Three big companies quit an influential lobbying group that had focused on shaping climate-change legislation, in the latest sign that support for an ambitious bill is melting away.
Oil giants BP PLC and ConocoPhillips and heavy-equipment maker Caterpillar Inc. said Tuesday they won’t renew their membership in the three-year-old U.S. Climate Action Partnership, a broad business-environmental coalition that had been instrumental in building support in Washington for capping emissions of greenhouse gases.
The move comes as debate over climate change intensifies and concerns mount about the cost of capping greenhouse-gas emissions.
On a range of issues, from climate change to health care, skepticism is growing in Washington that Congress will pass any major legislation in a contentious election year in which Republicans are expected to gain seats. For companies, the shifting winds have reduced pressure to find common ground, leading them to pursue their own, sometimes conflicting interests.
Last week, the head of the Pharmaceutical Research and Manufacturers of America, Billy Tauzin, said he would step down as president of the industry’s main lobby in Washington, amid criticism from some in the industry over the alliance he made last year with the White House to support health-care legislation.
The administration had worked hard to persuade industry groups to climb aboard its major legislative initiatives—a tack many business interests saw as sensible following the Democrats’ big gains in the 2008 elections. But “unlikely bedfellows make for breakups,” said Kevin Book, managing director of Clearview Energy Partners, a consulting firm.
More on Climate Change
See key dates in the fight against climate change.
Spokesmen for ConocoPhillips and BP said the companies still support legislation to reduce greenhouse-gas emissions, but believe they can accomplish more working outside USCAP’s umbrella. Caterpillar said it plans to focus on commercializing green technologies.
ConocoPhillips’s senior vice president for government affairs, Red Cavaney, said the USCAP was focused on getting a climate-change bill passed, whereas Conoco is increasingly concerned with what the details of such a bill would be.
“USCAP was starting to do more and more on trying to get a bill out without trying to work as much on the substance of it,” Mr. Cavaney said.
A spokesman for USCAP said it intends to continue its work. More than 20 other large companies, including oil company Royal Dutch Shell PLC and industrial heavyweights General Electric Co. and Honeywell International Inc., remain in the coalition with environmental groups such as the Environmental Defense Fund and Natural Resources Defense Council. The USCAP said it expects to add new members in coming months.
“We think there’s momentum to get [a climate bill] done,” USCAP spokesman Tad Segal said. “President [Barack] Obama’s State of the Union address made it clear the administration is behind us.”
But experts said the companies’ decision to withdraw from USCAP is a sign the politics of climate change is shifting in Washington. When Mr. Obama took office, Congress appeared to have momentum for a climate bill that would push the economy toward lower-carbon alternatives. But as the economy soured, support waned.
The Obama administration says it will curb greenhouse-gas emissions using the Clean Air Act if Congress doesn’t act, and the Environmental Protection Agency has been pushing ahead with rule making.
When USCAP was founded in 2007, leaders of big U.S. companies had grown concerned that Democrats in Congress were preparing to put strict limits on industrial emissions of heat-trapping gases linked to climate change. Many executives decided it was better to be part of the debate in a united front.
“ We need to move away from oil but not by government’s punitive force. When the technology for alternatives is good enough, oil and coal will fall off the energy tree like a ripe fruit. ”
“The saying in Washington is that if you’re not at the table, you’re on the menu,” said Whitney Stanco, an energy policy analyst for Concept Capital, a Washington research firm.
The big-tent approach boosted USCAP’s influence. In January 2009, the group released its recommendations for legislation. Many were incorporated into legislation, adopted by the House, that would require companies to reduce carbon emissions or buy pollution credits from firms that did.
But not all of USCAP’s members supported the bill. Caterpillar objected in part because it would impose tariffs on goods from countries that didn’t match U.S. efforts to combat climate change. BP and Conoco opposed it on the grounds that it didn’t treat energy producers equally.
As long as climate legislation appeared imminent, companies were willing to paper over their differences and continue to work together. But by late last year, momentum had stalled in the Senate as Washington turned its attention to health care, the economy and the midterm elections. Few experts expect a bill to pass this year.
USCAP isn’t the only group to be roiled by the issue. Last year, several members of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce quit the group over its stance against the climate bill.