Climategate, Emissions and the Energy Market

by: Roger S. Conrad

Opponents of legislation to reduce carbon-dioxide (CO2) emissions haven’t had a lot to cheer about over the past year. Not only are they facing a new administration that has made legislation a top priority, but long-time global warming skeptics like ExxonMobil (NYSE:XOM) have also abandoned hostility for cooption.

Last month, emails surfaced from the University of East Anglia’s Climate Research Unit that revealed disagreement in the scientific community about the details of the impact of human-created CO2. The result is a lifeline to the opponents, who have since turned up their volume several decibels.

The Wall Street Journal’s lead editorial on December 8, for example, charges “at a minimum the emails demonstrate the lengths some of the world’s leading scientists were prepared to go to manufacture the consensus they used to demand drastic action steps against global warming.” Those are very strong words, particularly coming as they do on the first day of the Copenhagen meetings on global warming.

The Copenhagen meetings, of course, have been controversial for some time. Some fear the US will give away its ability to compete in world markets by agreeing to overzealous carbon reduction targets. A group of nine US Senators--all Democrats--are now threatening to oppose any CO2 regulation if China and India don’t agree to strict limits. Others argue that the cost of controlling CO2 is simply unbearable for an economy in recession, particularly if the science is in dispute.

But don’t count on the so-called “Climategate” to spell the end for CO2 regulation. Yes, more than a few people believe the East Anglia emails are a smoking gun. But they’re about as far from a majority as my hometown Washington Redskins are from the Super Bowl this year, or our Washington Nationals are from next year’s World Series.

In fact, outside the more partisan media outlets and blogosphere, the whole Climategate story is fading fast. Call it what you will, but this story doesn’t have legs. Nor has it had much of an impact on public opinion, outside of those who were already skeptics. And supporters of CO2 legislation are adamant as ever.

Of course, Climategate hasn’t made it any easier to move a bill to regulate CO2 emissions through the US Senate, where passage will almost certainly require 60 votes to override a Republican filibuster. But even the ability to block legislation may now be irrelevant, as the US Environmental Protection Agency has entered the game.

This week, the EPA made good on a longstanding promise (or threat) to issue new regulations on six greenhouse gases, chiefly CO2 and methane. The agency declared that these gases pose a danger to the environment and the health of Americans and that it would start to draw up regulations to reduce them.

The EPA is empowered to regulate emissions it deems harmful under the Clean Air Act and has done so in the past for acid rain, mercury, particulate matter and other substances.

Broadening the definition of CO2 has already drawn fire--including from supporters of Congressional legislation to regulate CO2--and it will almost certainly be challenged in court. Congress could also theoretically cut the agency’s funding, though that’s unlikely considering a majority supports CO2 legislation in both the House of Representatives and the Senate.

New EPA regulations, however, technically do not require additional approval from Congress; the right to implement them is already granted under the Clean Air Act. Consequently, whether Congress acts or not, CO2 regulations are nearly certain to become a reality, probably in early 2010.

And EPA’s actions may well increase the odds that Congress will deliver legislation, mainly because the industry is certain to demand it. Immediately following the EPA announcement, for example, an ExxonMobil spokesman called the plan the “least efficient and least transparent” way to cut emissions tied to climate change.

CEO David Radcliffe of Southern Company (NYSE:SO)--the biggest emitter of CO2 in the US--also voiced his support for a carbon bill in Congress, saying it would “give clarity to what you need to do and when.” And a spokesman for chemicals giant DuPont (NYSE:DD) asserted “only Congress can enact the kind of comprehensive program needed to ensure we achieve emissions reductions in the most cost-effective manner.”

Only time will tell if industry lobbying will pressure Congress to head off EPA rules, which may be what the Obama Administration had in mind. But one thing is clear, ClimateGate or not, CO2 regulation is coming and soon.

What It Means

The writers at Portfolio 2020 don’t advocate for or against CO2 regulation. And I’m not going to get into an argument with anyone on whether or not human emissions of CO2 are driving the planet to a climate crisis.

Rather, our sole concerns remain as follows:

  • Whether CO2 regulation will be enacted, either by Congress or the EPA;
  • What shape that new regulation will take, and particularly the details that will impact key industries;
  • The implications for our recommend stocks.

Everything else is off the point. The good news is we’ve been pretty much on the right side of this one so far, both in the US and around the world.

France’s Alstom (OTCPK:AOMFF) is still the leading candidate to develop economic carbon capture and sequestration technology. Emera (OTCPK:EMRAF) controls the world’s biggest tidal power project. Électricité de France (OTC:ECIFF) is the globe’s leader in carbon-free nuclear energy and looks set to build more nukes in coming years, including in the US.

Ormat Technologies (NYSE:ORA) is a global leader in geothermal energy. Finally, AES Corp (NYSE:AES) is on track to dramatically grow its global portfolio of solar and wind power projects, particularly in China.

American Superconductor’s (NASDAQ:AMSC) superconductor technology is booming thanks to its implementation on wind-power plants worldwide. Itron (NASDAQ:ITRI) has the best client list in the world for its output of “smart meters,” increasingly the key building block of energy conservation. And China High Speed Transmission is a direct play on that country’s insatiable demand for power and improved efficiency in transmitting electricity from the plant to the market.

All of these companies are making money now. They’ll make a lot more of it as CO2 regulations take hold in the US, just as they will as other nations work to reduce emissions. That’s the rationale behind our recommendations.