Despite working to cultivate a public image as a utility at the forefront of building a carbon-free future, Xcel Energy is bankrolling Republican lawmakers who are blocking climate legislation in its home state of Minnesota.
The Xcel Energy Employees PAC – the utility’s main political giving vehicle in Minnesota – has given $114,949 to Republican candidates, funds, and party units since 2017, according to a review of campaign finance filings. (Party units are state and local committees of a political party.) The PAC contributed $75,814 to Democratic-Farmer-Labor (DFL) candidates, funds, and party units during the same period. Minnesota’s Republican-controlled Senate has been a consistent opponent of climate progress in recent years, and Xcel’s PAC has helped finance GOP control of the chamber.
This November, all state-level elected seats in Minnesota are up for grabs. The single-biggest beneficiary of the Xcel PAC – the Senate Victory Fund – is working statewide to maintain Republicans’ majority in the Senate. About a quarter of the $42,900 that the Xcel PAC has sunk into the fund since 2017 came last year, when the Republican majority stalled climate and clean energy legislation. The same pattern is playing out again this legislative session, despite clear and ever-growing evidence that fast action to reduce emissions is crucial to avoid the most catastrophic effects of climate change.
On the Senate floor last month, Republican Sen. Bill Ingebrigtsen – who chairs the Environment and Natural Resources Committee – questioned whether climate change is caused by human activities at all, using classic climate denial tropes.
“Everybody thinks that the world is falling in and frankly it’s not. And we have scientists on both sides, I get that, I appreciate that,” the fifth-term senator said, adding that, “I know the globe is warming, folks. It has been warming for thousands of years. Nothing appreciable, but a thousand years.”
His comments were false: 99.9% of scientific studies of climate change agree that it is caused by human activity.
In late April, Senate Republicans quashed a proposal to adopt a 100% clean energy standard by 2040. Republican Sen. David Senjem – the chair of the Energy and Utilities Finance and Policy Committee – called the proposal “very, very aspirational” less than a month after scientists gave a “now or never” warning to get off fossil fuels.
In speaking against the proposal, Republican Sen. Andrew Mathews implied that it would be overly burdensome on utilities.
“This is one that I think is mistaken and is the wrong time frame,” Mathews said. “Many industries and many segments of our society are already moving in this direction. There’s no need to be imposing completely sealed-off government mandates like this.”
Those comments were undermined by a report given to the legislature last year by state agencies confirming that Minnesota is not on track to achieve existing emissions reduction goals.
At the same meeting, Republican senators torpedoed a proposal for the state to achieve net zero emissions by 2050. One DFLer called the Senate’s stripped-down environment legislation a “house of horrors.” Senate Republicans and House DFLers, who want to spend hundreds of millions of dollars on climate and clean energy measures, will attempt to hash out a compromise in the coming weeks.
For its part, Xcel has publicly committed to moving to 100% carbon-free electricity by 2050 on its own terms and bills itself as an industry leader on climate issues. It’s a message Xcel highlights in its media campaigns as the utility’s PAC invests in Republican legislative control.
“Climate denial is alive in the Senate GOP Majority,” DFL Sen. Erin Murphy tweeted last week. “They refuse to act, rejecting limits on greenhouse gas emissions and pollutants. The rejection of settled science is stunning.”
Xcel Invested in Clean Energy Foes
The dynamic in the waning weeks of Minnesota’s 2022 legislative session, with the DFL-controlled House proposing climate investments and the Republican Senate blocking them, is not new. Republicans have stonewalled climate and clean energy legislation for years.
This session, the Republican Senate proposes to spend comparatively little on policies to avoid harsh climate impacts – far less than House DFLers’ proposal to invest in energy efficiency, clean energy, electric vehicles, and more. The Senate DFL said provisions in the Senate’s energy omnibus legislation “provide little funding for clean energy investments and include no substantive changes that moves Minnesota closer to decarbonizing our energy systems.”
The Senate has sidelined key items advanced by the House: funding for building weatherization, policies and investment to promote electric vehicles, funding for electric panel upgrades to support building electrification, and more. Meanwhile, the Senate has included provisions that explicitly undercut clean energy, including a measure that would prohibit local governments from restricting new fossil gas hook-ups to reduce their communities’ fossil fuel use.
DFL Sen. Scott Dibble told the Star Tribune that his Republican colleagues recently chastised him behind closed doors after he called for greater investment in climate and clean energy initiatives.
“They think people like me are running around being hysterical and irrational,” he told the Minneapolis paper. “It’s discouraging. Me, I’m not feeling very optimistic about our planet.”
Of the $42,900 that Xcel’s PAC has funneled into the Republicans’ Senate Victory Fund since 2017, $10,500 came last year. The PAC gave just $6,550 combined to DFL House and Senate funds in 2021. So far this year, the Xcel PAC has contributed $1,000 apiece to DFL House and Senate funds and $2,500 to a fund that supports Republicans in the House.
The Xcel PAC has given less to individual candidates, but it has shown a Republican preference in those contributions too. The Xcel PAC sent $22,700 to Republican candidates since 2017, compared with $16,500 to DFLers over the same span. The dynamics were different in 2020 and 2021, when the PAC gave DFL candidates a combined $10,900 and Republicans a combined $9,100, but that edge for DFLers in recent years does not come close to offsetting the overall Republican spending pattern.
Between 2017 and 2021, the PAC’s average contribution across Republican candidates, party units, and funds was $770, while the average gift across DFL candidates, party units, and funds was $568.
A History of Fighting Progress
Diverging from its public-facing brand, Xcel has participated in efforts to undermine the clean energy transition. Xcel was recently exposed as part of a scheme to spread false information in order to delegitimize electrification in Colorado. Xcel CEO Bob Frenzel sits on the board of the American Gas Association, the national trade group that has led wide-reaching campaigns to keep people reliant on fossil gas while undermining local governments’ efforts to curb reliance on fossil fuels. Xcel is also a member of the Minnesota Chamber of Commerce, which is known for its support of the fossil fuel industry.
In addition, Xcel has been part of the Consumer Energy Alliance, an astroturf consumer group that has supported former President Donald Trump’s anti-climate agenda and advocated for fossil fuel pipelines. Xcel executives attended a weeklong boot camp in 2019 organized by the Edison Electric Institute – the investor-owned electric utility trade association of which Xcel is a member – on how to run advocacy campaigns, including anti-clean energy ones.
The last major state-level election in Minnesota was in 2020. On a call with analysts the week before, then-CEO Ben Fowke obliquely suggested downsides for the company if Republicans lost control of the Senate – including, potentially, energy policy change driven by DFLers.
“I think what we’ll be looking at in Minnesota is whether or not the Senate, which is currently [Republican] and if it were to go Democrat, then you’d have an(sic) all Democratic DFL branches,” said Fowke, who is now Xcel’s executive chairman. “And so we would be looking probably at increased corporate taxes and maybe some legislation energy-wise.”
Executives Drive Xcel PAC Giving
Xcel has affiliated PACs in six states plus a federal PAC. The Xcel Employees PAC in Minnesota is funded through voluntary contributions by Xcel workers and is overseen by a board of Xcel employees. But a few high-ranking executives and lobbyists – including company officials based in other states – are funding the agenda.
A required disclosure shows 53 Xcel employees who contributed to the PAC last year. Of those donors, just 30 list addresses in Minnesota despite the PAC’s exclusive focus on the state. Virtually all of the PAC’s named funders are listed on LinkedIn as having titles that indicate they are managers, directors, or executives. These donors accounted for 96% of itemized contributions made to the PAC in 2021. Roughly a quarter of them are registered lobbyists in Minnesota.
The biggest donor to the Xcel PAC last year was Fowke, who chipped in $1,980. The second-biggest contributor was current CEO Bob Frenzel, who gave $1,330.
Individual employees can also give directly to political candidates and funds, in addition to their PAC contributions. Frenzel gave the maximum $4,000 to Republican gubernatorial candidate Jeff Johnson in 2018. He has also contributed to Kristi Noem, the conservative governor of South Dakota, where Xcel generates and sells electricity.
Xcel Among Minnesota’s Biggest Lobbying Spenders
Xcel’s ties to elected officials reach beyond campaign contributions and into policymaking processes. Xcel has had more than 80 registered lobbyists in Minnesota this year. State lobbying disclosures show that Xcel was the fifth-highest spender on lobbying in 2021, dropping $1.1 million on efforts to influence state officials. Xcel is consistently among Minnesota’s biggest spenders on lobbying. In the past, the company has leveraged its influence to bypass regulatory review.
The utility’s investment in state lobbying last year included $720,000 spent on “general lobbying” and $420,000 spent specifically on lobbying at the Public Utilities Commission, the body responsible for overseeing Minnesota utilities.
Xcel’s lobbying and political contributions coincided with the utility’s pitch for a 20% rate increase and two new fossil gas plants. Xcel’s gas plant plan met with broad opposition from consumer and environmental advocates who provided modeling that showed how Xcel’s generation needs could instead be met by renewables. Similar “peaker” plants already in Xcel’s portfolio failed to work as intended when Winter Storm Uri upended gas providers in February 2021, adding tens of millions of dollars to customers’ bills.
This analysis is based on data from disclosures required by the Minnesota Campaign Finance and Public Disclosure Board. The data is available from the state here, and was exported and examined for the purposes of this analysis here.
Photo credit: Joe Passe via Flickr