Early in 2007, a coalition of big companies broke ranks with corporate America and declared that global warming was a real, grave threat.
The United States Climate Action Partnership changed the national debate over warming. Executives from member companies such as DuPont, Ford Motor Co. and PG&E Corp. lobbied Congress to do something about greenhouse gases.
They joined forces with environmental groups that also were part of the partnership, groups such as the Environmental Defense Fund and the Natural Resources Defense Council. Together, they helped lay the groundwork for the climate bill that the U.S. Senate will debate this fall.
But now this groundbreaking partnership may have been undercut by some of its own members.
Some of the oil companies that joined the partnership are taking part in an oil industry campaign against the climate change bill in Congress. The campaign features public rallies against the bill in places such as Houston and Greensboro, N.C., coordinated by the industry's main lobbying group, the American Petroleum Institute.
The rallies are designed to look like grassroots affairs. But an e-mail from the institute to oil company executives outlining the campaign and asking them to participate was leaked to Greenpeace, which released it to the public.
ConocoPhillips, a member of the climate change partnership, posted a note on its Web site encouraging people to go. BP, another partnership member, told employees about the rallies but did not encourage them to attend, according to a company spokesman.
As a result, observers wonder whether the partnership could lose some of its effectiveness, just as the debate over global warming legislation moves to a critical stage.
"It's not my intention or desire to see USCAP fracture, because what they represent is important," said Greenpeace Research Director Kert Davies, who received the leaked oil industry e-mail. "It looks like selfishness has returned, that each corporation is going to pursue its own selfish interest. And that means we will get nowhere."
Greenpeace does not belong to the Climate Action Partnership.
"Obviously, we've got a number of questions about the API rallies," said Brian Hertzog, director of corporate relations for PG&E Corp. The San Francisco company, the parent corporation of Pacific Gas and Electric Co., was one of the partnership's founding members.
Still in agreement
He doubted, however, that the partnership would split or shrink as a result of the rallies. The members all support a blueprint for action that the group released in January, which calls for a carbon cap-and-trade system to reduce America's greenhouse gas emissions 80 percent by 2050.
"Everyone's still committed to the principles in the blueprint, and I think that's a powerful thing for people in the Senate," Hertzog said.
Illustrating just how difficult the negotiations over climate change legislation can be, the partnership in June praised the U.S. House of Representatives for passing its version of the bill, but took pains not to endorse specific provisions in it.
BP has concerns
BP spokesman Ronnie Chappell said his company had issues with the House bill, not with climate-change regulation in general. He said BP informed some of its employees about the rallies but told them that attending would be "a personal decision."
"We're not the only people with concerns about the current bill," Chappell said. "It does not yet conform, in our opinion, to the blueprint put forward by USCAP, and we will be working in the Senate to get a bill that does."
Davies said BP is trying to have it both ways. "They need to be talking straight with people," he said. "They can't be lobbying one day with USCAP ... and the next day have an energy rally with people bashing the bill."