Sept. 01--President Barack Obama's promised assault on climate change begins in
earnest this month with the roll-out of rules limiting greenhouse gas emissions
by new power plants.
It's one of the most divisive issues in Washington, and perhaps no one is as financially invested in the outcome as Southern Co. The Atlanta-based utility giant operates more than 30 coal-fired plants to keep the lights on in Georgia and elsewhere throughout the South. Over time, the rules -- soon to be followed by limits for existing plants -- could have a huge impact on Southern's bottom line.
A formidable political force, Southern has long had a hand in shaping national energy policy. Now, faced with stricter emissions controls for greenhouse gases such as carbon dioxide, it is battling back hard. Southern spent $15.5 million on lobbying efforts in Washington in 2012, the highest annual tally on record for the company, according to an analysis of records by The Atlanta Journal-Constitution
So far this year, it has spent $6.4 million on 53 federally registered lobbyists, according to documents filed with the Senate Office of Public Records.
Among other major electric providers, Charlotte, N.C.-based Duke Energy has 21 lobbyists. American Electric Power, with headquarters in Columbus, Ohio, has 10 lobbyists registered in Washington.
Scott Segal, who lobbies for the Electric Reliability Coordinating Council, a Washington-based utility consortium, said Southern devotes more resources to lobbying than most utility companies and is "very active in pushing its point of view."
In a nutshell, the company's message is: We will provide cleaner energy; we just want to do it at an affordable rate on a reasonable technological timeline.
In an exclusive interview, Southern CEO Tom Fanning told the AJC he is trying to secure "clean, safe, reliable, affordable" energy. In contrast, he said, the Environmental Protection Agency is only worried about the clean part -- with the result that its rules drive the supply of power down and the price up. If the recession had not suppressed the demand for power, he said, that demand might have outrun supply in the near future.
"Because EPA was requiring us to economically shut down a significant portion of the coal fleet, if the economy had kept growing, we would have had very tight reserve margins in the 2015-2016 time frame," Fanning said.
The last few years have also seen an industry-wide shift from coal to natural gas, as gas supplies skyrocketed and prices plummeted, in part because of hydraulic fracturing, or "fracking." Southern, too, has decreased its reliance on coal. In 2008, the company generated 70 percent of its electricity from coal-fired plants. That's dropped to 35 percent.
Still, the two biggest greenhouse gas emitting plants in the nation are in Georgia, run by Southern subsidiary Georgia Power: Plant Bowen near Cartersville and Plant Scherer outside Macon. Company officials say the plants emit more greenhouse gasses than other plants because they generate more electricity.
That's exactly the problem, say environmental lobbyists, who still see Southern as one of the most aggressive and entrenched defenders of coal.
"Southern tends to stake out what I would call the worst of the environmental
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