Exelon joins other utilities in dropping out of U.S. Chamber

Political commentators keep describing the climate-change legislation passed by the U.S. House of Representatives in June as stalled in the U.S. Senate.

Perhaps, but the latest drama is unfolding outside the political arena, in the offices of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, which is fielding some uncomfortable criticism over its opposition to the American Clean Energy and Security Act.

The U.S. Chamber is used to being tarred by labor and environmental groups. But this time, the revolt is from within. Three large utilities say they will leave the chamber over the issue.

Exelon Corp. became the latest and largest to do so yesterday. Chairman and CEO John W. Rowe, in an address to the American Council for an Energy Efficient Economy, said his Chicago company is so committed to climate legislation that it will let its chamber membership lapse.

“Because of their stridency against carbon legislation, Exelon has decided not to renew its membership in the U.S. Chamber this year,” Rowe said.

It was only one line in a speech largely about energy efficiency. But in shunning the chamber, the parent of Philadelphia-based Peco joins PG&E Corp., of San Francisco, and PNM Resources Inc., of Albuquerque, N.M., which within the space of a week announced their intentions to leave the chamber. With a market value of $33.1 billion, Exelon is much bigger than PG&E and PNM.

No one from the U.S. Chamber, which has about 3 million members, returned a phone call yesterday seeking comment.

PG&E chairman and CEO Peter Darbee was even more forceful in his criticism of the chamber.

“We find it dismaying that the Chamber neglects the indisputable fact that a decisive majority of experts have said the data on global warming are compelling and point to a threat that cannot be ignored,” Darbee wrote in a letter to the chamber. Excerpts from that letter are posted on PG&E’s corporate blog.

The U.S. Chamber, as an advocate for business, has been challenging the Environmental Protection Agency’s authority to use the Clean Air Act to regulate greenhouse-gas emissions from cars. Though the organization has said Congress should enact legislation to regulate greenhouse gases, the chamber does not support what the House has passed. (The clean-energy bill is often referred to as Waxman-Markey, after its sponsors.)

Saying the “carbon-based free lunch is over,” Rowe sees that opposition as a mistake. “Inaction on climate is not an option. If Congress does not act, the EPA will, and the result will be more arbitrary, more expensive, and more uncertain for investors and the industry than a reasonable, market-based legislative solution,” Rowe said in a statement.

All that would be Washington as usual had a U.S. Chamber vice president named Bill Kovacs not invoked the phrase “Scopes monkey trial” in an August article in the Los Angeles Times to describe the chamber’s effort to put “the science of climate change on trial.”

Kovacs later said his use of that analogy evoking the 1925 trial over the teaching of evolution in Tennessee public schools was “inappropriate” and detracted from the chamber’s message.

Exelon, PG&E and PNM weren’t buying that. All are card-carrying members of the U.S. Climate Action Partnership, which is also supported by the Natural Resources Defense Council and the Pew Center on Global Climate Change.

The group has been calling for federal legislation to require significant reductions of greenhouse-gas emissions. Does it hope to influence the legislative process? Absolutely.

By turning their backs to the U.S. Chamber, Exelon and the others are showing they’ve given up trying to influence “the voice of business.”