Berkshire Hathaway Energy, the company's utility arm, is investing up to $30 billion in renewable-energy sources—principally wind—but its biggest single utility uses almost twice as much coal as the national average. The energy subsidiary's homepage is crowded with images from solar projects and prominently features the stat that roughly one-quarter of its generating capacity comes from renewable and non-carbon sources.
But Berkshire's Burlington Northern Railroad carries enough coal to provide 10 percent of U.S. electricity, according to Berridge, generating $5 billion of revenue for the railroad last year. Buffett and his right-hand man, Charlie Munger—not just Berkshire's chief operating officer but also a trained meteorologist—have said they broadly agree that man's activities are causing global warming, but they've also said they don't yet see any impact on Berkshire's giant insurance businesses and don't know when they will.
So is Buffett a friend or foe of the environment? In both words and deeds, Buffett seems to alternately comfort and bedevil each camp in the climate change debate.
The next chance for Buffett to make his views on climate change clearer will come at Berkshire's annual meeting May 2, when a shareholder resolution will call on Berkshire to set goals for greenhouse-gas emission reductions. The resolution has failed four times before, with Buffett and his company's management opposing it. On the last try, the measure received only 8 percent of the shareholder vote, less than earlier efforts to pass the resolution garnered from Berkshire shareholders. Notably, other utilities—including American Electric Power, Consolidated Edison, Duke Energy, Entergy and Exelon—have approved similar plans, Berridge said. Utilities use about 85 percent of the coal burned in the U.S., according to Moody's Investor Service.
"Establishing reduction goals at this time, as environmental regulation and legislation remains uncertain, would be contrary to the responsibilities of our rate-regulated utilities and to our customers, whose utility bills could be dramatically affected," Berkshire's board said in opposing last year's resolution.