Southern company knew about climate change for decades while funding climate denial, report says

Southern Company headquarters in Atlanta.

Southern Company headquarters in Atlanta.
Photo: Kristoffer Tripplaar Sipa (PA)

One of the largest and most profitable utility companies in the United States knew about climate change for decades and yet continued to build fossil fuel facilities while funding groups that contribute to climate misinformation, a report published on Wednesday found.

The executives of Southern Company, which serves 9 million customers in six stateshad participated in discussions on the impact of carbon dioxide on the atmosphere as early as the 1960s, the report of the utility watchdog group, the Energy & Policy Institute found.

“The report builds on evidence that Southern Company knew it risked accelerating and locking in harmful climate change in the future when it chose to spend millions of dollars in support of efforts to undermine climate change. ‘public acceptance of climate science and slow the transition to clean energy,” Dave Anderson, the report’s author and policy manager at the Energy & Policy Institute, told Earther in a E-mail. “These efforts have unfortunately been crowned with success. Today we live in a world where some harmful climate change is now locked in, and scientists are increasingly able to attribute damaging extreme weather events like heatwaves and storm surges to climate change caused by burning fossil fuels.

The report uses archived documents, including Southern Company’s Securities and Exchange Commission filings, as well as documents previously retrieved from other investigations and litigation to compile a timeline of Southern Company’s involvement in research on the climate. As early as 1964, the chairman of the utility – then called Southern Services – was a technical reviewer on a White House report that recommended further research into the effect of CO2 pollution in the atmosphere.

Things heated up in the 1980s, when the Southern Company was warned in publications by scientists and the federal government of the potentially catastrophic impacts of climate change. A company executive even co-chaired a panel at the 1985 Air Pollution Control Association meeting that discussed the impacts of other greenhouse gases like methane and how energy conservation and renewable technologies could help slow soaring CO2 levels.

Nonetheless, despite growing public calls for climate action after the 1980s, Southern Company “established itself as a driving force in climate misinformation” over the next several decades, the report said.. The company has been a key player and funder for decades in utility lobby groups like the Edison Electric Institute, which has been a powerful machine to help the utility industry spread climate denial.

In a statement to Earther, a Southern Company spokesperson said:

“We are proud of our progress in reducing our GHG emissions by almost 50% from 2007 levels and remain focused on transitioning our generation fleet and the related investments needed in our transmission and distribution networks. distribution. Recent announcements include proposals to reduce the number of coal units in our system by 88% from 2007 levels by 2028. … In addition to focusing on carbon emissions from our generating fleet, we continue to invest in infrastructure and technology to further reduce methane and other GHG emissions from our natural gas operations. We support groups, associations and research efforts that are leading the way to cutting-edge carbon-free technologies and we focus on building constructive and sustainable carbon policies that will help facilitate the net zero transition. »

A company representative also sent a link to a report from a separate nonprofit watchdog. ask about funding sources from the Energy & Policy Institute.

In an example from the mid-1990s, The “Southern Company satellite television network was used to target teachers in states across the country with workshops that promoted coal industry talking points on climate change and the environment,” said said Anderson.

Denial spanned decades: In 2017, CEO Thomas Fanning claims on CNBC that climate change “has been happening for millennia” and denied that CO2 was primarily responsible for climate change. (Fanning is also the highest-paid utility executive in the country, receiving nearly $28 million in 2019.)

Southern Company also owned one of the nation’s most publicized and expensive fossil fuel outages: the Kemper facility in Mississippi. The plant was originally intended to be an example of the promise of ‘clean coal’, using carbon capture and storage, but the technology proved so cumbersome and expensive that the project was deleted without ever logging in— after years of construction and billions of dollars in delays passed on to taxpayers. The investment in the Kemper plant was made despite the experts on that 1985 panel warning that CCS was not an effective method of slowing climate change.

This report is the latest in a series of surveys over the past few years of what powerful corporations, including utilities, automakers and oil companies, knew about climate change in previous decades and how they participated in the spread of climate denial. A utility like Southern Company may not have the same name recognition of a company like Exxon, but utilities are arguably more powerful, thanks to their mastery of the electricity network.

As the United States saw last year when utility interests influenced Joe Manchin To undo an important climate provision in the Build Back Better bill, powerful utilities can exert their will on lawmakers to stop climate action. Many utility companies are also continue to charge taxpayers to build fossil fuel infrastructure, despite public climate proclamations.

In recent years, Southern Company has put forth a seemingly greener footing, committing to net zero by 2050 – although these plans rely heavily on unproven technologyand his continue to build new gasworksdespite the fact that the world must immediately stop building new fossil fuel infrastructure to avoid the worst effects of global warming. But as this report shows, it may be too little, too late.

“Who will be responsible for paying for the damage to our climate?” says Andersonnm “Will it be the vast majority of ordinary consumers and taxpayers who have long supported the priority given to the development of clean energy sources, such as wind and solar, over fossil fuels? Or will it be the profit-seeking corporations that have long known about the climate risks of burning fossil fuels, have done everything in their power to slow the transition to clean energy, and continue to be the main sources of greenhouse gas emissions? »

Teresa H. Sadler