Cooperation and Resistance on Green Energy

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Several utility companies are collaborating with the Natural Resources Defense Council to improve their carbon profile and produce "greener" electricity. Other utilities, however, have taken the opposite tack, and are hustling to build as much coal-fired generation as they can, while they can.


From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Michele Norris.


And I'm Melissa block.

All this week, we're hearing about some of the issues that divide America and the prospects for finding middle ground.

President GEORGE W. BUSH: We made some progress on changing the tone. I'm disappointed we haven't made more.

Unidentified Man: They certainly want more moderation.

Governor ARNOLD SCHWARZENEGGER: Government does not have to be gridlocked.

Unidentified Woman: Democrats pledge civility and bipartisanship in the conduct of the work here.

BLOCK: Our series is called Crossing the Divide. Today, we turn to a matter of business and public policy, profit and environmental protection.

NORRIS: Ten corporate CEOs have teamed up with some major environmental groups to try to jumpstart efforts to fight global warming. These strange bedfellows are urging the federal government to limit greenhouse gases. Their proposal came on the eve of tonight's State of the Union speech.

NPR's Scott Horsley has the latest in our Crossing the Divide series.

SCOTT HORSLEY: It's one thing when the head of an environmental organization calls on Congress to limit carbon dioxide from the nation's smokestacks. It's another when some of the people who run those smokestacks are calling for the same thing.

That's what happened yesterday when the chief executives of 10 big companies, including General Electric, Alcoa and Caterpillar, joined four environmental groups in endorsing firm limits on greenhouses gases. CEO Peter Darby of the California power company PG&E says the unusual coalition has been working on its proposal for the better part of a year.

Mr. PETER DARBY (Pacific Gas & Electric): The environmentalists take a stand that they want to do what's right for the environment, as do we, but frankly, a number of the businesses want to know what the rules will be, going forward, and that's created a glue that has brought the group together.

HORSLEY: President Francis Beinecke of the Natural Resources Defense Council says when the coalition began meeting, there were a lot of different proposals being considered at different levels of government. The CEOs and the environmentalists thought it would be helpful to agree on a national set of solutions.

Mr. FRANCIS BEINECKE (Natural Resources Defense Council): Of course when we went in to this, we didn't know whether that would be possible, and you know, we're very, very pleased with the results, that we were able to work together very productively and come to quite specific agreements.

HORSLEY: Also at the table was Environmental Defense, a group with a long history of working cooperatively with big business. It says it helped McDonalds do away with plastic foam burger boxes back in 1991. Environmental Defense president Fred Krupp says in working with a corporation, it's critical to understand the company's prospective goals and culture.

Mr. FRED KRUPP (Environmental Defense): I remember telling the president of McDonalds that we weren't going to ask them to use Wedgwood china in their fast-food restaurant. We were willing to work within their business realities but to find things that were truly good for business as well as good for the environment.

HORSLEY: Krupp says that kind of partnership has to be built on trust. Companies have to show they're not just looking for window dressing, and environmentalists have to show they value progress over press conferences. Krupp adds hashing out the details of a plan is easier once there's a common understanding that some kind of change is inevitable.

Mr. KRUPP: Many successful, profitable businesses have a great comfort in the status quo. They think that the world's not going to change or that they can deny that change is happening. We find, though, that the better managed companies are the ones that realize change is all around us.

HORSLEY: For the companies now calling for cuts in greenhouse gases, the science of global warming has become compelling, and so has the likelihood that some kind of government crackdown is coming. If that's the case, PG&E's Darby says it's better to act now, before the problem gets worse, and it's better for his company to have a say in how the crackdown occurs.

Mr. DARBY: If we are dragging our heels and opposing people that are trying to deal with this issue, they're not going to let us have a seat in the table. But if we're constructive, if we help them, then we gain credibility with them and we have a way of developing the most practical and pragmatic solutions to the problem.

HORSLEY: To be sure, business lobbies like the Chamber of Commerce and the National Association of Manufacturers are still fighting greenhouse-gas caps, and some environmentalists will complain the caps endorsed by Darby and company don't go far enough. Those who reach out to traditional adversaries often have to do some handholding to keep traditional allies in the fold. But Krupp, the Environmental Defense president, thinks there's room for more of these unconventional alliances, so long as the environmental payoffs are real.

Mr. KRUPP: In not even case is there a win/win solution, but what I found in 22 years of doing this sort of working crossing the divide, if you don't look, you're definitely not going to find it.

HORSLEY: Krupp adds if big business and big environmental groups can agree on a plan to fight global warming, maybe Congress and the White House can do the same.

Scott Horsley, NPR News.

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