#14 – Study Exposes Electric Utilities’ Climate Disinformation Campaigns

by Shealeigh

Electric utility companies have been knowingly spreading disinformation about climate change for decades, Grist and the Atlantic reported in September 2022, citing a report published earlier that month in Environmental Research Letters. According to this report, electric utility companies, research groups, and trade associations (including the Edison Electric Institute and the Electric Power Research Institute) have been aware of climate change and its effects since the 1960s but neglected to inform the public in order to pursue their own financial gains, thus contributing to “climate denial, doubt, and delay.” However, unlike fossil fuel companies, which have long been subject to criticism for employing comparable tactics to downplay the issue of climate change, utility companies and their trade associations have largely escaped scrutiny.

Nevertheless, researchers at the University of California, Santa Barbara, have analyzed nearly two hundred utility industry documents spanning five decades—from 1968 to 2019—which reveal that companies such as PG&E and Commonwealth Edison were perfectly aware of the threats posed by climate change but disregarded them. In fact, electric utility representatives went so far as to dismiss action to reduce carbon emissions as “premature at best.” For this reason, one of the study’s authors, Leah Stokes, said, “Utilities hold partial responsibility for today’s climate crisis, and for the pushback against policies to address it.”

The dissemination of climate disinformation is even more serious than what meets the eye. According to the Environmental Research Letters article, “climate denial, doubt, and delay have proven profitable” for electric utilities, “allowing them to invest in polluting infrastructure for several decades longer than scientists have advised is safe.” The main reason for the many years of apparent deceit surrounding the climate crisis was financial profit, the study’s authors reported. One example of the industry’s attempts to deny responsibility for climate change was the series of ads created in the 1970s and 1980s that “acknowledged the link between sulfur dioxide and acid rain, yet misleadingly argued that pollution control technologies were infeasible and unnecessary.”

The Environmental Research Letters article also highlighted connections between industry associations and the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC), the Utility Air Regulation Group, and America’s Power, each of which has lobbied against climate legislation. “Notably,” the authors of the study wrote, “the ten utilities most extensively involved in climate denial stand out as the largest polluters in the industry today.”

Although several of the nation’s most prominent newspapers have reported on past studies published in Environmental Research Letters about climate denial campaigns by ExxonMobil and other fossil fuel companies, as of May 2023, none of them appear to have covered the efforts of electric utilities to downplay or deny the human causes of climate change [Note: See, for example, Geoffrey Supran and Naomi Oreskes, “What Exxon Mobil Didn’t Say about Climate Change,” New York Times, August 22, 2017; Michael Hiltzik, “A New Study Shows How Exxon Mobil Downplayed Climate Change When It Knew the Problem Was Real,” Los Angeles Times, August 22, 2017].

Robinson Meyer, “It Wasn’t Just Oil Companies Spreading Climate Denial,” The Atlantic, September 7, 2022.

Zoya Teirstein, “America’s Electric Utilities Spent Decades Spreading Climate Misinformation,” Grist, September 7, 2022; republished by WhoWhatWhy, September 14, 2022.

Student Researcher: Reyna Oliva (North Central College)

Faculty Evaluator: Steve Macek (North Central College)