GE and Washington: Too cozy?

Since 2004, when I wrote a story for FORTUNE called Money and Morals at GE , I have been an admirer of General Electric and its CEO, Jeff Immelt. My admiration deepened when GE unveiled EcoMagination, its effort to solve important environmental problems. Immelt and GE also led the U.S. Climate Action Partnership, an alliance of big business and big NGOs committed to getting the government to regulate greenhouse gas emissions.

Jeffrey Immelt

Jeffrey Immelt

But–and you knew there’d be a but, didn’t you?–I’ve got a couple of questions about GE and Immelt that have been nagging at me. First, has GE become overly focused on Washington? Second, when will Immelt deliver for GE shareholders?

The first question was prompted by an aside in John Harwood’s column in The Times a week ago, about the Obama administration’s all-out effort to get Ben Bernanke confirmed as Fed chief. He wrote:

The investor Warren Buffett and Jeffrey R. Immelt, the chairman of General Electric, helped contact senators, a senior official said.

There’s nothing wrong with this, of course; Immelt has the right to ask senators to support Bernanke. But it reminded me that this registered Republican and his company have closely aligned their interests with the administration. Immelt serves on the president’s Economic Recovery Advisory Board. Newly-released figures show that among big companies or unions, GE was second only to Exxon Mobil in lobbying expenses during 2009, spending $21.4 million. (Other sources put the figure higher.) This isn’t a surprise–GE is a huge company (2009 revenues were $156 billion) and it has a myriad of Washington interests, including taxes, trade, energy policy and financial regulation.

But there’s more. GE’s Washington operation is a case study in Washington’s revolving door. Nancy Dorn, who runs the office, [click to continue...]

GE, clean tech and your tax dollars

271_home_img1_ge_ecomagLet me state my bias upfront: I’m am admirer of GE and its chief executive, Jeff Immelt, and the company’s ecomagination initiative. GE and Wal-Mart are, as I have written, the most influential companies in America, and it’s great that they are serious about becoming more sustainable, and working with their customers and suppliers to do so as well.

But I can’t help but be struck by the extent to which GE’s clean-energy businesses depend on federal and state tax and regulatory policy, along with grants and loans from the government. Wind energy, solar energy, nuclear power, cleaner coal, smart-grid initiatives, energy-efficient appliances, compact fluorescent light bulbs—all of these either benefit from current policy, get stimulus money or Department of Energy grants, or stand to benefit if the climate-change legislation strongly supported by GE is enacted into law, or all of the above.

This is fairly obvious, admittedly, to anyone paying attention to the energy and climate debate, but it was brought home to me vividly last week, at a GE Ecomagination Forum [click to continue...]