American corporations are increasingly calling for action on global warming, sensing a business opportunity in cutting greenhouse gases while hoping to shape regulations they believe are inevitable.
Bucking the Bush administration's position that tougher rules would harm the U.S. economy, Fortune 500 companies including General Electric Co., Duke Energy Corp. and JPMorgan Chase & Co. in recent months have championed stronger government measures to reduce industrial releases of carbon dioxide, the main heat-trapping gas that scientists have linked to rising temperatures and sea levels.
This shift in corporate thinking was on display at a congressional hearing last week, where executives from large companies including DuPont Co., United Technologies Corp. and Baxter International Inc. described how they were getting an early start on reducing greenhouse gas emissions -- something they believe they would be required to do sooner or later.
"People increasingly will believe that greenhouse gas emissions should be reduced and that actions should begin today to prepare for that eventuality," James Rogers, the chairman of power generator Cinergy Corp., told the House Science Committee on Wednesday. Rogers now advocates a national program to reduce greenhouse gas emissions.
The number of companies involved remains small, but it is growing, particularly in the energy sector, and is emerging as a new dynamic in the debate over the future of America's global warming policies. The U.S., the world's largest emitter of greenhouse gases, was the only major developed nation other than Australia to reject the Kyoto Protocol, an international pact to cut emissions to about 5% below 1990 levels by 2012.
Although their rhetoric is rife with references to protecting planet Earth, some of the corporations acknowledge that their newfound focus on global warming is driven by opportunity for profit. Duke Energy would like to build a new nuclear power plant, a type of electricity generation that does not emit greenhouse gases, for instance, while GE wants to expand sales of wind power turbines and pollution-control equipment.
"We believe we can help improve the environment and make money doing it," GE Chairman Jeffrey Immelt said last month in a speech at George Washington University that attracted widespread notice. "We see that green is green."
Many multinational companies, which already deal with carbon reduction regulations in other parts of the world, believe it's only a matter of time before they will be required in the U.S. Rather than resist the inevitable, they want to help shape new regulations in a way that will give them a competitive advantage.
In addition, some companies fear that in the absence of federal action, many cities and states, which already are proposing their own regulations, will create a hodgepodge of compliance standards across the country.
Those concerns were amplified this month, when California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger signed an executive order that pledges to reduce the state's emissions by more than 80% in the next half-century.
"We don't need a patchwork of inconsistent state or local regulations to complicate and increase the cost of compliance," Duke Energy Chairman Paul Anderson said in an April speech to Charlotte, N.C., business leaders in which he surprised the electric power industry by advocating a federal tax on the carbon content of fossil fuels. "Yet a patchwork is exactly what we are getting, due to federal inaction."
Duke, which has announced plans to acquire Cinergy, formally proposed the levy to President Bush's tax reform panel in April -- an approach that critics noted would penalize Duke far less than some competitors in the electricity business that depend more on coal power.
Anderson later said that he did not think such a tax would be approved while Bush was in office.
As more businesses express an openness to greenhouse gas regulations, some politicians are attempting to seize the momentum. That is reflected in a number of amendments to the sweeping energy bill being considered by Congress that offers incentives to business.
Revised legislation by Sens. John McCain (R-Ariz.) and Joe Lieberman (D-Conn.) to establish firm limits on carbon dioxide exhaust has added hundreds of millions of dollars in subsidies for nuclear power and other types of cleaner electricity sources. More companies have expressed interest in the legislation since the subsidies were added, but have stopped short of supporting it.
An amendment by Sen. Jeff Bingaman (D-N.M.) seeks to enact the recommendations of the National Commission on Energy Policy, a bipartisan panel of experts from business, government, environmental groups and academia that recommended a less restrictive cap on greenhouse gas emissions than the one proposed in the McCain-Lieberman bill.