Corporate Triplespeak: Responses by Investor-Owned Utilities to the EPA's Proposed Clean Power Plan

45 Pages Posted: 24 Jun 2018

See all articles by Alan R. Palmiter

Alan R. Palmiter

Wake Forest University - School of Law

Date Written: May 1, 2018

Abstract

During the year following the EPA’s proposed Clean Power Plan to regulate CO2 emissions in the power sector, the largest investor-owned electric utilities engaged in a curious triplespeak.

Employing the moral language of political conservatives, the utilities focused on whether and how the EPA had transgressed its “traditional” regulatory role, thus altering the “structure” of energy federalism and potentially “degrading” orderly power supplies. In disclosure filings with the Securities and Exchange Commission, the utilities used the moral language of political libertarians, focusing on the “financial risks” that federal government “intervention” poses to "efficient power markets” and to the “freedom” of utilities to match energy supplies and customer demand. Meanwhile, in their Corporate Social Responsibility reports, the utilities used the moral language of political progressives, highlighting their concern for the “well-being” of their customers and other stakeholders, their desire to “protect” the environment from the “threat” of climate change, and their “ongoing voluntary efforts” to shift away from fossil fuels toward renewables. In many instances the same utility company took all of these seemingly inconsistent stances at about the same time.

In some respects this triplespeak is unremarkable. Utility companies understandably would take different views on the EPA’s proposed on the power sector’s fuel mix, depending on where the utility operated and whether it was coal-dependent or had a portfolio of non-carbon nuclear and renewables. Moreover, within a utility company’s organizational chart, the existence of different viewpoints — reflecting the audience to which the organizational unit is supposed to cater — is not surprising. Regulators tend to believe in the status quo and are more conservative; investors tend to believe in free markets and are more libertarian; and the socially-responsible public is more concerned about consumer welfare and environmental damage and is more progressive. But these explanations are incomplete. Some utilities were more progressive than regional politics and their fuel mix might suggest; some utilities were decidedly libertarian when presenting their story in CSR reports; and some utilities were less conservative in their comments to the federal regulator. And nearly all the utilities were internally a hodge-podge of political viewpoints.

This essay suggests an answer: the utilities engaged in triplespeak as an adaptive measure. Faced with unprecedented business, regulatory, and technological change — not to mention the changes to climate wrought by carbon-generated electricity — the utilities used triplespeak as a way to begin a process of self-transformation. The utilities’ different moral takes on the EPA proposal — each a moral mutation — prepare the industry to respond to an uncertain, volatile future. Whether the power sector’s future is regulation-dependent, market-based, or ecology-driven (or even, and more likely, a combination of these forces), the large utilities responded to the EPA’s proposal by honing their vocabulary to explain their moral choices — whatever they might be.

Suggested Citation

Palmiter, Alan R., Corporate Triplespeak: Responses by Investor-Owned Utilities to the EPA's Proposed Clean Power Plan (May 1, 2018). Brooklyn Law Review, Vol. 83, No. 3, 2018, Available at SSRN: https://ssrn.com/abstract=3192525

Alan R. Palmiter (Contact Author)

Wake Forest University - School of Law ( email )

P.O. Box 7206
Winston-Salem, NC 27109
United States
336-758-5711 (Phone)
336-758-4496 (Fax)

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