Chamber faces dissent from big U.S. firms on climate

BOSTON Thu Oct 29, 2009 3:40pm EDT

BOSTON (Reuters) - The biggest U.S. business organization has fallen out with influential parts of Corporate America because of its trenchant opposition to climate-change legislation making its way through Congress.

The U.S. Chamber of Commerce's opposition to the climate bill has already cost it prominent members including Apple Inc and California utility PG&E Corp.

And this week two of the lobbying group's most powerful members, the conglomerate General Electric Co and the telecommunications equipment provider Cisco Systems Inc told Reuters they do not see eye-to-eye with the group on climate regulations.

"The Chamber does not represent our views on the urgent need for climate legislation," said Peter O'Toole, a spokesman for GE, the largest U.S. conglomerate. "We need climate legislation and a price for carbon in the U.S. now."

The Chamber, which represents some 3 million U.S. businesses ranging from massive multinationals to mom-and-pop operations, says its positions take into account the needs of many sorts of businesses across a range of industries.

"Our goal is to have the positions that we actually take stances on be reflective of the democratic majority of the broad majority of the business community," said Eric Wohlschlegel, a Chamber spokesman. "There are cases, not just with energy, where companies are going to peel off and take different positions than the Chamber."

The bill making its way through Congress aims to reduce emissions of carbon dioxide -- a greenhouse gas that contributes to global climate change -- through a cap-and-trade system that would allow companies a limited amount of emissions. Those that emit more would need to buy additional credits; those that emit less would be able to sell credits.

The Chamber has raised concerns that the bill is not comprehensive enough and is not international in scope while seeking to tackle a global problem.

Its opposition to the climate bill, as well as to proposed health care reforms, has become enough of a concern to the White House that U.S. President Barack Obama met with Chamber officials on Thursday.

NEED TO "MODERNIZE"

Apple, which makes Macintosh personal computers and iPod music players, as well as utilities PG&E, Exelon Corp and PNM Resources Inc, quit the Chamber outright over this issue, while giant sportswear maker Nike Inc stepped down from the board but remains a member of the group.

Even companies that are keeping up their memberships said they would like to see change.

Cisco, the world's largest maker of equipment for networking computers, aims to work with the Chamber "to modernize their position," said spokeswoman Jennifer Greeson.

Duke Energy Corp Chief Executive Jim Rogers has long advocated regulation of carbon dioxide emissions and threw his weight behind the House version of the bill. He has no plans to give up his seat on the Chamber's board, a spokesman said.

"We work with the Chamber on lots of different issues, but we don't always see eye-to-eye with them," said Tom Williams, a spokesman for the Charlotte, North Carolina-based company.

Healthcare company Johnson & Johnson in April wrote Chamber officials a letter asking that their public comments on climate change "reflect the full range of views, especially for those of Chamber members advocated for Congressional action."

Many of the nation's largest companies have changed their tone on climate change in recent years, with some regarding regulations as inevitable and saying they would prefer the certainty that can only come when laws are passed. Businesses have also ramped up their green marketing, promoting themselves as environmentally concerned -- an image that does not mesh with aggressively fighting proposed climate regulations.

"It's a really interesting, dramatic turn of events, and unprecedented in nature, that this many major companies would stand up and say: 'You have it wrong,'" said Anne Kelly, director of climate policy at Ceres, a network of socially concerned investors, companies and public interest groups that collectively oversee some $7 trillion in assets.

"HEAVY COSTS" FEARED

To be sure, there are many loud voices within corporate America that oppose the proposed regulations.

The incoming CEO of oil company Chevron Corp, John Watson, told a meeting of Chamber members on Wednesday that the proposals "would lay heavy new costs on every family and business in the U.S."

Chamber spokesman Wohlschlegel also noted that members of the organization dissatisfied with its position on climate have the option of joining its policy-setting environment committee, which currently has about 125 members.

The Chamber's lobbying efforts extend far beyond environmental issues -- it has had a loud voice on both health care and financial regulatory reform, for instance.

Officials at Caterpillar Inc, Dow Chemical Co and International Business Machines Corp all pointed out that their companies belong to the Chamber in part because of the breadth of its influence.

"Our involvement with the Chamber is bigger than a single issue," said IBM spokesman Jay Cadmus. "There are going to be times when you don't agree."

(Reporting by Scott Malone; additional reporting by Jim Finkle in Boston, Ritsuko Ando in New York and James B. Kelleher in Chicago; editing by Gerald E. McCormick)