizations promoting these lies. Like fossil fuel companies, electric utilities also set up front groups to attack climate science. The GCC, one of the most prolific and powerful climate disinformation campaigns, operated throughout the 1990s. It was a powerful corporate lobbying group that aimed to undermine climate policy. The coalition not only included members from the oil and gas industry, but also had strong links with the electric utility industry. Membership lists show EEI, American Electric Power, Consumers Energy, and Southern Company were co-founders of the GCC. Over a quarter of the GCC’s members came from the industry, including the National Rural Electric Cooperative Association. In fact, the Executive Director of the coalition, John Shlaes, had previously served in leadership at EEI for more than a decade.

The GCC was not the only utility industry front group. Utilities also worked to block climate action through the Utility Air Regulatory Group (UARG), founded in the 1970s to resist Clean Air Act regulations. This organization promoted climate doubt and filed lawsuits on behalf of electric utilities to fight climate policy until it dissolved in 2019. For example, the Energy and Policy Institute uncovered that the Tennessee Valley Authority (TVA) used millions of dollars from customer revenues to fund UARG lawsuits blocking climate action. A congressional investigation was launched looking into the misuse of ratepayer funds for such activities, leading to many utilities terminating their membership—but not all. Several utilities and associations remained members of UARG until the bitter end, including EEI, American Electric Power, Ameren, FirstEnergy, TVA, and Southern Company.

Like a shell game, these front groups hid who was funding the work—and why. Utilities that had made poor financial decisions to keep investing in coal long after it made economic sense were funding climate denial campaigns, rather than taking a hard look at their operations and how they could be better corporations. What’s worse, electric utilities used money from captured customers to fund this immoral work. Since most utilities are monopolies, if a family found out their utility was using their monthly electricity payments to block climate action and undermine public health, there was nothing they could do about it. People couldn’t decide to take their dollars elsewhere. They were stuck. 

Official industry tactics shifted to delay by the turn of the century. Notably this is the same pattern that Supran and Oreskes found in their work on ExxonMobil — a move from denial to delay. Utility messages focused on how other countries or sectors were more responsible for cleaning up carbon pollution than the utility industry. The industry also heavily promoted “clean coal” even as carbon capture and storage projects have almost universally failed to materialize in the power sector over the last two decades. 

Like a shell game, these front groups hid who was funding the work—and why.

One of the most illuminating findings from our research is that today’s biggest polluters are the same ones who had the largest hand in promoting climate denial. A few years ago, I partnered with John Romankiewicz and Cara Bottorff at the Sierra Club on a report about the 50 dirtiest utilities. It surprised me when the same names kept coming up across these two, separate projects: Ameren, American Electric Power (AEP), Arizona Public Service, Dominion, DTE, Duke, FirstEnergy, and Southern Company. Some of these utilities were also the ones I had focused on in my book, because they had worked to undermine renewable energy policies. Clearly, these electric utilities promoted doubt and denial for their own financial gain, regardless of the cost for people and the planet. The biggest polluters were also the biggest liars.

Out of all the utilities that came up in our work, Southern Company stood out. Just a few short years ago, the company’s CEO, Tom Fanning, was asked on national television: “Do you think it’s been proven that CO2 is the primary climate control knob?” Fanning replied “No. Certainly not. Is climate change happening? Certainly. It’s been happening for millennia…” In other words: the CEO of the second-largest utility in the country, who was paid $15 million that year alone, spread climate denial in the year 2017. 

Although Fanning recently announced his planned retirement, in the wake of a still-unfolding corruption scandal, he is but the latest chapter in a long history of climate denial at Southern Company. A recent Energy and Policy Institute report revealed how Southern Company understood some of the earliest climate science, as far back as 1964. Despite this, the utility became a driving force behind climate disinformation campaigns. Starting in the late 1980s, it attacked climate science and promoted clean coal. Notably, this report and our research came to similar conclusions independently. To this day Southern Company generates a majority of its power from gas and coal and continues to make misleading statements about “clean, safe” gas. When the utility chooses a new CEO, it needs to pick someone who understands that clean energy is our future. Not another dinosaur clinging to familiar fossil fuels.

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Electric utilities face a choice. They do not have to be fossil fuel companies anymore. They can now use clean energy to make electricity. This isn’t just important to clean up the quarter of current carbon pollution that comes from the electricity sector—it’s also key to solving the majority of our climate problem. If we transition to 100% clean power by 2035, as President Biden has pledged to do, and we use that electricity to power our cars, homes, commercial businesses, and even parts of heavy industry through electrification, we can actually cut today’s carbon pollution by around three-quarters. And this pathway won’t just cut air pollution and tackle the climate crisis: it will also drive the largest growth in the electric utility industry in more than sixty years. As an analysis from known crunchy-granola Morgan Stanley shows, utilities that are moving faster towards clean energy have higher stock valuations. So it’s not just good for the planet, it’s also good business. Clean electricity combined with electrification is the way. 

The new climate law, the Inflation Reduction Act, will help utilities make the right choice and leave both dirty energy and climate denial behind once and for all. The law includes long term extensions of key tax credits for wind, solar and batteries. In the past, municipal utilities and co-operatives have struggled to use these renewable energy policies because they do not have federal tax liability, and therefore couldn’t easily use tax credits. The new law allows them to get direct payments for clean energy, whether or not they owe the federal government money. Hopefully municipal utilities and rural electric co-ops will now choose to become clean energy champions who own and operate clean power affordably and reliably to the benefit of their consumers and the planet.

There’s also around $15 billion to help utilities of all stripes retire dirty coal plants. This isn’t just good for local air quality or the climate—it will also lower electricity bills. As analysis from Energy Innovation shows, keeping old coal plants open is already more expensive than building new renewables in most of the country—and that was before Congress’ new incentives. Electric utilities have kept these money losing coal plants open, sticking customers with higher bills and higher pollution, because they made bad decisions to retrofit coal plants rather than shut them down. In other words, these coal plants are now saddled with hundreds of millions of dollars in debt. The monopoly system rewards utilities for doing this: they can keep making money even though their dirty coal plants are losers financially because they get guaranteed profits. With this infusion of federal funds, we can finally start solving this thorny problem. We may even see the entire coal fleet shut down this decade.

Electric utilities face a choice. They do not have to be fossil fuel companies anymore.

We know that electric utilities can move from climate denial to climate progress because some are already doing it. In the last few years, most utilities now acknowledge that climate change is a problem. Some utilities have also started aligning their actions with their words. In our research, we uncovered that Northern Indiana Public Service Company (NIPSCO) was involved in several front groups, including the Global Climate Coalition and the Utility Air Regulatory Group. With a coal-heavy fleet, they could have continued to delay acting. But in 2018, the utility committed to retiring all of its coal plants by 2028 – and to replace them with renewables rather than dirty fossil gas. This decision will slash pollution and save their customers $4 billion. Similarly Consumers Energy was involved in climate denial groups, including being a founder of the GCC. But in the last few years, it has decided to clean up its energy mix. Consumers Energy is currently planning to retire all of its coal plants by 2025. Even Southern Company has a chance for redemption: the utility has made promising commitments to reduce its emissions – although advocates will need to stay vigilant to ensure those promises are realized.

We find ourselves at an inflection point for the electric utility industry. Utilities must reckon with the role they played in stopping climate action by promoting denial, doubt, and delay from the 1960s to the present. To find their future, they must look further back in time, towards their early, experimental roots. Thomas Edison understood this path when he said more than a century ago: “This scheme of combustion to get power makes me sick to think of — it is so wasteful. … You see, we should utilize natural forces and thus get all of our power. Sunshine is a form of energy, and the winds and the tides are manifestations of energy. Do we use them? Oh no! We burn up wood and coal, as renters burn up the front fence for fuel. We live like squatters, not as if we owned the property.” It’s time for electric utilities to own up to the lies they told in the past, and choose a different future. Because electric utilities can be the engine for decarbonization. The sooner they realize this, the better off we will all be. 

This story is generously supported by The Fine Fund.

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Leah C. Stokes (@leahstokes) is the Anton Vonk associate professor at UC Santa Barbara, an adviser to Rewiring America and Evergreen Action and a host of the podcast “A Matter of Degrees.”