Utilities flee UARG as Congressional Dems tee up probe into lobbying group

Dive Brief:

  • Seven electric utilities have reportedly ended their membership in an industry lobbying group as Congressional Democrats step up their scrutiny of its connections with the Environmental Protection Agency’s top air quality official.
  • Duke Energy and Dominion Energy, two of the top donors to the Utility Air Regulatory Group, left the organization last week, Politico reported. Since then, DTE Energy, Consumers Energy, the Northern Indiana Public Service Co. and South Carolina Electric & Gas have also departed, according to E&E News.
  • The departures come a week after House Democrats announced they would probe UARG’s connections to EPA Assistant Administrator Bill Wehrum, who used to work for the group. Wehrum has directed EPA’s efforts to roll back power plant emissions standards — initiatives supported by UARG.

Dive Insight:

Departures from UARG show that utility resource decisions may be starting to influence lobbying practices.

For decades, UARG has pressed for looser emission standards and the preservation of large polluting facilities like coal plants. But as companies like DTE shift away from a legacy of coal burning to natural gas and renewables, policy priorities also change.

Continued participation in UARG is “not aligned with our company’s priorities,” a DTE spokesperson told E&E this week. The company has committed to cut its carbon emissions 80% by 2050 largely by retiring old coal generators.

A Congressional probe is also complicating policy discussions for UARG members. Last week, Democrats on the House Energy and Commerce Committee sent letters to eight utilities requesting information on their connections to the group.

The law firm Hunton Andrews Kurth, which houses UARG, also received a request from the committee. Wehrum worked for UARG during his time at the firm, which only concluded when he was nominated for his EPA position last year. David Harlow, the senior counsel in Wehrum’s EPA office, also worked for UARG at Hunton.

Democrats are concerned Wehrum continues to push UARG’s policy agenda in his regulatory role. Politico reported earlier this year Wehrum held policy meetings with UARG members at Hunton even while he was being considered for the EPA role.

“The Office of Air and Radiation’s agenda appears remarkably similar to the substantive agenda advanced by a group housed at your firm known as the Utility Air Regulatory Group (UARG),” lawmakers wrote in a release announcing the probe. “These allegations have raised substantial questions regarding whether Mr. Wehrum and Mr. Harlow are properly carrying out the [Clean Air Act] as directed by Congress, or instead changing Agency policies and programs to benefit former clients.”

Though UARG has been active for years, Hunton does not publicly disclose its utility members, who often use it to advance policy agendas too controversial for companies to advocate under their own names. UARG, for example, filed comments praising EPA’s efforts to roll back the Clean Power Plan while its main utility members stayed publicly silent.

The departure of seven large utilities could have a financial toll at UARG. Duke Energy was the group’s top donor in 2017, according to documents released by Politico, but other large donors including AEP and Southern Co. remain.

2019-04-17T08:57:04-05:00Solar News|