While many companies hire lobbyists to win earmarks, General Electric’s unmatched lobbying force has secured a tax increase — or its equivalent — in President Barack Obama’s budget.
Labeled “climate revenues” and totaling $646 billion over eight years, this line item in Obama’s budget has inspired confidence in GE Chief Executive Officer Jeff Immelt. As Immelt put it in a letter this week, he believes that the Obama administration will be a profitable “financier” and “key partner.”
On page 115 of Obama’s fiscal 2010 budget is Table S-2, titled “Effect of Budget Proposals on Projected Deficits.” The chart forecasts the costs of Obama’s spending proposals and the added revenue of his proposed tax increases. It also forecasts, beginning in 2012, billions of dollars a year in “climate revenues.” This budget line, which has struck fear into some lawmakers from coal-dependent states, could spell salvation for GE in these times of uncertainty.
How can Obama generate “climate revenues”? By forcing companies to pay for the right to emit greenhouse gases such as carbon dioxide.
A tax on greenhouse gas emissions could accomplish this, but Obama’s preferred policy — and the approach embraced by a few congressional bills in recent years — is called “cap and trade.” In short, cap and trade requires businesses to spend “credits” to pay for their emissions. Businesses can buy or sell these credits, and the market — not the government — would directly set the price of a credit. Government would initially auction them off, generating revenue.
GE — a member of the U.S. Climate Action Partnership, which advocates cap and trade — leads the push for greenhouse gas restrictions.
In the fourth quarter of 2008 as the company’s stock fell 30 percent, GE spent $4.26 million on lobbying — that’s $46,304 each day, including weekends, Thanksgiving and Christmas. In 2008, the company spent a grand total of $18.66 million on lobbying.
Reviewing their lobbying filings, you might think you were looking at Al Gore’s agenda. GE’s specific lobbying issues included the “Climate Stewardship Act,” “Electric Utility Cap and Trade Act,” “Global Warming Reduction Act,” “Federal Government Greenhouse Gas Registry Act,” “Low Carbon Economy Act,” and “Lieberman-Warner Climate Security Act.”
This isn’t altruism or public relations. GE has started a joint venture called Greenhouse Gas Services, which invests in — and hopes to manage the trade in — greenhouse gas credits. But these investments and this trading floor are of basically no use and nearly no value without government restrictions on greenhouse gases.
Hence the lobbying, buttressed by generous campaign contributions: Employees and executives gave $1.35 million to politicians in the past election while GE’s political action committee shelled out $1.55 million. About 64 percent of this $2.9 million went to Democrats, with Obama easily the top recipient of GE money.
Obama’s budget includes the payoff, promising to start a multibillion-dollar greenhouse gas industry by 2012. In a letter this week, GE’S Immelt told shareholders that current events present an “opportunity of a lifetime,” because “capitalism will be ‘reset.’ ”
Immelt wrote: “The interaction between government and business will change forever. In a reset economy, the government will be a regulator; and also an industry policy champion, a financier, and a key partner.”
In short, GE plans to get rich by being one of the government’s closest partners — which it has always been, thanks to its unmatched lobbying efforts.
The environmentalist at this point might respond, “Well, good for GE. if they can get rich while helping the planet, more power to them.” But this ignores important issues. First, restraining greenhouse gas emissions will cost Americans dearly. Gas, electricity and heating prices will all go up. The prices of manufactured and shipped goods will go up. A Clemson University report on similar cap-and-trade proposals forecast a 1 percent decline in he U.S. gross domestic product by 2015 if they were implemented.
There are environmental costs, also, to such a focus on greenhouse gases: Ethanol’s damage to water supplies, soil health and air quality are the fruit of government pushing the product as a climate-friendly fuel.
When the lobbying fingerprints of GE and other well-connected firms are considered, it’s not hard to conclude that the policy that will finally emerge won’t be the one that is best for the planet and least bad for the economy, but the one that is best for General Electric.