Lobbying pays off for Duke

With key climate legislation in play, utility is spending much more to shape views in Washington.

10/09/2009 12:00 AM

10/09/2009 8:16 AM

Duke Energy has spent more than $10 million to lobby Congress since 2008 as electric utilities ratchet up spending to help shape new laws on climate change and other issues.

Duke spent $3.5 million in the first half of this year, federal reports show, nearly tripling what it spent for all of 1999. The $6.6million it spent in 2008 roughly doubled its annual lobbying expenses of the three previous years.

Its chief target: legislation to cap emissions of carbon dioxide, the greenhouse gas linked to global warming. Duke's fleet of coal-fired power plants makes it the nation's third-highest CO2 emitter among U.S. utilities.

As introduced, the climate bill before the U.S. House would have forced utilities like Duke to buy allowances - permission to release the gas - at auction. Duke has said that would have driven up customer rates by as much as 27percent.

As passed by the House in June, the bill gave Duke most of the credits it will need for 15 to 20 years for free. The Senate has not yet taken up the bill.

"That was a major achievement," said Duke spokesman Tom Williams. "I would say that was a major example of our (lobbying) presence paying off for our customers."

CEO Jim Rogers has been an outspoken advocate of mandatory carbon limits, and Duke has broken with two industry groups that continue to fight them.

But Clean Air Watch, a Washington-based advocacy group, says the climate bill shows the power of money in the capital.

Rogers has "played the political winds like a master yachtsman," said group president Frank O'Donnell. He has accused Rogers of double-speak for touting carbon controls while expanding a coal-fired plant west of Charlotte that will add to its emissions.

"Duke is in favor of carbon controls as long as they are the carbon controls that Duke is comfortable with," O'Donnell said. "No one is going to mistake Duke for Greenpeace."

Duke was hardly alone in a lobbying frenzy stoked by the climate legislation. About 1,150 companies and advocacy groups - from biofuel advocates to religious associations - lobbied Congress in the weeks before the June vote in the House, says the Center for Public Integrity, a nonprofit investigative journalism group.

Electric utilities rank third-highest among industries, behind pharmaceuticals and insurance, in lobbying expenses over the past decade, reports another research group, the Center for Responsive Politics. Utilities spent $1.1 billion in that time, it says.

Atlanta-based Southern Company, with 4.4 million electricity customers in Georgia, Alabama, Florida and Mississippi, spent nearly $17mil lion on lobbying in 2008. Raleigh-based Progress Energy, with 3.1 million customers in the Carolinas and Florida, spent about $2.3 million.

Duke has 4 million customers in the Carolinas, Indiana, Kentucky and Ohio.

In addition to its lobbying in Washington, the utility reported paying three staff and two outside lobbyists in Raleigh $72,142 so far this year, according to reports filed with the N.C. Secretary of State. It paid $36,587 for four lobbyists in 2008.

In Washington, congressional lobbying expenses reported under the federal Lobbying Disclosure Act also include the costs of in-house lobbying staffs, as well as contractors.

In 2008, when its expenses rose sharply, Duke added three new members, increasing the staff that actively lobbies in Washington to six, Williams said. It also began including office rents, employee benefits and other expenses in its lobbying reports, he said.

Williams said Duke's Carolinas customers and its shareholders each pay half of the lobbying expenses, under order of the state utilities commissions.

Its lobbyists work on dozens of issues, according to reporting forms. Grid modernization, carbon-capture research and nuclear issues, including more federal loan guarantees and waste disposal are major issues, Williams said.

But it was on the climate issue that a former adversary, the Environmental Defense Fund, made peace with Duke. Both are part of the U.S. Climate Action Partnership, a business-environmental coalition pressing for carbon limits.

Tony Kreindler, an Environmental Defense spokesman in Washington, said companies like Duke support carbon legislation in part because they want firm rules before committing billions of dollars on new plants.

He credited Rogers, who has appeared before Congress, at news conferences and on Comedy Central's "Colbert Report" - his expenses don't count as lobbying - with helping convince other utilities to support carbon caps.

"They want to have a seat at the table," Kreindler said, "rather than being run over by it."

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