Big Tech Versus Big Oil: Showdown Over Clean Energy Standards?

Big Tech Versus Big Oil: Showdown Over Clean Energy Standards?
(AP Photo/Susan Montoya Bryan)
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The issue of Clean Energy Standards (CES), a cornerstone of the Biden climate/infrastructure plan, is emerging as a bellwether on climate policy.  For years, climate-positive Big Tech firms have tackled sustainability in company operations, but shied away from taking bold public positions on issues like energy standards that could scale these efforts across the economy.  Overall, according to InfluenceMap, the top five Tech firms are now devoting only a paltry 4 percent of lobbying activity to climate.  

Now the battle lines on the issue are sharpening, as the Biden Administration prepares to prioritize clean energy standards as part of a second infrastructure proposal.  This spring, Apple Vice President Lisa Jackson stepped out front on clean energy and endorsed standards at a U.S. Department of Energy summit.  “We support the passage of a Clean Energy Standard, which we think will drive large amounts of renewable generation...and do so in a way that shows people where they need to go and what they need to get there.”  More recently, Google and Apple signed a pro-CES corporate letter being circulated by Ceres, along with nearly 80 companies.

The other Big Tech companies (Amazon, Facebook, and Microsoft) have not yet followed suit.  They are being outpaced not just by Apple and Google, but by tech firms like Workday and Salesforce, which also signed the Ceres letter.  In particular, it will be interesting to see if Amazon decides to jump on the CES bandwagon this year -- considering that its own carbon emissions soared by 19 percent in 2020 alone. 

Big Oil inadvertently revealed its own CES battle plan, when seasoned Exxon lobbyist Keith McCoy was recently caught on video by a Greenpeace activist. “Did we aggressively fight against some of the science? Yes,” he confessed in reflecting on Big Oil’s longtime strategy to quell climate concerns.  He gave us a sneak preview of the fossil fuel industry’s version of “clean” energy:  “On a clean electricity standard, we think natural gas will play a role in anything.  We think it is a low emission energy source and should be part of a clean electricity standard.” Once again, Big Oil is ignoring science to concoct their own self-serving definition of what constitutes “clean” energy.

A truly clean CES is a key part of tackling climate change.  On a recent webinar, environmental policy expert Dr. Leah Stokes pointed out that a Clean Energy Standard is vital to meeting the deadline of 100 percent clean electricity by 2035, a goal set by President Biden.  This goal is already in place in 31 states -- and as Stokes says, “we know it works.”  She points out that reaching the interim target of 80 percent clean power by 2030 is “essential” to reaching the ultimate goal, and would result in “massive reductions in pollution.”  Crucially, this process would also help reduce the impact on communities of color that are on the frontlines of pollution. 

Stokes calls clean electricity “the linchpin that will allow other parts of the economy to decarbonize.”  In this future vision, the electrical grid will grow, creating millions of new jobs. She affirms that a CES can be passed through a budget reconciliation process, which is now the likely path in Congress.  “That’s why I think it’s so critical for corporations to be speaking up right now.”  Members of Congress should take note of public sentiment: in an average of national polls, the public supports a clean energy standard by a margin of two to one.

There are many other policy elements to address the climate crisis, and many steps in a very tricky process that will unfold over the coming months.  Unfortunately, there is still a partisan tone to the discussion of climate, although some Republicans are now awakening to the reality that their failure to act or even acknowledge the crisis is hurting them.

In this difficult passage, Big Tech should play a leadership role on CES, by leveraging DC influence and their credibility as hugely successful businesses that are job-generators and innovators.  The Clean Energy Standard gives Tech a place to stand in this debate that is clear, popular and effective in addressing climate change.  With the results of our climate inaction beginning to wreak visible havoc from coast to coast, it’s time to stand and fight.

Will Big Tech show up for this climate war and counter Big Oil’s distortions? 

Stay tuned.


Bill Weihl is a former sustainability leader at Facebook and Google, and founder of ClimateVoice, a project of the non-profit Tides Center. 

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