Nuns want to know more about Duke Energy’s lobbying

Duke Energy’s Newell Operations Center in Charlotte
Duke Energy’s Newell Operations Center in Charlotte File

The sisters of two Catholic religious orders that own Duke Energy stock want the nation’s biggest electric utility to open up about its lobbying of federal and state officials.

Investors will vote Thursday, at Duke’s annual meeting, on a shareholder proposal to disclose more about its lobbying and membership in industry-friendly advocacy groups.

Duke may have billions of dollars at stake when energy and environmental rules are crafted. The company has spent more than $33 million in federal lobbying in the past six years, records show.

Duke says it already files required lobbying reports. At the urging of institutional investors, the company beefed up its oversight of political contributions and lobbying last year.

The nuns say that’s not enough.

The shareholder proposal came from St. Louis-based Mercy Investment Services, which represents the Sisters of Mercy in Belmont and other locations, and the Benedictine Sisters of Virginia in Bristow, Va.

They ask for an annual report on Duke’s lobbying policies, spending details and membership in groups that write model legislation such as the controversial American Legislative Exchange Council. Duke won’t say whether it belongs to ALEC, which pushes limited government and free markets.

Shedding further light on lobbying “helps understand the policy initiatives that are being furthered by the use of those monies,” said Susan Makos, Mercy Investment’s vice president of social responsibility. “We’re not in a position to know that unless there is transparent disclosure.”

Duke opposes the proposal as “an unnecessary and unproductive” use of its resources.

The company revamped its policies last year to give greater scrutiny of lobbying and other political spending after consulting institutional investors who own 25 percent of Duke’s shares.

“We believe that we have responded by putting in place more formal reviews and approvals of our contributions at the senior management and board level,” spokesman Tom Williams said.

Duke now posts on its website total contributions by its political action committee, to tax-exempt groups that raise money for political activity, and the federal lobbying portion of trade group dues.

Membership in such groups changes from year to year, it says, and the company belongs to groups on both sides of the political spectrum.

Federal reports compiled by the nonprofit Center for Responsive Politics, which researches money in politics, tracks the spending, issues and specific bills that are the lobbying focus of companies like Duke.

Electric utilities ranked sixth-highest in lobbying spending in 2015, at $117 million, on issues such as President Obama’s plan to limit carbon emissions from power plants, according to the center’s Open Secrets website.

Duke, the site says, has spent $2.5 million on federal lobbying so far this year, paying seven lobbying firms and focusing much of its effort on a bill to modernize energy infrastructure and improve energy efficiency. Duke spent $5.7 million on federal lobbying last year, the site reports.

Reports filed with North Carolina’s Secretary of State name companies, lobbyists and spending but not issues. Duke spent $802,000 on state lobbying in 2014, the most recent year for which reports have been filed.

Bruce Henderson: 704-358-5051, @bhender