Study Exposes Electric Utilities’ Climate Misinformation Campaigns

by Vins
Published: Updated:

Electric utility companies have been knowingly spreading misinformation about climate change for decades, Grist reported in September 2022, based on a report published that month in Environmental Research Letters. 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. Unlike fossil fuel companies, which have been subject to widespread criticism for employing comparable tactics, utility companies and their trade associations have escaped scrutiny.

Now, however, researchers at the University of California, Santa Barbara have analyzed nearly 200 utility industry documents, spanning five decades, regarding climate, which document that companies such as PG&E and Commonwealth Edison were aware of the threats posed by climate change, but disregarded them—and, in fact, went so far as to dismiss action to reduce carbon emissions as “premature at best.”

Climate misinformation 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 decades of misinformation surrounding the climate crisis was always financial profit, as the industry has been aware of the effects of climate change since the late 1960s, the study’s authors reported.

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 have lobbied against climate legislation. “Notably,” the study’s authors wrote, “the ten utilities most extensively involved in climate denial stand out as the largest polluters in the industry today.”

The Grist article was republished by WhoWhatWhy. The Atlantic also published an article based on the report in Environmental Research Letters. Although several of the nation’s most prominent newspapers have reported on studies published in Environmental Research Letters on climate denial campaigns by ExxonMobil and other fossil fuel companies, as of March 2023, none of them appear to have covered the efforts of electric utilities to downplay or deny the human causes of climate change.

Source: 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)