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Climate change creates unusual partnerships

Sean Ryan
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A national climate change bill is forging unlikely alliances in Wisconsin’s construction industry while also turning common allies against each other.

Some companies are standing against the U.S. Chamber of Commerce because the organization does not support nationwide proposals that would require utilities pay for the right to expel greenhouse gases. But the prospect of more jobs building wind turbines and cleaner power plants is aligning unions with environmental organizations, two groups that often are at odds.

For instance, the Apollo Alliance’s Wisconsin Chapter, which supports the Waxman-Markey energy bill, has a steering committee with representatives from the Sierra Club and Wisconsin AFL-CIO. In 2003, the two waged war over the coal-fired Elm Road power plant project in Oak Creek.

“The Apollo Alliance is a group of people that wouldn’t normally sit down together,” said Forrest Ceel, business manager for the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers Local 2150 in Menomonee Falls.

Ceel said Local 2150, which represents electricians who work for utilities, aligned with the environmentalists so the union’s 4,500 members don’t get left behind if the utility market changes. If the future is in turbines and solar instead of in coal-powered plants, he said, he wants his workers poised for those jobs.

“Power plants are going to be different,” he said, “and workers around the country are going to have to build them and maintain them.”

Svein Morner, principal of Madison-based Sustainable Engineering Group LLC, is getting on board with environmental groups that disagree with the U.S. Chamber of Commerce’s opposition to cap and trade, which would require utilities buy credits for power plant emissions that exceed federal limits. Morner on Wednesday will join a Clean Wisconsin teleconference during which businesses will pressure the U.S. Chamber to give more support to federal climate change legislation.

He said Tuesday he still is learning about the federal rule changes but figures any push for greater efficiency will support his company.

“I’m not a political person,” Morner said. “I run a business, and I do energy efficiency.”

Morner said that, from a strictly selfish viewpoint, he supports the rules because they will help business. On the other hand, he said, the proposed rules match his environmentalist principles.

“It fits what we’re operating by,” he said. “We want to reduce energy consumption and nonrenewables, and it fits what we want.”

The federal proposal does not fit the needs of many manufacturers and utilities in Wisconsin, said Scott Manley, Wisconsin Manufacturers and Commerce environmental policy director. The organization, which supported the Elm Road project because of its potential to lower electricity costs, is opposing federal climate change legislation.

The Waxman-Markey bill awaiting a U.S. Senate vote will increase electricity costs because utilities will be forced to buy credits for cap and trade and then pass the costs on to consumers, Manley said.

For the most, he said, WMC is united in its opposition, unlike the members of the U.S. Chamber.

“When you have an organization like ours where you have literally thousands of members,” Manley said of the Wisconsin group, “you are bound to have a situation here or there where one company is impacted differently than another.”

In Wisconsin, utilities expect to be hit hard by the credit costs and manufacturers fear higher electricity costs will put them out of business, he said.

“Everybody’s sort of in the same boat,” Manley said, “and it’s not a good boat to be in at the federal level.”

Where Manley predicts death for businesses, Ceel anticipates survival for workers. The partnership with environmentalists, Ceel said, is an acknowledgement of the industry’s future.

“I’d rather be at the table,” he said, “than on the menu.”

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