Union Pacific Comes Clean On Coal. Kind Of.

I was asked on the Mario Solis Marich Radio Show the other day about the climate change bill, and the opposition to it. As I told Mario, the strategy employed by the opponents of clean energy legislation is actually the same strategy that was employed by the tobacco industry, and the thinking behind the health care reform opponents.

For big business, fighting legislation such as health care reform or clean energy is really just strictly business. They are protecting their profits, and, usually, the compensation of their senior executives who often are in line for tens of millions of dollars in profits.

But it all goes back to the tobacco industry. In the early 1960s, the Surgeon General determined that smoking causes cancer, and released his findings. As far as the science was concerned, the issue was settled right there and then. And yet, the tobacco industry created a strategy that bought them decades of higher and higher profits. Quite simply, they created a 'manufactroversy' - a phrased coined by my colleague Max Bernstein, the strategy of creating a controversy where there isn't one.

Need a scientific opinion that differs with scientific fact? Create one. Distort, deny and distract, so while the media plays both sides of the story, your company makes millions and millions of dollars.

We have seen this work, unfortunately, time and time again. And no where is it clearer than in the upcoming debate on the Clean Energy bill in the U.S. Senate. First, as has been noted for over a decade, there is no debate over global warming. The earth is warming, the cause is greenhouse gases, and we, humans, are creating those gases through our increased human activity, especially over the last five decades.

If you started from that factual point, you would be focused on solutions.

But clean energy opponents won't even concede that basic fact.

And then, they use the power of their corporations to push additional distractions and denials. Pete Altman, from NRDC, has a great example of this practice.

Here are the highlights:

The US Chamber Of Commerce announces it will spend $100,000,000 fighting proposals that it disagrees with, including climate change legislation, despite the vast majority of the Chamber of Commerce Board supporting the legislation.

US Chamber President Tom Donohue has been on the board of directors at Union Pacific since 1998. As a Union Pacific board member, Donohue has been well cared for.

  • He has been paid annual retainers by Union Pacific amounting to at least1,134,333 since 1998.
  • As of 2008, Donohue has been granted over 43,000 shares of Union Pacific stock, and is entitled to the value of nearly 20,000 more shares when he leaves the board - a package whose combined value would be over $3.8 million if he were to sell it today.
  • So being on the Union Pacific board can be seen as worth about $5 million to Tom Donohue, so far. (You can piece all this compensation together from the company's proxy statements.)

So, why would Union Pacific oppose climate change legislation? Would it really ruin the railroad business? Well, 20% of it.

Coal shipments are estimated to make up about 20% of freight revenues enjoyed by the big rail carriers, including Union Pacific.

Suddenly Union Pacific's $5 million investment in Mr. Donohue looks pretty smart, right?

Especially when you see this in their financial disclosures:

"We May Be Affected by Climate Change and Market or Regulatory Responses to Climate Change...Restrictions, caps, taxes, or other controls on emissions of greenhouse gasses, including diesel exhaust, could significantly increase our operating costs...[and] could also affect our customers...[which could] reduce the amount of traffic we handle and have a material adverse effect on our results of operations, financial condition, and liquidity."

Here's the problem, however.

Union Pacific may be protecting their profits, which, to be honest, they have every right to do. But as they do it, they are worsening the already massive environmental problems we are facing. They are putting their profits ahead of our collective futures, which they do not have a right to do.

Our elected officials need to look not at the donations from corporations and business leaders but at the voters who elect them. We the voters have to let them know what we want.

Fighting back over the next few months against the smears that will come out of the clean energy debate is also very important, learn more here.

Because we need to make it our business to make sure that no one puts their profits ahead of the planet.