Eleven years ago, as President Obama was beginning to emphasize climate change as a potential legislative priority, utility companies began strategizing to survive the new age. In June 2010, then–Duke Energy CEO Jim Rogers co-authored an op-ed in Politico with Eileen Claussen, a veteran of the Clinton administration and the founder of the Pew Center on Global Climate Change, in which the two agreed that the time for legislators, businesses, and environmentalists to take action had arrived. “If that means capping emissions from the utility sector first—so be it,” they wrote. The pair called for clear federal regulations and policies so that Duke Energy and other companies could rightfully lead on climate change. After all, the corporation was “already scheduled to retire and replace virtually all coal and other large power plants with cleaner and more efficient technologies by 2050.”
Today, in 2021, any reflection on these and other promises made by Duke Energy’s now-former chief executive should elicit alternating fits of laughter and teeth-gnashing. In the time since, the corporation essentially wrote the book on How Not to Manage an Energy Transition with a disastrous coal ash spill, only to turn around and publicly face-plant in its attempt to help construct a natural gas pipeline through Black communities and Indigenous lands. Now, as the Biden administration gears up to push climate legislation, it’s become clear that Duke Energy’s greenwashing strategy remains almost a carbon copy of the same ones Rogers pushed in his column in 2010. What is changing, though, is the world around it.
Every two years, Duke Energy updates its 15-year plan regarding its energy production. The latest update, submitted at the end of last year, proposes to double its renewable energy share to make up 14 percent of the company’s total energy generation, while gas would constitute a 31 percent share, with ambitions to actually build more gas plants in the coming decade. This plan would also include potentially operating some of its coal plants until 2049 and its gas plants well beyond that. In every sense, Duke is a coal and gas operation clinging to what it already controls and staving off renewables until it can single-handedly command that field, too.