No matter which side of the battle over global warming you're on, that was blockbuster news last week. No, not the signing of the climate-change treaty that commits all of Earth's 195 nations to lowering their greenhouse-gas emissions and slowing the heating of the planet, but American Electric Power's announcement that it would no longer underwrite efforts to block renewable energy or federal smokestack controls in the United States.
Not that the climate accord was minor. Even if you think global warming is a plot to thwart economic growth around the world or else that it is too little too late, it was the biggest news for the planet since Japan's surrender in 1945 signaled the dawn of the nuclear age.
But American Electric Power's disclosure that it would no longer support the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC) and other Koch brothers groups that fight environmental regulations and carbon taxes may have an immediate and discernible impact in the United States, unlike the climate agreement. ALEC, Americans for Prosperity and State Policy Network, the Koch surrogates, are really big in Arkansas. Americans for Prosperity spends heavily to elect conservative Republicans to legislatures, including Arkansas's, and to Congress. The Arkansas legislature is fast becoming a subsidiary of ALEC, which educates legislators on environmental and tax policies and sends out cookie-cutter bills to further the Koch brothers' interests.
American Electric Power is one of the country's biggest electric-utility conglomerates and the second biggest in Arkansas. It delivers power to more than 5 million customers and owns the largest transmission system in the country, larger than all the other utilities combined. It built the giant coal-burning plant in Hempstead County, which went online in 2012 after both Arkansas appellate courts ruled unanimously that it did not legally win state regulatory approval but also after agreeing to close a Texas coal plant and buy 400 megawatts of solar or wind power by 2014.
The Kochs, who built a fortune of more than $100 billion largely from fossil fuels, spearheaded the campaign to cast global warming as a hoax or else mere speculation and helped finance the campaigns of candidates for legislatures, Congress and attorneys general who could influence carbon legislation and rules. That included bankrolling the Republican Attorney Generals Association, which cut big commercials in Arkansas last year for Leslie Rutledge. She has declared war on new federal rules that reduce mercury and sulfuric-acid emissions from coal plants and mandate reduced carbon-dioxide emissions from big fossil-fuel industries. She has intervened in litigation asking the courts to thwart the rules.
Now, American Electric Power says it's pretty much on the side of the Obama administration on the Clean Power Plan, which has been condemned by all six Arkansas members of Congress, General Rutledge, Gov. Asa Hutchinson and the Arkansas State Chamber of Commerce as a needless rule that will wreck the Arkansas economy. The big company said it was going to meet the plan's goals in all the states where it operates and help the United States meet its commitment to the world. A spokesman said the company let ALEC know it was canceling its membership and spending the money instead on reducing its emissions. Arkansas's biggest electric utility, Entergy Corp., is already well on its way to meeting all the Obama air standards without much straining of its own pocketbook or its consumers'.
Contrary to its support of ALEC and the other Koch enterprises, a spokesman for American Electric said, "We have long been involved in the reduction of greenhouse gas emissions."
American Electric is only the latest among global energy giants that have come around on Obama's Clean Power Plan and tough global rules on climate change. Six other U.S. utilities have left ALEC. Also, Royal Dutch Shell and British Petroleum also withdrew and committed to meeting carbon-emission deadlines. Shell condemned ALEC's resistance to climate-change rules.
Then there's Exxon Mobil, the world's largest private oil company and a Koch ally on global warming. The New York attorney general is investigating whether the company conspired to lie to the public and investors about the risks of climate change. It turns out, from documents unearthed by news organizations, that Exxon's army of scientists and engineers knew as far back as 1977 that carbon dioxide from burning oil, gas and coal could have terrible effects on the planet, including ocean and atmospheric warming that would gradually melt ice caps, flood low-lying areas around the globe, affect human health and alter vegetation and animal habitats. The Exxon scientists long ago briefed Exxon's board on the growing consensus on the long-term effect of fossil fuels.
Exxon's board responded by funding disinformation campaigns about the health of fossil-fuel consumption. Exxon Mobil now says it always sponsored neutral research on climate change, merely pushed for a wider debate on the subject and itself worked to reduce emissions and slow climate change through better batteries and carbon-capture technology. But it has continued funding groups like Consumer Energy Alliance and the National Black Chamber of Commerce that lobby against regulations that seek to reduce greenhouse gas emissions or that promote legislation in Arkansas and other states to make it hard for solar and wind power to hook onto power grids and be compensated.
But the updated memo hasn't reached the Republican presidential candidates, who, all but Gov. John Kasich of Ohio, are still reading from old Exxon talking points about global warming being a joke or harmless. Kasich limits himself to saying it's dangerous to have Barack Obama running the global-warming campaign. The memo that reached American Electric Power hasn't yet reached the political establishment in Arkansas, and likely never will. The good thing is, it makes no difference.