Companies give GOP, regulators, different messages

By Larry Margasak

Associated Press

Published: Friday, Nov. 25 2011 10:15 a.m. MST

In this photo taken June 16, 2009, Anthony Earley Jr., then-chairman and CEO of DTE Energy, speaks at the National Summit in Detroit, Mich. Large and small utility companies have told Republican-led congressional committees what the party wants to hear: dire predictions of plant closings and layoffs if the Obama administration succeeds with plans to further curb air and water pollution. "Without the right policy, we could be headed for disaster," Early told a committee on April 16. Earley is now chairman and CEO of Pacific Gas & Electric Corp.

Carlos Osorio, File, Associated Press

Enlarge photo»

WASHINGTON — Large and small companies have told Republican-led congressional committees what the party wants to hear: dire predictions of plant closings and layoffs if the Obama administration succeeds with plans to further curb air and water pollution.

But their message to financial regulators and investors conveys less gloom and certainty.

The administration itself has clouded the picture by withdrawing or postponing some of the environmental initiatives that industry labeled as being among the most onerous.

Still, Republicans plan to make what they say is regulatory overreach a 2012 campaign issue, taking aim at President Barack Obama, congressional Democrats and an aggressive Environmental Protection Agency.

"Republicans will be talking to voters this campaign season about how to keep Washington out of the way, so that job creators can feel confident again to create jobs for Americans," said Joanna Burgos, a spokeswoman for the House Republican campaign organization.

The Associated Press compared the companies' congressional testimony to company reports submitted to the Securities and Exchange Commission. The reports to the SEC consistently said the impact of environmental proposals is unknown or would not cause serious financial harm to a firm's finances.

Companies can legitimately argue that their less gloomy SEC filings are correct, since most of the tougher anti-pollution proposals have not been finalized. And their officials' testimony before congressional committees was sometimes on behalf of — and written by — trade associations, a perspective that can differ from an individual company's view.

But the disparity in the messages shows that in a political environment, business has no misgivings about describing potential economic horror stories to lawmakers.

"As an industry, we have said this before, we face a potential regulatory train wreck," Anthony Earley Jr., then the executive chairman of DTE Energy in Michigan, told a House committee on April 15. "Without the right policy, we could be headed for disaster."

The severe economic consequences, he said, would be devastating to the electric utility's customers, especially Detroit residents who "simply cannot afford" higher rates.

Earley, who is now chairman and CEO of Pacific Gas & Electric Corp., said if the EPA had its way, coal-fired plants would be replaced with natural gas — leading to a spike in gas prices. He said he was testifying for the electric industry, not just his company.

But in its quarterly report to the SEC, Detroit-based DTE, which serves 3 million utility customers in Michigan, said that it was "reviewing potential impacts of the proposed and recently finalized rules, but is not able to quantify the financial impact ... at this time."

Skiles Boyd, a DTE vice president for environmental issues, said in an interview that the testimony was meant to convey the potential economic hardship on ratepayers — while the SEC report focused on the company's financial condition.

"It's two different subjects," he said.

Another congressional witness, Jim Pearce of chemical company FMC Corp., told a House hearing last Feb. 9: "The current U.S. approach to regulating greenhouse gases ... will lead U.S. natural soda ash producers to lose significant business to our offshore rivals...." Soda ash is used to produce glass, and is a major component of the company's business..

But in its annual report covering 2010 and submitted to the SEC 13 days after the testimony, the company said it was "premature to make any estimate of the costs of complying with un-enacted federal climate change legislation, or as yet un-implemented federal regulations in the United States." The Philadelphia-based company did not respond to a request for comment..

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