Archive for the ‘Climate Change’ Category

The New Petro-Villain

Friday, July 30th, 2010

The BP oil disaster in the Gulf of Mexico is 100 days old, and now another company is competing for the spotlight as a major petro-villain.

The upstart is Enbridge Energy Partners L.P. — a U.S.-based subsidiary of the Canadian pipeline giant Enbridge Inc. — which is responsible for the recent accident in Michigan that has filled the Kalamazoo River with some 800,000 gallons of oil and shown that crude does not need to be offshore to cause serious environmental damage. The incident occurred only months after the company was warned that it was not properly monitoring corrosion.

Enbridge is no stranger to controversy, both because of its own performance problems, including a series of earlier spills, and its role in facilitating the distribution of oil produced in environmentally destructive situations such as the Alberta tar sands. This dubious track record is worth a closer look.

  • In January 2001 a seam failure on a pipeline near Enbridge’s Hardisty Terminal in Alberta spilled more than 1 million gallons of oil.
  • In July 2002 a 34-inch-diameter pipeline owned by Enbridge Energy Partners ruptured in northern Minnesota, contaminating five acres of wetland with about 250,000 gallons of crude oil.
  • In January 2003 about 189,000 gallons of crude oil spilled into the Nemadji River from the Enbridge Energy Terminal in Superior, Wisconsin. Fortunately, the river was frozen at the time, so damage was limited.
  • In 2004 the federal Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration (PHMSA) proposed a fine of $11,500 against Enbridge Energy for safety violations found during inspections of pipelines in Illinois, Indiana and Michigan. The penalty was later reduced to $5,000. In a parallel case involving Enbridge Pipelines operations in Minnesota, an initial penalty of $30,000 was revised to $25,000.
  • In January 2007 an Enbridge pipeline in Wisconsin spilled more than 50,000 gallons of crude oil onto a farmer’s field in Clark County. The following month another Enbridge spill in Wisconsin released 176,000 gallons of crude in Rusk County.
  • In November 2007 two workers were killed in an explosion that occurred at an Enbridge pipeline in Clearbrook, Minnesota. The PHMSA proposed a fine of $2.4 million for safety violations connected to the incident, but the case has not been resolved.
  • In 2008 the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources charged Enbridge Energy with more than 100 environmental violations relating to the construction of a 320-mile pipeline across much of the state. The agency said that Enbridge workers illegally cleared and disrupted wooded wetlands and were responsible for other actions that resulted in discharging sediment into waterways. In January 2009 the company settled the charges by agreeing to pay $1.1 million in penalties.
  • In 2009 the PHMSA fined Enbridge Pipelines LLC-North Dakota $105,000 for a 2007 accident that released more than 9,000 gallons of crude oil.
  • In March 2010 the PHMSA proposed a fine of $28,800 against Enbridge Pipelines LLC for safety violations in Oklahoma; the case is not yet resolved.

Apart from its safety record, Enbridge is targeted by environmentalists for its role in transporting crude oil from the controversial tar sand operations of northeastern Alberta, which are regarded as one of the largest contributors to global warming as well as a major source of air and water pollution and forest destruction. Enbridge’s predecessor companies had some involvement in the tar sands as early as the 1970s. That role expanded greatly in the late 1990s, when Enbridge completed construction of an $800 million expansion of its pipeline system to bring tar sands oil to Eastern Canada and the U.S. Midwest. The pipeline initially served Suncor Energy, a spinoff of U.S.-based Sunoco that is now Canada’s largest petroleum company.

In recent years Enbridge has spent billions of dollars to expand its oil pipeline capacity, much of it dedicated to the tar sands industry. Enbridge is set to provide another boon to the tar sands producers with the opening later this year of its Alberta Clipper pipeline, which will carry more of the dirty crude to Superior, Wisconsin. It is also proceeding with its Northern Gateway Project, which involves the construction of parallel pipelines from the tar sands region to the western shore of British Columbia. Enbridge is partnering with PetroChina on that project.

Enbridge is also headed for more controversy in light of its announcement in March 2010 that it would develop a natural gas pipeline serving areas of Pennsylvania and nearby states where Marcellus Shale drilling is taking place. Those drilling activities have been the subject of numerous reports of drinking water contamination.

Like BP, Enbridge depicts itself as a strong proponent of corporate social responsibility. Also like BP, Enbridge illustrates how those noble sentiments are meaningless in the face of repeated acts of negligence and recklessness.

Profit, Baby, Profit

Friday, April 2nd, 2010

President Obama’s drill-baby-drill (but not quite everywhere) gambit does not only link him to an environmentally backward policy. It also will force his Administration to defend one of the most dysfunctional federal programs in modern history: the Interior Department’s offshore oil and gas leasing system.

Interior’s Minerals Management Service (MMS) is supposed to collect royalties from companies drilling in offshore public waters. After new activity was restricted in the wake of the devastating spill off the coast of Santa Barbara, California in 1969, the oil industry sought to make its leases more profitable by pressing for reductions in these payments.

In the mid-1990s, when energy prices were low, Big Oil got Congress to expand the “royalty relief” provisions that were already in the Outer Continental Shelf Lands Act of 1953. Royalties were supposed to return to higher rates when prices rebounded, but things got complicated. First, it came to light that MMS had failed to write those provisions into some 1,000 deepwater leases it signed in 1998 and 1999, putting into question its ability to collect billions of dollars in back royalties.

While this was being sorted out, one of the drilling companies – Kerr-McGee (now part of Anadarko Petroleum) – filed suit challenging the right of MMS to impose the higher royalties on any leases. The company’s self-serving arguments found a sympathetic ear in federal court. Last fall the Supreme Court declined to review an appellate ruling in favor of the company, thus allowing Anadarko to avoid paying more than $350 million in back royalties. For the industry as a whole, the Court blocked the Interior Department from trying to collect on a bill that the Government Accountability Office once estimated could run as high as $53 billion.

Then there’s the small matter of the wild parties and gifts that industry representatives lavished on MMS employees in charge of the agency’s royalty-in-kind program. In September 2008 Interior Department Inspector General Earl Devaney (now in charge of the Recovery Accountability and Transparency Board) issued three reports describing gross misconduct at MMS, including cases in which agency employees were literally in bed with the industry. Devaney concluded that the royalty program was mired in “a culture of ethical failure.”

Not all MMS employees were bought off. Some agency auditors came forward and charged that they had been pressured by their superiors to terminate investigations of royalty underpayments.

Once the Obama Administration took office, Interior Secretary Ken Salazar took steps to clean up MMS. Last September he announced plans to terminate the royalty-in-kind program, whose staffers had been at the center of the sex and gifts scandal.

For a while it was unclear whether Salazar would tighten up the remaining royalty programs. In fact, he told the editorial board of the Houston Chronicle last fall that in some cases he thought drilling companies should pay even lower royalty rates. He changed his tune this year, and the Administration is seeking modest increases in royalties and fees.

Yet the entire offshore leasing program still amounts to a giant boondoggle. Thanks to the federal courts, artificially low royalty rates are now effectively an entitlement for the drilling industry. Research conducted by the Interior Department itself suggested that the incentives result in little additional oil production. Not to mention the environmental risks.

And now, thanks to a dubious calculation that making concessions on offshore drilling will help prospects for a climate bill, the Obama Administration is bringing about a major expansion of a program that is disastrous even if there are no spills. Profit, baby, profit.

Attacking the Wrong Earmarks

Thursday, March 11th, 2010

Congress is once again talking tough about budget earmarks. House Democratic leaders announced that they are banning earmarks designed to benefit for-profit entities, while House Republicans upped the ante by calling for the abolition of the practice across the board.

Even if this latest in a long line of anti-earmark initiatives takes hold, it will have limited impact on the channeling of taxpayer dollars to favored interests. The earmark database compiled by Taxpayers for Common Sense indicates that in the current fiscal year they amount to only $16 billion. And many of the 11,860 individual items cannot be linked to a specific recipient, making targeted bans meaningless.

Even the largest items linked to individual corporations—such as $19.5 million to Boeing for “Maui Space Surveillance System Operations and Research” in Hawaii; $12 million to BAE Systems for “Mk 45 Mod 5 Gun Depot Overhauls” in Kentucky; and $9.6 million to Northrop Grumman for “B-2 Advanced Tactical Data Link” in California—are drops in the bucket of $1 trillion in overall federal discretionary spending and a military budget of $530 billion.

It’s amusing to watch the posturing about these small amounts at a time when Congress may be about to endorse what can be seen as perhaps the largest earmark ever: the healthcare subsidies that will pass from lower-income Americans to private insurers in a public-option-less system. A new report from the Congressional Budget Office estimates that premium and cost-sharing subsidies under the current (pre-reconciliation) Senate version of the bill would cost $337 billion over the next decade. The TARP bailout was bigger, but in that case the taxpayers are recouping much of the outlay.

Healthcare is not the only example of how reform gets built on corporate handouts. The climate bill that passed the House last June (and got stalled in the Senate) would have essentially given away many of the emission allowances for the cap and trade system rather than requiring corporate polluters to pay in full for their greenhouse gas output.

Corporate subsidies are also at the heart of the job-creation initiatives making their way through Congress. Most Democrats have embraced the Republican notion that the best way to increase employment is to decrease business taxes. The same goes for federal efforts to promote renewable energy. At the center of the green jobs initiatives in the Recovery Act were corporate tax breaks such as the $2.3 billion Advanced Energy Manufacturing Tax Credit, which the Obama Administration would like to expand by $5 billion. The Administration also wants to give $8 billion in loan guarantees to the Southern Company to build a nuke in Georgia.

In addition to the direct contracts and tax breaks, corporate America is also in effect being subsidized by the unwillingness of much of Congress to tighten regulation of business, even in cases of reckless behavior. The delay and dilution that have characterized financial reform are worth billions to the banks. The moves to exempt sectors such as payday lenders from federal oversight is an enormous boon to those businesses.

Healthcare reform, climate-crisis mitigation, job creation, renewable energy development and financial reform are all laudable goals, but it is frustrating that they are all being pursued in ways that often reward the same large corporations that created many of the problems these initiatives are meant to address. And it is mind-boggling that the critics of this business-friendly agenda repeatedly denounce it as socialistic.

Democrats should spend less time posturing on earmarks and more time trying to figure out how they can fix what’s wrong with the country without giving away the store to big business.

Back to the Barricades?

Thursday, January 7th, 2010

The news that Byron Dorgan and Christopher Dodd will not run for reelection has Democrats fretting that they will lose their 60-vote supermajority in the Senate and will no longer be able to get anything accomplished.

But what have we got to show, with regard to checking corporate abuses, for the past 12 months of Democratic control over the legislative branch as well as the White House? Last year this time, excitement over Obama’s election and the Democratic gains in Congress persuaded many activists that great things could once again happen in Washington. The big business agenda would supposedly no longer reign supreme, and progressives anticipated major legislative gains regarding healthcare coverage, financial regulation, the climate crisis and union organizing.

Now those expectations seem hopelessly naïve. Rather than radical changes, we’ve ended up with a disappointing series of half-measures, quarter-measures, and stalemates.

The biggest frustration is in the healthcare arena. We seem to be on the verge of getting a new system that will expand coverage and curb some of the most egregious insurance industry abuses, but these improvements come at a high cost. The final bill will likely have a strict individual mandate compelling those without coverage to become customers of a bunch of blood-suckers yet a weak employer mandate allowing many companies to avoid providing decent coverage to their workers. It will not seriously regulate insurance rates yet may end up penalizing union workers who gave up wage increases to get more generous benefits. The bill that squeaked through the Senate and is expected to form the basis of the final legislation is so compromised that veteran reformers such as Physicians for a National Health Program have called for its defeat.

After crippling the economy through reckless investments and forcing millions of homeowners into foreclosure, the big banks have largely been treated with deference by Congressional Democrats and the Obama Administration. Nothing has been done to break up institutions deemed too big to fail and thus able to extort massive taxpayer-funded bailouts. Despite loud complaints from bankers used to sumptuous pay packages, the federal government’s restrictions on executive compensation have been pretty indulgent. The bill that passed the House in December creates a new consumer protection agency for financial services, but it is unclear how much power it will have. And the bill lacks aggressive regulation of the exotic financial instruments that helped bring about the crisis. Separate legislation on credit cards that was enacted curbs some of the industry’s most outrageous practices but does nothing about usurious interest rates.

The climate bill passed by the House in June not only shunned strict emission limits in favor of the dubious cap-and-trade system, but it would allow many major polluters to avoid paying for their emission allowances for up to 20 years. And the overall emission reductions the bill envisions are far below the level needed to make a substantial dent in global warming.

And then there’s the Employee Free Choice Act, the key priority of the labor movement, which did so much to get Obama and many Democrats elected. The legislation has been in suspended animation for many months as Senate leaders apparently cannot muster enough votes to overcome intransigent opposition not only from Republicans but also from some Dems. EFCA remained stalled even after the AFL-CIO signaled it was open to compromise on the key issue of card-check organizing.

Overall, corporate interests have been remarkably successful over the past year in avoiding serious restraints on their freedom of action. Much of what the Democrats are accomplishing amounts to the appearance of reform. It gives the impression that corporate misbehavior is being addressed but is actually inoculating business against more stringent regulation. In the case of healthcare, the situation is even worse: by turning millions into captive customers, Congress is granting unprecedented power and legitimacy to a discredited industry.

There are plenty of obvious explanations for this dismal performance. It is easy to point to the corrupting effect of corporate campaign contributions and lobbying by former Congressional staffers as well as the pernicious role of conservative Democrats and egomaniacs like Joe Lieberman.

But the progressive movement also deserves some of the blame. The euphoria following the 2008 election gave rise to another bout of the delusion that serious change requires nothing more putting in office a certain number of people with the preferred party designation.

During the 1930s FDR is supposed to have told activists in a private meeting: “I agree with you, I want to do it, now make me do it.” Although that quote has showed up in several blogs over the past year, the underlying message seems to have been lost on many of today’s activists. With the absence of substantial popular pressure, it has been easier for Congressional Democrats to succumb to the siren song of the corporate interests.

Ironically, it has been the woefully ignorant and confused tea party movement—serving as a witting or unwitting stalking horse for the corporate elite—that has lately shown the power of grassroots mobilization. Their positions make no sense, but the tea baggers have made sure that Congressional Republicans maintain a hard-right stance on everything.

Perhaps we will accomplish more if we return to our own barricades.

Getting Corporations to Do the Right Thing

Thursday, October 29th, 2009

pinklidI admit it—the Dirt Diggers Digest is guilty of focusing on the bad news about corporate misdeeds. So in this post I will write about something positive: activist groups that are succeeding in changing corporate behavior for the better.

The occasion for this shift in emphasis is the recent announcement of the winners of the BENNY awards, which are given out by the Business Ethics Network. BEN is an association of organizations and individuals involved in corporate campaigns that seek to pressure companies to end injurious practices relating to the environment, public health and the workplace. (Full disclosure: I have served on BEN’s advisory committee.)

Since 2005 BEN has been giving awards celebrating outstanding victories. During the past few years it has also honored groups that are making progress toward such victories and given individual achievement awards to veteran campaigners.

Each time attend the awards ceremony and hear the descriptions of the campaigns, I find my skeptical shell melting away in a wave of optimism about the prospects for undoing corporate harm. This year was no different.

There was a tie for 1st place in the main BENNY award between the Campaign for Fair Food and Think Before You Pink: “Yoplait—Put A Lid On It!”

The Campaign—led by the Coalition of Immokalee Workers (CIW) and supported by the Presbyterian Church (USA) and others in the Alliance for Fair Food—has made great strides in improving the working conditions of immigrant farmworkers in southern Florida. The campaign has won a string of victories by going around the growers who are the direct employers of the workers and pressuring their major customers (fast food giants, supermarket chains, and major food service companies) to pay more for the produce with the understanding that the difference will go toward higher wages.

Think Before You Pink is a campaign led by Breast Cancer Action that has taken a critical approach toward the growing corporate practice of putting pink ribbons on their products to raise awareness of breast cancer. The campaign started out examining whether those companies are contributing a significant portion of the purchase price toward legitimate cancer research. More recently, it has challenged pink-ribbon companies that make products that have been linked to breast cancer (the campaign calls it “pinkwashing”).

One of its recent targets was Eli Lilly, which sells drugs meant to reduce the risk of breast cancer while at the same time distributing rGBH, an artificial growth hormone used by dairies that is a suspected carcinogen. Earlier this year, the Think Before You Pink campaign got General Mills to stop using rBGH in its Yoplait yogurt, which has extensively used pink-ribbon marketing.

BEN gave its first-place Path to Victory award to the Sierra Club’s Beyond Coal Campaign, which is seeking to reduce use of the climate-destroying black fuel through efforts such as organizing students at campuses which depend on coal-generated electricity.  The campaign, which is targeting some schools smack in the middle of coal country, has released a tongue-in-cheek online video with the tagline “Coal is Too Dirty Even for College.”

The Individual Achievement Award went to Sister Pat Daly, a veteran shareholder activist who heads the Tri-State Coalition for Responsible Investment, an alliance of Roman Catholic groups in the New York City metropolitan area. She is best known as one of the founders of Campaign ExxonMobil, which pioneered the effort to get the giant oil company to take a less irresponsible position on climate change.

At the BEN awards ceremony, Sister Pat also described facing down former General Electric CEO Jack Welch at a company board meeting. For years, she and other activists had been pressing GE to accept responsibility for cleaning up the PCB contamination it had caused in New York’s Hudson River. And for years the company resisted. Welch’s successor Jeff Immelt eventually relented, and in May 2009 a clean-up effort financed by GE finally began. Sister Pat’s role in that victory certainly deserved to be honored.

Whether over the course of months or decades, the kinds of campaigns celebrated by the BENNY Awards show that corporations can be made to do the right thing.

Dissension in the Corporate Ranks

Friday, October 2nd, 2009

donohueBusiness lobbyists may be gloating over the divisions in the Democratic Party on healthcare reform, but they are facing a serious schism of their own.

In recent weeks several large corporations have quit their membership in the U.S. Chamber of Commerce because of the giant trade association’s intransigent opposition to the climate legislation now being considered by Congress. The defectors include utilities Pacific Gas & Electric, PNM Resources and Exelon, while shoe giant Nike took a more limited step by resigning its seat on the Chamber’s board.

The resignations represent the most significant internal turmoil in the Chamber since the early 1990s, when the organization outraged some of its members and all of the Republican Party leadership by showing support for portions of the Clinton Administration’s economic policies and healthcare reform proposal. “The Chamber has lost its way,” Rep. John Boehner told Business Week. “It sold out its principles for 30 pieces of silver from Bill Clinton.”

While the Chamber remained appropriately reactionary on most issues, the controversy brought about a shakeup within the organization and probably contributed to the decision of its president Richard Lesher to step down in 1997. The person chosen to succeed him was Thomas J. Donohue Jr., a hardliner described as “militant” and a “junkyard dog.” Among other things, Donohue had, in his role as head of the American Trucking Association, tried to get Congress to ban the use of corporate campaign pressure tactics by unions.

No one could accuse Donohue (photo) of straying from business laissez-faire ideology. As the Wall Street Journal pointed out in 2001, he was also quite willing to use the clout of the Chamber to advance the narrow interests of individual large corporations. Donohue dramatically expanded the organization’s membership and thus its budget, allowing the Chamber to spend unprecedented sums on lobbying.

But now it seems that Donohue and the Chamber have been a bit too orthodox. More and more large corporations are accepting that global warming has to be addressed and that the Waxman-Markey bill passed by the House and the companion legislation now before the Senate would not have the disastrous consequences for business that the Chamber has predicted.

The Chamber, however, increasingly seems to be captive to the coal industry, its railroad partners and other corporate fossil-fuel dead-enders. Environmental groups such as the Natural Resources Defense Council are accusing Donohue of having a personal conflict of interest because of his long tenure as an outside director of one of those railroads, Union Pacific.

While the actual resignations from the Chamber are few so far, the number will probably rise. Other members such as General Electric are making it clear the Chamber does not speak for them on climate issues and are facing mounting pressure to make a complete break.

It is refreshing to see dissension in the corporate ranks on the climate debate. If we can continue to drive a wedge between business pragmatists and Neanderthals on this and other issues, we may see some real progress in the federal legislative arena.

Shades of Green

Friday, September 25th, 2009

NewsweekMichael Moore may be on all the talk shows these days touting his new film on the evils of capitalism, but elsewhere in the mainstream media the celebration of big business continues apace. Especially when it comes to the environment, we are meant to believe that large corporations are at the forefront of enlightened thinking.

This is the implicit message of the cover of the new issue of Newsweek, which is filled with leaves to promote its feature on “The Greenest Big Companies in America: An Exclusive Ranking.” The list itself, however, has more validity than the usual exercises of this sort, which tend to take much of corporate greenwash at face value.

The Newsweek rankings are based on what appear to be solid data from KLD Research & Analytics, producer of the reputable (but expensive) SOCRATES social investing database, along with Trucost and CorporateRegister.com. Each company in the S&P 500 is rated on its environmental impact, its environmental policies, and its reputation among corporate social responsibility professionals, academics and other environmental experts. The ratings even take in account a company’s “regulatory infractions, lawsuits and community impacts.”

Not surprisingly, those at the top of the list are high-tech companies—such as Hewlett-Packard (ranked No. 1), Dell (2), Intel (4), IBM (5) and Cisco Systems (12)—which have never had quite the same pollution problems as old-line industries and which in many cases have made themselves “cleaner” by outsourcing their production activities to overseas producers.  Dell, in particular, is on its way to becoming a hollow company by selling off its plants.

More interesting is that supposed sustainability pioneer Wal-Mart comes in at No. 59, behind old-line industrial companies such as United Technologies and Owens Corning. Whole Foods Market, purveyor of over-priced organic groceries, is a bit lower at 67. Oil giant Chevron, which urges the public to “join us” in its supposed commitment to energy efficiency, is ranked 371, not much better than long-time global warming denier ExxonMobil (395).

Since the Newsweek list covers the entirety of the S&P 500, we can also look at what is probably the most significant group: those at the very bottom. The harm that these companies—especially utilities such as American Electric Power and Southern Company with lots of fossil-fuel-fired power plants—do to the environment far outweighs any good done by those at the top of the list. Also among the laggards are agribusiness giants Monsanto (No. 485), Archer Daniels Midland (486), Bunge (493) and ConAgra Foods (497).

But special mention must be given to the absolute worst company of all: mining giant Peabody Energy. On a scale of 0 to 100, Peabody is awarded all of 1 point, presumably reflecting its single-minded dedication to climate-destroying coal and its support for groups fighting the climate bill now in Congress.

Newsweek deserves credit for undertaking a serious evaluation of corporate environmental performance. The web version even has a nice sidebar on green fakery. But the magazine could have easily turned the list upside down and headlined its feature “The Biggest Environmental Culprits of Corporate America.”

Will Xcel Settlement Lead to Meaningful Climate-Change Risk Disclosure?

Wednesday, September 3rd, 2008

Utility holding company Xcel Energy is getting lots of free publicity this week, since its name is on the arena in St. Paul, Minnesota where the Republican Party is holding its national convention. Last week, the company was being named in a different context.

While much of the attention of the country was focused on the Democratic National Convention, New York Attorney General Andrew Cuomo announced that Xcel had settled litigation brought against it by the state by agreeing to disclose the financial risks that climate change poses to the company and its investors. Minneapolis-based Xcel is itself a major contributor to global warming thanks to its ownership of more than a dozen coal-fired electric power plants in states such as Colorado, Minnesota and Texas.

Last year, Cuomo launched an investigation of Xcel and four other energy companies — AES, Dominion, Dynergy and Peabody — that were building new coal plants around the country. In Xcel’s case, the plant is Comanche 3 in Colorado (seen above in an Xcel photo simulation), which is expected to be completed next year. The probe was based on New York’s Martin Act, the same securities law that Cuomo’s predecessor Eliot Spitzer used in prosecuting Wall Street investment banks and major insurance companies.

The settlement with Xcel (the cases involving the other companies are ongoing) is a milestone in the effort to get publicly traded companies to reveal more about the potential financial consequences of climate change. Cuomo’s use of his prosecutorial powers is only one front in that effort. Institutional shareholders, working through the Investor Network on Climate Risk, have been pushing companies through shareholder resolutions while urging the Securities and Exchange Commission to mandate better disclosure. At the same time, the Carbon Disclosure Project is urging large companies to directly report their estimated CO2 emissions.

Under the settlement with Cuomo, Xcel will be required to include in its annual 10-K filing with the SEC a discussion of financial risks relating to:

  • present and probable future climate change regulation and legislation;
  • climate-change related litigation; and
  • physical impacts of climate change.

In addition, Xcel will have to provide various climate change disclosures on its operations, including:

  • current carbon emissions;
  • projected increases in carbon emissions from planned coal-fired power plants;
  • company strategies for reducing, offsetting, limiting, or otherwise managing its global warming pollution emissions and expected global warming emissions reductions from these actions;
  • and corporate governance actions related to climate change, including whether environmental performance is incorporated into officer compensation.

Although Cuomo’s agreement with Xcel applies only to that company, it could give a boost to other efforts to get large corporations to own up to the financial and other consequences of the growing climate crisis.

For this to happen, shareholder activists and others have to make sure that when companies accede to demands for climate-risk disclosure the result is meaningful. Xcel’s last 10-K filing, issued before the settlement, refers to climate change and emphasizes the need to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. When mentioning the New York State case, the company thus argues that it is already making the disclosures sought by Cuomo. Yet its main emphasis in the 10-K is on reassuring investors that the company is prepared for climate change, while there is no acknowledgment that building new plants such as Comanche 3 is exacerbating the problem. That’s not risk disclosure—it’s corporate spin.

If this same sort of rhetoric and evasion appear in the company’s next 10-K, let’s hope Cuomo prosecutes Xcel for violating the settlement agreement.

Disclosure Issues Bedevil Climate-Change Debate

Thursday, July 3rd, 2008

Big business is talking more these days about the need to reduce greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions. Even long-time global warming denier Exxon Mobil feels the need to publicize what it is doing in this regard. Claims of reductions in GHG are not, however, meaningful unless those emissions are being estimated consistently to begin with.

A study issued yesterday by the Ethical Corporation Institute raises questions about how much we really know about the volume of GHG being generated by large corporations. According to a press release about the report (which is available only to those willing to fork over more than 1,000 euros), there are “staggering inconsistencies in how companies calculate and verify their greenhouse gas emissions.” The report found, for instance, that companies responding to the fifth annual Carbon Disclosure Project questionnaire used more than 30 different protocols or guidelines in preparing their emissions estimates. The report, it appears, surveys this potpourri of measurement techniques but does not attempt to resolve the differences.

The absence of consistency has not prevented the Carbon Disclosure Project from trying to use current reporting to understand the larger framework of GHG trends. In May, the Project issued the first results of its Supply Chain Leadership Collaboration, an initiative in which large companies such as Nestlé, Procter & Gamble and Unilever urge their suppliers to report on their own carbon footprint. It is unclear how much effort is made to ensure these results are reported in a uniform manner.

Along with the need for improved GHG reporting, there are growing calls for companies to disclose the liability risks (and opportunities, if any) associated with those emissions. Recently, a broad coalition of institutional investors and major environmental groups once again urged the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission to clarify the obligations of publicly traded companies to assess and fully disclose the legal and financial consequences of climate change. The statement was aimed at reinforcing a petition filed with the SEC last year on climate-change disclosure.

Climate-change liability risks no longer exist just in the realm of the theoretical. Lawsuits have been filed against the major oil companies for conspiring to deceive the public about climate change—including one brought in the name of Eskimo villagers in Alaska who are being forced to relocate their homes because of flooding said to be caused by global warming.  Famed climate scientist James Hansen recently declared at a Capitol Hill event that oil and coal company executives could be guilty of “crimes against humanity.” If that isn’t a risk worth reporting, what is?