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2012-09-04

Why Did the Dems Choose Charlotte? Examining Obama’s Close Ties to Utility Giant Duke Energy

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Duke Energy, the nation’s largest utility, has played a major role in bringing the Democratic National Convention to Charlotte, North Carolina. Duke has a lot riding on future policies governing coal, nuclear energy and climate change, regardless of who wins November’s election. The company has partly been successful in fighting off federal regulations thanks to its ties to the American Legislative Exchange Council, or ALEC, reportedly sponsoring ALEC’s meetings and bankrolling its attacks on clean energy legislation. We discuss Duke Energy’s growing political influence with Monica Embrey, the North Carolina organizer for Greenpeace USA; and Beth Henry, a local activist in Charlotte raising awareness about Duke Energy and its ties to the Democratic National Convention. [includes rush transcript]

Transcript

This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: We turn now to the nation’s largest utility, Duke Energy, and its role in bringing the Democratic National Convention to Charlotte, North Carolina, where we’re broadcasting from. The company’s chief executive, James Rogers, held fundraisers, donated his company’s office space, even guaranteed a $10 million loan to the convention committee. On Monday, Rogers appeared on CNN to praise President Obama’s record on energy issues.

JAMES ROGERS: Well, from an energy sector, we’re better off today than we were four years ago. Think about it. President Obama pursued all-of-the-above strategy. Are we better off in terms of efficiency? We see per-home usage of electricity declining. That’s a good thing. The second thing is, we’ve built—two license for new nuclear plants have been issued. We’ve got abundant supply of natural gas at low prices. And so, if you look at the various ways to generate electricity in this country, we’re better off today than we were four years ago.

AMY GOODMAN: Last year, Duke Energy acquired Progress Energy in a nearly $14 billion deal, creating the nation’s largest utility company. The joint company became the third-largest provider of nuclear power in the country. In the wake of the merger, Progress CEO Bill Johnson reportedly received an exit payment of more than $44 million, after working just eight hours as CEO before resigning. Analysts say the merger may have helped Duke expand its nuclear capacity in an attempt to build new reactors. Duke Energy has partly been successful in fighting off federal regulations, thanks to its ties to the American Legislative Exchange Council, or ALEC. The secretive, right-wing corporate bill mill connects conservative state lawmakers with lobbyists and corporate PR agents. Duke Energy has reportedly sponsored ALEC’s meetings and bankrolled its attacks on clean energy legislation.

For more, we’re joined by two guests. Monica Embrey is the North Carolina organizer for Greenpeace USA, and Beth Henry is a local activist here in Charlotte who is raising concerns about Duke Energy and its ties to the Democratic National Convention.

Beth Henry, let us start with you. Do you believe it’s—Duke Energy is the reason why the Democrats are holding this convention in Charlotte?

BETH HENRY: I don’t know. I don’t think it’s fair to say that. I think Duke Energy is a big part of the reason. Certainly, Jim Rogers, CEO of Duke Energy, played a big role in helping attract the convention and in helping fund it.

AMY GOODMAN: Explain.

BETH HENRY: He’s co-chair of the host committee. And Duke—he’s given the maximum amounts that he personally can give. Duke, as you said, is providing free office space for the committee. There are many other ties, money ties. Duke’s many other executives have given money.

AMY GOODMAN: Explain what Duke does, the various forms of energy plants that it has.

BETH HENRY: So, Duke is a transnational corporation, but here in North Carolina Duke is a regulated utility that now, after the merger, provides electricity to most North Carolinians. And right now it does that overwhelmingly with coal and nuclear energy. And their plan is to continue using overwhelmingly coal and nuclear and some gas-fired plants.

AMY GOODMAN: You spoke in front of Duke Energy at the protest.

BETH HENRY: I did.

AMY GOODMAN: What did you say?

BETH HENRY: I said now that Duke is the nation’s largest utility, Duke should lead our country and the world to a rapid transition to clean, renewable electricity instead of fossil fuels and nuclear.

AMY GOODMAN: Monica Embrey, you also addressed the crowd in Frazier Park. Talk about your concerns.

MONICA EMBREY: As Duke Energy, as Beth just mentioned, is now the nation’s largest utility, operating across North Carolina, South Carolina, Florida, Indiana, Kentucky, Ohio, it definitely has the responsibility to be leading the nation. Unfortunately, that’s not the leadership that we’re seeing with Duke Energy nor its CEO, Jim Rogers. Jim Rogers talks a lot about climate change. He talks a lot about promoting renewable energy sources. But we’ve actually yet to see that in action. Here in North Carolina, we have coal-fired power plants surrounding us. In Charlotte, we have four, which have pretty significant impacts on local communities’ health as well as being the largest contributors to global climate change.

AMY GOODMAN: And if he speaks out on climate change, what exactly does he say?

MONICA EMBREY: CEO Jim Rogers has been quoted many times saying that he understands the issue, and it’s something that we need to be moving on as a nation. And I think we would love to actually see him enact that with a pretty dramatic shift away from dirty energy and dangerous nuclear, and instead real investments in wind and solar. For example, here in North Carolina, Duke Energy’s current 20-year plan is to have 3 percent renewable energy. That’s simply unacceptable for the crises that we’re currently facing.

AMY GOODMAN: What do you want to see happen?

MONICA EMBREY: We want to see Duke Energy transition and shut down all of its coal plants, end their contracts with mountaintop removal coal mining, which is an incredibly destructive process where mountains across Appalachia are literally blown up to bring that coal to state like North Carolina, and instead invest in wind and solar and energy efficiency.

AMY GOODMAN: And how involved is Duke Energy in mountaintop removal?

MONICA EMBREY: The majority of the coal burned right here in North Carolina comes from blown-up mountains in—across Appalachia.

AMY GOODMAN: President Obama’s links to nuclear energy—no president dared, for many presidents in the last four decades, to start rebuilding nuclear power plants, but President Obama has pushed forward on that. If you can talk about his home state company of Exelon and also talk about Duke Energy here, [Beth] Henry, in North Carolina.

BETH HENRY: So, Exelon is headquartered in Illinois, and it’s the biggest owner of nuclear plants currently. And one of—

AMY GOODMAN: And it’s been a major supporter of President Obama.

BETH HENRY: Oh, correct. One of his top fundraisers is on the board of Exelon. Both Rahm Emanuel and David Axelrod have strong connections with Exelon. And the New York Times recently did a piece explaining the excellent access that Exelon and its executives have had to the White House. So, money buys access to our politicians. And my concern, since I’m so concerned about what Duke is doing here, is that all of Duke’s help to the DNC is—will give them an opportunity to influence our government in ways that will not solve the urgent problem of climate change quickly enough.

AMY GOODMAN: I think it would surprise many to hear about President Obama’s close ties to the nuclear industry, because so many of the different movements that elected him in 2008—among them, the environmental movement—many in that movement come out of the anti-nuclear movement of the 1980s that ultimately led to the prevention of any nuclear power plant being built in this country for decades. Now the Vogtle plants are being built in Georgia by Southern Power. And what about here, what Duke is trying to do?

BETH HENRY: So, Duke wants to build two plants near here. They don’t have approval for them yet. But everyone pretty much agrees that nuclear power is now uneconomic. So the only place they’re even being proposed is in states like this, where we have a regulated utility and all the costs can be imposed on the rate payers. The actual utility building, the plant has none of the risk. So, that’s why here, Florida, South Carolina—only in the Southeast—where we have utilities commissions that are charged with regulating these utilities, do we even have new nuclear plants proposed. But, of course, those utilities commissions are appointed by the government, and, you know, huge sums flow into state government just like they do into the federal government.

AMY GOODMAN: You’re a North Carolinian, Beth Henry. Have you had interaction with the CEO, Jim Rogers?

BETH HENRY: I have. In fact, when I recently spoke at the shareholders’ meeting and came to the microphone, he said, "You again." I’m that worried about climate change and that determined to do what I can to influence Duke. I do think Mr. Rogers is doing his job, which is to try to make as much money as he can for his shareholders, but it just so happens that that is not in the best interest of the rest of the world.

AMY GOODMAN: Monica Embrey, Greenpeace has been protesting Jim Rogers’ ties to the Democratic National Committee and the convention here in Charlotte.

MONICA EMBREY: Yeah, we have. We think it’s really important that corporations and our government have some serious separation. As Beth was just mentioning, making sure that major corporations don’t have the access to undermine the best interests of the people here is what we’re really focusing on. Duke Energy has had extremely close ties with ALEC, which is the American Legislative Exchange Council, a right-wing bill mill group responsible for passing bills such as S.B. 1070, the Arizona immigration law, Stand Your Ground, related to Trayvon Martin, but also does an incredible amount of work opposing climate change legislation, opposing renewable energy, and stopping regulations of coal-fired power plants. Here in Charlotte, Duke Energy contributed significantly this past May to help bring ALEC’s conference. And we, along with a coalition of folks, including Energy Action, Energy Action Coalition, the Center for Media Democracy, Common Cause and CREDO, as well as others, are calling on Duke Energy to drop their ties with ALEC before the end of the DNC.

AMY GOODMAN: Finally, this story of Bill Johnson, the CEO for a day, can either of you explain exactly what happened, how, after being CEO for a couple of hours, he was given $44—I think it’s .4—million in severance pay?

BETH HENRY: I heard him and—

AMY GOODMAN: Beth Henry.

BETH HENRY: —Mr. Rogers testify before our utilities commission about what happened, but they told different stories, so I’m not sure what really happened. But the Duke legacy share—directors said that they "lost confidence" in Mr. Johnson, who was supposed to be CEO of the new company. And basically, at the—right after the merger, they asked him to resign or told him he would be fired if he didn’t resign. So, then somehow that day he ended up with that package, which, to be fair, did include some stock options and stuff that he may have earned before, but it was still a lot of money for someone who never actually became CEO.

AMY GOODMAN: Monica, what are your plans for the rest of this convention here in Charlotte?

MONICA EMBREY: Oh, we’re definitely going to be continuing to engage with the local community and folks in from out of town to call on Duke Energy to dump ALEC before the end of this convention.

AMY GOODMAN: And your plans, Beth?

BETH HENRY: I plan to help out with various activities the rest of the week and keep trying to push Duke to implement, right here in its home state, real solutions to climate change.

AMY GOODMAN: I want to thank you both for being with us, Monica Embrey of Greenpeace here in North Carolina and Beth Henry, who is a longtime North Carolinian taking on Duke Energy. This is Democracy Now!, democracynow.org, The War and Peace Report. We’re "Breaking With Convention." When we come back, we look at the bus that has carried scores of undocumented immigrants. Their slogan: "No Papers, No Fear." Stay with us.

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