Duke Annual Meeting Goes (Mostly) According to Script
About three dozen people gathered outside the Duke Energy shareholder meeting to protest various practices of the company. Here Shaun Ridgway with Occupy Raleigh/Greenpeace speaks to those assembled.
Charlotte police geared up for large protests at the Duke Energy annual shareholder meeting uptown this morning. In the end, police far outnumbered the 35 or so activists who gathered outside the meeting and reported no incidents, despite the city invoking a special enforcement ordinance in anticipation of unruly crowds.Inside the annual meeting, things went according to script - with one big exception. When it came time for Duke Energy CEO Jim Rogers to give his standard "state of the company" address, he discovered the script on the teleprompter was not the most recent draft he'd prepared. "And so I just winged it," Rogers said with a laugh when he met briefly with reporters after the meeting.
The script snafu explains why Rogers gave the entire address without once mentioning Duke's biggest development of the year - attempting to merge with Progress Energy. "Since I was winging it, I forgot," said Rogers.
What he'd planned to say about the merger was that he's still hopeful it will happen - albeit a full six months later than expected. Federal regulators have twice rejected the merger for fear Duke and Progress will be too much of a monopoly in the Carolinas.
"So this time it will be either 'third times a charm' or 'three strikes you're out,'" says Rogers. "What I'm really saying is, 'Do we reach a point of total frustration and the realization we can never satisfy them?' If somebody tells you no three times, you eventually get it that they don't want this deal done."
Rogers isn't backing away from the deal yet, but says it all depends on how federal regulators respond in the next month or so. Inside the shareholder meeting, no one seemed all that concerned Rogers had forgotten to mention the merger. Two dozen people took to the microphone to bend Rogers' ear for 90 minutes. Many were activists who hold a few shares so they could attend the meeting. Quit burning coal, they said. Quit building nuclear plants. Quit raising electricity rates. Quit collecting a big salary and quit spending money on lobbyists.
"I am furious that the air my grandchildren and the rest of us are forced to breathe will be polluted to produce dirty energy to sell cheaply out of state," said Debbie Arneson.
"Where will our community be in 10 years if nuclear power turns out to be more like a cassette player than an iPod?" asked Natalie Simmons Jorge. "Wouldn't it be great if a premier North Carolina company like Duke Energy instead became a world-leader in alternative energy development and efficiency measures?"
"People in the community are telling me every single day they cannot afford anymore rate hikes," said Hector Vaca. "The better alternative would be to freeze the pay of the execs - starting with you, Mr. Rogers."
Jim Rogers stood calmly in the aisle, looked each speaker in the eye and offered some variation of the following: "I have to balance affordability and clean and reliability. And so it's not so simple to do. If I could do what you ask me to do, I would do it. But I can't. I can't do it that fast. And our country can't do it that fast. Getting the balance right is really critical, and I'm sure with your advocacy, you will help us get it right, so thank you."
Rogers makes a point of maintaining a friendly, accessible demeanor at these annual meetings. At one point he event bent down to hold a microphone for 12-year-old Anna Behnke. She lives near Duke's coal-fired plant on Mountain Island Lake and the ponds that store ash from the plant. "I go to bed every night scared that I will get cancer from that plant," said Behnke. "My mom is a cancer survivor and I saw what she had to go through. I don't want to go through that also. Can you please tell me when you are going to close down the plant and clean up the coal ash? Thank you."
"Thank you for your question," replied Rogers. "I'm glad you're here today. But I will assure you that when we operate our coal plants, we operate them in the cleanest way possible. I believe that lake is safe. I believe the air is safe. And I think you'll be fine."
As Rogers calmly fielded questions and criticism, four activists were arrested for locking themselves to the tracks in front of a coal-laden train bound for a Duke power plant in Mooresville. On young shareholder at the meeting said her generation is taking these actions to protect their future. "And you can expect to see more of it," she told Rogers. "I'm ready," he replied.