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Why some big businesses support the Clean Power Plan

The solar array on the Staples Ohio distribution center.

Big businesses often oppose increased regulations. But not always: take the Clean Power Plan. The Environmental Protection Agency’s new rule requires states to reduce carbon emissions from power plants.

The coal industry and some states, including Michigan (Attorney General Bill Schuette joined the lawsuit), are fighting the rule. But, hundreds of businesses have stepped forward to support it.

When you think about an office supply store, your first thoughts might not be of solar panels and sustainable products. But Mark Buckley, Vice President of Environmental Affairs for Staples, says his company is pushing for government action on climate change.

“This is really not a political issue. This is really a strategic issue. It’s a business issue,” he says. “It’s really rooted in practical economics for us. As much as anything, we believe this is just good, smart business.”

Buckley says Staples is lobbying for President’s Obama’s Clean Power Plan.  Some states, like Michigan and Ohio, are fighting the plan in court.  

Staples signed on to a letter from over 300 companies, including General Mills, Nestle, and Unilever, to states that oppose the plan. The letter urges them to comply with it rather than fight it. Why? They say businesses are already hurting from extreme weather events that are fueled by climate change.

Buckley says they want the government to deal with climate change now, so companies know what to expect, and can plan ahead. 

“Well thought out policy and well thought out regulations can help provide the guardrails for the highway that moves us to a different energy future,” Buckley says.

A divided business community

But many fossil-fuel heavy businesses — like utilities that rely on coal, and old-line manufacturers — don’t want to be pushed into a different energy future. And in some states, like Ohio, lawmakers are listening to them.

Credit Office of Ohio State Sen. Troy Balderson
Ohio State Sen. Troy Balderson (2nd from right) and other members of Ohio's Energy Mandates Study Committee toured a hydroelectric plant at Belleville, W.V.

Ohio state Senator Troy Balderson opposes the Clean Power Plan, and for similar reasons, he supports a freeze on the state’s renewable energy portfolio standards. These standards give incentives to build wind and solar. Balderson wants that freeze to continue indefinitely.

“So I’m the anti-solar, I’m the anti-wind guy. I’m not. Okay,” he says. “Let the businesses decide their own renewable choices. That’s going to be there, okay. To me, let the economics play it out. Don’t mandate something.”

With help from Ohio’s renewable mandate, Staples built a 2.2 megawatt solar array, which powers their distribution center in Central Ohio. Buckley says when the state was still mandating the use of renewables, it provided the support Staples needed to get the project done.

“Sending the market signal that there’s a certain carve out of energy that needs to come from these renewable sources is the thing that actually drives the project financing and makes these projects something that makes sense for businesses like Staples,” Buckley says.

So, there’s a divide in the business community. Those that want the government to enact carbon limits, and those that don’t.

Victoria Mills from the Environmental Defense Fund says businesses have two choices.

“Companies have a decision to make about: are they going to put their resources into fighting a change or are they going to think ahead about how they want their business model to change, and the places where they can innovate to be a provider of clean energy and a user of clean energy,” Mills says.

It’s the uncertainty that’s difficult for many companies, she says. They want to plan five, 10, even 20 years out. To do that, they want to know what kinds of energy they’ll be using, and how much it will cost.

Julie Grant is a reporter with the environment news program, The Allegheny Front.