Corporate Environmental Opportunism

September 8th, 2011 by Phil Mattera

“There is too much regulation and this is acting as a depressant on the economy.”

This statement could have been made by any one of the current Republican presidential contenders, but the words come from a press conference held by Ronald Reagan shortly after taking office in 1981.

Reagan used the event to announce the launch of his effort to weaken federal rules in areas such as environmental protection and occupational safety and health—moves that were supposed to encourage job creation.

Little has changed over the past three decades in the thinking of conservatives about the purportedly harmful effects of government oversight of industry and the magic of deregulation. After all, they have gotten a lot of political mileage out of Reagan’s aphorism that “government is the problem.”

What’s more interesting is the changing posture of business, the constituency on whose behalf the assault on regulation is said to be mounted. Three decades ago, there was no question that large corporations were ardent foes of agencies such as EPA and OSHA, and they promoted the idea that aggressive regulation destroyed jobs and curtailed economic growth. They also acted on those beliefs.

Richard Kazis and Richard Grossman opened their 1982 book Fear at Work: Job Blackmail, Labor and the Environment by recounting the announcement in 1980 by Anaconda Copper (then owned by the oil company Atlantic Richfield) that it was shutting down its smelter and refinery operations in Montana because they could not be retrofitted to satisfy environmental standards. The move eliminated 1,500 jobs.

Critics pointed out that Anaconda could have received a multiyear extension of its Clean Air Act compliance deadlines but had chosen not to apply for one, suggesting that it had other reasons for the shutdown. Nonetheless, Anaconda’s action served to generate hostility not toward the company but toward the EPA and environmental activists. Other large companies also stoked anti-regulation sentiments.

With the exception of a few diehards such as Koch Industries, today’s major corporations do not espouse Neanderthal views on environmental regulation. Almost all of them purport to have enlightened stances on issues such as air and water quality, climate change and recycling as part of overall company policies on corporate sustainability and responsibility (CSR).

BP, which purchased Atlantic Richfield in 2000, took a hit to its image during the Gulf of Mexico oil spill last year, but before that it had acknowledged that global warming was a problem and claimed to be going “beyond petroleum” by investing (modestly) in renewable energy sources. BP’s competitor Chevron also became a proponent of environmental protection and launched an ad campaign with the tagline “Will You Join Us” that was apparently meant to convey the idea that the oil giant is in the vanguard of efforts to save the earth.

Such positions are not limited to the petroleum sector. Retailing behemoth Wal-Mart has taken high-profile steps to reduce its carbon footprint and has pressured its suppliers to do the same. Toyota, General Motors and other auto giants have put increasing emphasis on hybrids and electric cars. Goldman Sachs, a CSR pioneer in the investment banking world, was the first Wall Street firm to adopt a comprehensive environmental policy (after being pressured by groups such as Rainforest Action Network). Ceres, a non-profit that focuses on sustainability issues, has several dozen Fortune 500 companies in its coalition.

Given all this high-minded corporate thinking on the environment, how can Republican candidates continue to portray regulatory rollbacks as the pro-business position? Or even, in cases such as Newt Gingrich and Michele Bachman, get away with calling for the abolition of the EPA?

A key reason is that big business, despite its claim to have embraced sustainability, is not willing to apply that principle in the public policy arena. CEOs are not speaking out against the EPA bashers or denying them PAC contributions.

This gets to the heart of what is wrong with CSR. It is a system of voluntary and selective actions that companies adopt, largely for public relations purposes—not mandated and enforceable directives imposed by democratic institutions. CSR cannot take the place of the EPA.

The absence of progressive corporate voices on environmental issues makes it easier for the likes of Gingrich and Bachman to make outlandish statements on regulatory matters. To make matters worse, President Obama implicitly endorsed the wrongheaded notion that environmental regulations stand in the way of job creation in his recent decision to prevent the EPA from implementing a long-planned stricter air quality standard for ground-level ozone emissions.

What more could Corporate America ask for? It gets to portray itself as environmentally friendly while reaping the advantages of regulatory rollbacks being promoted across the political spectrum. That’s opportunism on a grand scale.

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