Report Shows Florida Utilities, Including FPL, Were Warned of Climate-Change Risks Since 1970s

Report Shows Florida Utilities, Including FPL, Were Warned of Climate-Change Risks Since 1970s
Florida Power & Light
Florida Power & Light, the third-largest utility in America and the private monopoly that Miamians are forced to pay for power every month, proposed building a coal-fired power plant as late as 2007 before state regulators forced the company to reconsider its plans. FPL still generates most of its power using natural gas, a fossil fuel that creates less carbon than coal but still pollutes the atmosphere and is dug from the ground using the carbon-intensive fracking process.

But while FPL routinely brags about how responsive it's been to the impacts of climate change, a new report outlines that the nation's power utilities — some of the largest carbon emitters in the world — have known about the effects of climate change since the 1970s.

The report notes that FPL, as well as the Southern Company, the parent of the Panhandle's Gulf Power, sponsored research into the effects of carbon on the environment as early as 1971. And in 1986, FPL was the subject of a comprehensive study on the ways in which climate change would hurt the company. Those utility-sponsored studies indisputably warned that carbon emissions contributed to global warming. The report also says North Carolina's Duke Power, which provides electricity to the second-largest group of consumers in Florida, also sat on boards that scrubbed climate science from industry lobbying documents.

More than FPL and Duke Power, the new report hits Southern Company, which is based in Georgia, for funding decades of PR campaigns to discount climate science as untrustworthy and untrue. The report also hits Southern for funneling hundreds of thousands of dollars to climate-denying scientists, and compares the actions of the power industry to that of oil companies such as ExxonMobil, which has also been caught funding climate-change deniers despite having been warned for decades about the impact of carbon emissions.

The report was published by the Energy and Policy Institute, a group that positions itself as a watchdog "exposing the attacks on renewable energy and countering misinformation by fossil fuel interests."

FPL has repeatedly discounted the Institute as a dark-money front for anti-utility interests. And the nonprofit Campaign for Accountability, which has a long history of filing ethics complaints against politicians of both parties as well as corporate raiders such as casino magnate Sheldon Adelson, said the Energy and Policy Institute has ties to solar-panel companies like SolarCity and called the group "a PR vehicle for clean-tech companies."

The EPI, however, disputes the Campaign for Accountability's report, and instead says it's funded by "environmental foundations interested in addressing the threat posed by climate change. We do not accept or receive funding from any corporations or trade associations."

Despite its lack of transparency, though, the Institute's work is both thoroughly cited and comprehensive. Plus, only one side of the climate-change debate is in the business of spewing carbon emissions into the air, and it's not solar panel companies.

For what it's worth, FPL acknowledges climate change is real. But environmentalists have repeatedly warned that the utility is not moving fast enough to address global warming and in many instances has either proposed projects that would have worsened climate change or stood in the way of laws designed to reduce Florida's carbon footprint. In 2016, FPL and other utilities sponsored a constitutional amendment designed to trick voters into giving up rights to home solar panels. Earlier this year, FPL backed a failed law that would have let the company charge customers for carbon-emitting fracking wells that its parent company, NextEra Energy, drills around the country. NextEra is also an owner of the newly operational Sabal Trail Transmission Pipeline, which transports fracked natural gas from Alabama to Central Florida.

Fracking releases methane, a greenhouse gas 30 times as heat-trapping as carbon dioxide, into the atmosphere. As of 2016, FPL parent NextEra Energy was the 13th-largest carbon polluter in America. Duke Energy was the first, and Southern came in at number three.

According to a 2016 report from the Southern Alliance for Clean Energy, "Florida’s investor-owned utilities seriously lag peer utility leaders in solar watts per customer, both in the Southeast region and in the nation. In fact, they are bottom of class."

An FPL spokesperson in June told New Times that the company in 2016 obtained 70 percent of its energy from burning natural gas. (The Union of Concerned Scientists says burning natural gas emits 50 to 60 percent less carbon compared to coal.) By 2023, FPL projects that 4 percent of its energy will come from solar panels.

The power industry accounts for roughly one-third of all U.S. carbon emissions, but a 2014 study warned that switching to natural gas alone would cut those emissions only by 9 percent by 2055.

But according to the Energy and Policy Institute's new report, FPL has pushed plans like this despite the fact that utilities were first warned about the impacts of climate change in 1968. Dr. Donald F. Horing, one of President Lyndon B. Johnson's science advisers, spoke at the Edison Electric Institute's 1968 annual convention and warned utility operators that carbon emissions from fossil fuels could warm the globe. From then on, researchers regularly spoke to the utility trade group and warned time after time that carbon emissions posed a threat to the planet.

Then, in 1971, the industry put together a comprehensive report outlining its research goals for the next 30 years. Among them, the report instructed the Edison Electric Institute to "include research into carbon dioxide sources and sinks, effects of moisture, the greenhouse effect as modified by particulates, and development of meteorological models which would allow predictive determination of the effects of power generation on our environment."

Among 50 electric utilities, FPL officials were listed as contributors in the report.

In 1988, the Electric Power Research Institute, a nonprofit funded by electric utilities, published a global-warming case study using two power companies: the New York State utility system and FPL. That report warned that temperature increases in Florida could lead to an extra $212 million in costs to FPL by 2015 due to climate change. The report warned that utilities would likely save the most money by preparing for climate change as soon as possible.

"The conclusion drawn from these analyses is that climate changes possible over the next 30 years may significantly affect the electric utility industry,” the report said. By the end of the 1980s, the EPRI mentioned consensus was building that "man is changing the Earth’s climate."

But despite knowing the harm greenhouse gases cause, utilities across the nation, including FPL, continually invested in carbon-emitting coal for decades and moved toward cleaner energy sources at a snail's pace, the new study notes. Likewise, utilities across the nation, including FPL and Southern, continued to fund the Edison Electric Institute (EEI), a trade group and lobbying firm that regularly published articles claiming that human-made climate change is a myth.

In 1991, the utility-funded EEI (as well as the Gulf Power-owning Southern company itself) mounted a campaign that, according to leaked documents, was designed to "reposition global warming as theory (not fact).” The campaign, which FPL helped fund alongside most other utilities in the nation, published pamphlets that warned, "Who told you the Earth was warming... Chicken Little?"

Another utility-funded pamphlet warned, "The most serious problem with catastrophic global warming is — it may not be true." (The New York Times said that year that the ads were funded by "pro-coal" interests and ran in Arizona, North Dakota, and Kentucky.)

In 1989, representatives from Southern, EEI, and the company that later became Duke Power helped draft the policy platform for the Global Climate Coalition, a government-relations group the New York Times said "led an aggressive lobbying and public relations campaign against the idea that emissions of heat-trapping gases could lead to global warming.” By 1996, some of the coalition's documents initially said the evidence that humans cause climate change "cannot be denied." A team of industry executives, including some from Southern and Duke, scrubbed that language from the reports.

At the time, the group was lobbying the government to stop lawmakers from imposing limits on greenhouse-gas emissions.

The report also notes that past investigations have shown that Southern spent more than $400,000 backing Willie Soon of the Harvard Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics. Documents show that the Smithsonian agreed not to disclose Southern's funding of Soon without the company's written consent. InsideClimate News later reported that Soon wrote 11 papers criticizing climate change on behalf of Southern and other pro-fossil-fuel interests without disclosing his funding sources.

The report notes that most utilities maintain two-faced approaches to combatting climate change: Most publicly admit global warming is real but funnel money behind-the-scenes to groups such as EEI, which then lobbies against greenhouse-gas regulations.

Take, for instance, FPL: The company has publicly said it supported Barack Obama's Clean Power Plan, which directed the Environmental Protection Agency to place new limits on U.S. carbon emitters. But FPL has also funded the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, which opposed the exact same initiative. In fact, FPL CEO Eric Silagy served two years on the Chamber of Commerce's board of directors beginning in 2015.

Four months after FPL's Silagy joined the U.S. Chamber's board, the group sued Obama's EPA to try to kill the Clean Power Plan.
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Jerry Iannelli is a former staff writer for Miami New Times from 2015 to March 2020. He graduated with honors from Temple University. He then earned a master's degree in journalism from Columbia University.