By Steve Milloy
May 7, 2011, Investor’s Business Daily
General Electric CEO Jeff Immelt hasn’t yet seen the light on climate science, but apparently he has at last felt the heat for lobbying for cap-and-trade.
Immelt last week announced that he was giving up his green energy lobbying crusade and getting back to the business of creating wealth at the struggling GE.
“If I had one thing to do over again, I would not have talked so much about green,” he told a Massachusetts Institute of Technology audience.
“Even though I believe in global warming and I believe in the science … it just took on a connotation that was too elitist.
“It was too precious, and it let opponents think that if you had a green initiative, you didn’t care about jobs. I’m a businessman. That’s all I care about, is jobs … I’m kind of over the stage of arguing for a comprehensive energy policy. I’m back to keeping my head down and working.”
The story begins precisely six years ago when Immelt announced GE’s ecomagination initiative, a marketing and lobbying campaign to push so-called “clean” technologies, such as wind turbines, solar and other politically correct technology. I had just co-launched the Free Enterprise Action Fund, an activist mutual fund initially intended to help CEOs defend their companies against the anti-business activists that masquerade as shareholders.
A few days later, right before our fund’s debut at the JPM Morgan Chase shareholder meeting, I was sitting in a Chicago hotel with my partner heatedly discussing the GE situation. His initial reaction was to support Immelt, figuring that Immelt was simply being a good capitalist who just wanted to sell more products. I argued that GE’s participation in climate scaremongering would ultimately be economically disastrous for everyone, including GE itself.
Then Immelt really crossed the line, announcing in 2006 that GE had joined the U.S. Climate Action Partnership, a coalition of radical green groups and other businesses formed to lobby for comprehensive climate and energy legislation such as cap-and-trade.
We filed a novel shareholder resolution with GE asking the company to justify its lobbying for junk science-based and economy-killing carbon caps. GE tried and failed to get the Securities and Exchange Commission to block our proposal from its proxy statement, as it did for the next several years. Each time, though, we prevailed.
The resolution gave us status and a public platform for challenging Immelt and drawing attention to the wrong done to shareholders by his carbon-cap lobbying. Thomas Edison innovated for profits, we maintained, while Immelt went to lobby the government for them.
Our continued public questioning of Immelt reached a climax of sorts at a March 2008 environmental business conference. After tough questioning from free-market advocates — a confrontation so tense that then-Walmart CEO Lee Scott remarked it had kept him up that night — Immelt retaliated by canceling my scheduled next-morning appearance on GE-owned CNBC. I haven’t been on CNBC since.
Immelt remained undeterred and nearly achieved his goal with the June 2009 passage of the Waxman-Markey cap-and-trade bill. But that was his high water mark — an “achievement” GE used to solicit political contributions from its employees a month later.
A GE executive wrote in the solicitation, “The intersection between GE’s interests and government action is clearer than ever … We must also make sure that candidates who share GE’s values and goals get elected to office …
“On climate change, we were able to work closely with key authors of the Waxman-Markey climate and energy bill, recently passed by the House of Representatives. If this bill is enacted into law it would benefit many GE businesses.”
But by the time of the memo, the air was already rushing out of the cap-and-trade souffle. Today, cap-and-tax is universally acknowledged as dead.
The politically flexible Immelt famously remarked, “We’re all Democrats now,” after President Obama’s election. Now with a budget crisis and a Republican-controlled House, the political winds have again shifted dramatically in Washington — even threatening existing taxpayer subsidies and government programs for “clean energy.”
Immelt has sensed this and has tacked accordingly. But one wonders how long the back-to-business Immelt will stay as the chair of Obama’s Competitiveness Council. Certainly long-frustrated GE shareholders would rather have him give up his day job.
• Milloy publishes JunkScience.com and is the author of “Green Hell: How Environmentalists Plan to Control Your Life and What You Can Do to Stop Them” (Regnery 2009).