Dangerous Antics – Fiddling with the Future of US EPA and the Health and Safety of the American People

by Hank Boerner – Chair & Chief Strategist, G&A Institute

The Trump Administration  — Making moves now on the US EPA to destroy its effectiveness through budget cuts and ideological attacks on its missions.

In his landmark work published in 1993 – “A Fierce Green Fire – The American Environment Movement” – former New York Times journalist Philip Shabecoff explained:  the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency was created by President Richard Nixon (a Republican) in December 1970 (two years into his first term) as part of an overall re-organization of the Federal government. The EPA was created without any benefit of statute by the U.S. Congress.

Parts of programs, departments and regulations were pulled from 15 different areas of the government and cobbled together a single environmental protection agency intended to be the watchdog, police officer and chief weapon against all forms of pollution, author Schabecoff explained to us.

The EPA quickly became the lightning rod for the nation’s hopes for cleaning up pollution and fears about intrusive Federal regulation.

As the first EPA Administrator, William Ruckelshaus (appointed by Richard Nixon) explained to the author in 1989: “The normal condition of the EPA was to be ground between two irresistible forces: the environmental movement, pushing very hard to get [pollution] emissions no matter where they were (air, water)…and another group on the side of industry pushing just as hard and trying to stop all of that stuff…” Both, Ruckelshaus pointed out, regardless of the seriousness of the problem.

We are a half-century and more beyond all of this back and forth, and the arguments about EPA’s role and importance rage on.

Today we in the sustainability movement are alarmed at the recklessness of the Trump White House and the key Administration officials now charged with responsibility to protect the environment and public health in two key cabinet departments: The EPA and the Department of Energy.

The ripple effects of the attacks on climate change science are in reality much larger: The Department of Defense (which has declared climate change to be a major threat long-term); the Department of Interior, overseeing the nation’s precious legacy of national parks and more; the Department of Agriculture (and oversight of tens of millions of acres of farmland); the Department of Commerce; the Department of Justice..and on and on.

The destruction could start early: The Washington Post (with its ear to the ground) is closely watching the administration and reported on February 17th that President Donald Trump planned to target the EPA with new Executive Orders (between two and five are coming) that would restrict the Agency’s oversight role and reverse some of the key actions that comprise the Obama Administration legacy on climate change and related issues.

Such as: rolling back the Clean Energy Plan (designed to limit power plant GhG emissions), which required states to develop their own plan as well. And, withdrawing from the critical agreement reached in Paris at COP 21 to limit the heating up of Planet Earth (which most of the other nations of the world have also adopted, notably China and India).

The destroyers now at the helm of the EPA also don’t like the Agency’s role in protecting wetlands, rivers etc. (The Post was expanding on coverage originally developed by investigative reporters at Mother Jones.)

Mother Jones quoted an official of the Trump transition team: “What I would like to see are executive orders implementing all of President Trump’s main campaign promises on environment and energy, including withdrawal from the Paris climate treaty.”

And, in the Washington Post/Mother Jones reportage: “The holy grail for conservatives would be reversing the Agency’s ‘so-called endangerment finding,’ which states that GhG emissions harm public health and must therefore be regulated [by EPA] under the Clean Air Act.”

Think about this statement by H. Sterling Burnett of the right-wing Heartland Institute: “I read the Constitution of the United States and the word ‘environmental protection’ does not appear there.” He cheered the early actions by the Trump-ians to give the green light to the Keystone Pipeline and Dakota Access Project.

On March 1st The Washington Post told us that the White House will cut the EPA staff by one-fifth — and eliminate dozens of programs.

A document obtained by the Post revealed that the cuts would help to offset the planned increase in military spending. Cutting the EPA budget from US$ 8.2 billion to $6.1 billion could have a significant [negative] impact on the Agency.

We should remember that in his hectic, frenetic campaigning, Donald Trump-the-candidate vowed to get rid of EPA in almost every present form – and his appointee, now EPA Administrator (Scott Pruitt) sued EPA over and over again when he was Attorney General of Oklahoma, challenging its authority to regulate mercury pollution, smog (fog/smoke), an power plant carbon emissions (the heart of the Obama Clean Energy Plan).

In practical terms, the Post explained, the massive Chesapeake Bay clean up project, now funded at $73 million, would be getting $5 million in the coming Fiscal Year (October 1st on). Three dozen programs would be eliminated (radon; grants to states; climate change initiatives; aid to Alaskan native villages); and the “U.S. Global Change Research Program” created by President George H.W. Bush back in 1989 would be gone.

Important elements of the American Society have tackled conservation, environmental, sustainability and related issues to reduce harm to human health and our physical home – Mother Earth – over the past five decades: Federal and state and local governments; NGOs; industry; investors; ordinary citizens; academia.

Today, the progress in protecting our nation’s resources and human health made since rivers caught fire and the atmosphere of our cities and towns could be seen and smelled, is under attack.

The good news is that for the most part, absent some elements of society, the alarms bells are going off and people are mobilizing to progress, not retreat, on environmental protection issues.

American Industry – Legacy of Three Decade Commitment to Environmental Protection – The Commitment Must Continue

The good news to look back on and then to project down to the 21st Century and Year 2017 includes  the comments by leaders of the largest chemical industry player of the day as the EPA was launched and key initial legislation passed (Clean Air Act, Clean Water Act, and many more)  – that is the DuPont deNemours Company.

Think about the importance of these critical arguments – which could be considered as foundational aspirations for today’s corporate sustainability movement:

Former DuPont CEO Irving Shapiro told author Philip Shabecoff: “You’ve have to be dumb and deaf not to recognize the public gives a damn about the environment and a business man who ignores it writes his out death warrant.”

The fact is, said CEO Shapiro (who was a lawyer), “DuPont has not been disadvantaged by the environmental laws. It is a stronger company today (in the early 1990s) than it was 25 years ago. Where the environment is on the public agenda depends on the public. If the public loses interest, corporate involvement will diminish…”

His predecessor as CEO, E. S. Woolard, had observed in 1989: “Environmentalism is now a mode of operation for every sector of society, industry included. We in industry have to develop a stronger awareness of ourselves as environmentalists…”

And:  remember, warned Dupont CEO Shapiro: “…if the public loses interest corporate involvement will diminish…”

Today let’s also consider the shared wisdom of a past administrator as she contemplated the news of the Trump Administration actions and intentions:

Former EPA Administrator Gina McCarthy (2013-2017) said to the Post: “The [proposed] budget is a fantasy if the Trump Administration believes it will preserve EPA’s mission to protect public health. It ignores the need to invest in science and to implement the law. It ignores the history that led to the EPA’s creation 46 years ago. It ignores the American People calling for its continued support.”

Consider the DuPont’ CEO’s comments above … if the American public loses interest.  At this time in our nation’s history, we must be diligent and in the streets (literally and metaphorically) protesting the moves of this administration and the connivance of the U.S. Congress if our representatives go along with EPA budget cuts as outlined to date.

# # #

About “A Fierce Green Fire: The American Environmental Movement,” by Philip Shabecoff; published 1993 by Harper Collins. I recommend a reading to gain a more complete understanding of the foundations of the environmental movement.

A decade ago I wrote a commentary on the 100-year evolvement of the conservation movement into the environmental movement and then on to today’s sustainability movement in my Corporate Finance Review column.  It’s still an interesting read:  http://www.hankboerner.com/library/Corporate%20Finance%20Review/Popular%20Movements%20-%20A%20Challenge%20for%20Institutions%20and%20Managers%2003&04-2005.pdf

 

 

Will We See Mandated Corporate Reporting on ESG / Sustainability Issues in the USA?

by Hank Boerner – Chairman – G&A Institute

Maybe…U.S. Companies Will Be Required…or Strongly Advised… to Disclose ESG Data & Related Business Information

Big changes in mandated US corporate disclosure and reporting on ESG factors may be just over the horizon — perhaps later this year? Or perhaps not…

Sustainable & responsible investing advocates have long called for greater disclosure on environmental and social issues that affect corporate financial performance (near and long-term). Their sustained campaigning may soon result in dramatic changes in the information investors and stakeholders will have available from mandated corporate filings.

We are in countdown mode — in mid-April the Securities & Exchange Commission (SEC), the agency that regulates many parts of the capital market operations and especially corporate disclosure and reporting for investors issued a Concept Release with a call for public comments.

Among the issues In focus are potential adjustments, expansions and updating of mandated corporate financial reporting. One of these involves corporate ESG disclosure. The issue of “materiality” is weaved throughout the release.

Among the many considerations put forth by SEC: expanding corporate disclosure requirements for corporate financial and business information to include ESG factors, and to further define “materiality.” Especially the materiality of ESG factors.

The comment period is open for you to weigh in with your opinion on corporate ESG disclosure and reporting rules — or at least strong SEC guidance on the matter.

SEC has been conducting a “Disclosure Effectiveness Initiative,” which includes looking at corporate disclosure and reporting requirements, as well as the forms of presentation and methods of delivery of corporate information made available to investors. (Such as corporate web site content, which most feel needs to be updated as to SEC guidance.)

The umbrella regulatory framework — “Regulation S-K” — has been the dominant approach for corporate reporting since 1977 has been the principal repository (in SEC lingo) for filing corporate financial and business information (such as the familiar 10-K, 10-Q, 8-K, etc.).

Investors Want More Corporate ESG Information

For a number of years now, investment community players have urged SEC to look at mandating or offering strong guidance to public company managements to expand disclosure and reporting to substantially address what some opponents conveniently call “non-financial,” or “intangible” information. An expanding base of investors feel just the opposite — ESG information is quite tangible and has definite financial implications and results for the investor. The key question is but how to do this?

Reforming and Updating Reg S-K

In December 2013 when the JOBS Act (“Jumpstart Our Business Startups”) was passed by Congress, SEC was charged with issuing a report [to Congress] on the state of corporate disclosure rules. The goal of the initiative is to improve corporate disclosure and shareholders’ access to that information.

The Spring 2016 Concept Release is part of that effort. The SEC wants to “comprehensively review” and “facilitate” timely, material disclosure by registrants and improve distribution of that information to investors. Initially, the focus is on Reg S-K requirements. Future efforts will focus on disclosure related to disclosure of compensation and governance information in proxy statements.

Asset managers utilizing ESG analytics and portfolio management tools cheered the SEC move. In the very long Concept Release – Business and Financial Disclosure Required by Regulation S-K, at 341 pages — there is an important section devoted to “public policy and sustainability” topics. (Pages 204-215).

ESG / Sustainability in Focus For Review and Action

In the Concept Release  SEC states: In seeking public input on sustainability and public policy disclosures (such as related to climate change) we recognize that some registrants (public companies) have not considered this information material.

Some observers continue to share this view.

The Concept Release poses these questions as part of the consideration of balancing those views with those of proponents of greater disclosure including ESG information:

• Are there specific public policy issues important to informed voting and investment decisions?

• If the SEC adopted rules for sustainability and public policy disclosure, how could the rules result in meaningful disclosures (for investors)?

• Would line items about sustainability or public policy issues cause registrations to disclose information that is not material to investors?

• There is already sustainability and ESG information available outside of Commission (S-K) filings — why do some companies publish sustainability, citizenship, CSR reports…and is the information sufficient to address investor needs? What are the advantages and disadvantages of these types of reports (such as being available on corporate web sites)?

• What challenges would corporate reporters face if ESG / sustaianbility / public policy reporting were mandated — what would the additional costs be? (Federal rule making agencies must balance cost-benefit.)

• Third party organizations — such as GRI and SASB for U.S. company reporting — offer frameworks for this type of reporting. If ESG reporting is mandated, should existing standards or frameworks be considered? Which standards?

The Commission has received numerous comments about the inadequacy of current disclosure regarding climate change matters. And so the Concept Release asks: Are existing disclosure requirements adequate to elicit the information that would permit investors to evaluate material climate change risk? Why — or why not? What additional disclosure requirements– or SEC guidance — would be appropriate?

Influential Voices Added to the Debate

The subject of expanded disclosure of corporate ESG, sustainability, responsibility, citizenship, and related information has a number of voices weighing in. Among those organizations contributing information and commentary to the SEC are these: GRI; SASB; Ceres; IEHN; ICCR; PRI; CFA Institute; PWC; E&Y; ISS; IIRC; BlackRock Institute; Bloomberg; World Federation of Exchanges; US SIF.

The overwhelming view on record now with SEC is that investor consideration of ESG matters is important and that change is needed in the existing corporate reporting and disclosure requirements. You can add your voice to the debate.

For Your Action:

I urge your reading of the Concept Release, particularly the pages 204 through 215, to get a better understanding of what is being considered, especially as proposed by proponents; and, I encourage you to weigh in during the open public comment period with your views.

You can help to ensure the SEC commissioners, staff and related stakeholders understand the issues involved in expanding corporate disclosure on ESG matters and how to change the rules — or offer strong SEC guidance. Let the SEC know that ESG information is needed to help investors better understand the risks and opportunities inherent in the ESG profiles of companies they do or might invest in.

SEC rules or strong guidance on ESG disclosure would be a huge step forward in advancing sustainability and ESG consideration by mainstream capital market players.

Information sources:

The SEC release was on 13 April 2016; this means the comment period is open for 90 days, to mid-July.

Helpful Background For You

Back in 1975 as the public focus on environmental matters continued to increase (all kinds of federal “E” laws were being passed, such as the Clean Air Act and Clean Water Act), stakeholders asked SEC to address the disclosure aspects of corporate environmental matters.

The initial proposal was deemed to have exceeded the commission’s statutory authority.

In 1974 the ERISA legislation had been passed by Congress, and pension funds, foundations and other fiduciaries were dramatically changing the makeup of the investor community, dwarfing the influence of one once-dominant individual investor. After ERISA and the easing of “prudent man” guidelines for fiduciaries, institutional investors rapidly expanded their asset holdings to include many more corporate equities.

And the institutions were increasingly focused on the “E,” “S” and :”G” aspects of corporate operations — and the real or potential influence of ESG performance on the financials. Over time, asset owners began to view the company’s ESG factors as a proxy for (effective or not) management.

While the 1975 draft requirements for companies to expand “E” and “S” information was eventually shelved by SEC, over the years there was a steady series of advances in accounting rules that did address especially “E” and some “S” matters.

FAS 5 issued by FASB in March 1975 addressed the “Accounting for Contingency” costs of corporate environmental liability FASB Interpretation FIN 14 regarding FAS 5 a year later (September 1976) addressed interpretations of “reasonable estimations of losses.” SEC Staff Bulletins helped to move the needle in the direction of what sustainable & responsible investors were demanding. Passage of Sarbanes-Oxley statutes in July 2002 with emphasis on greater transparency moved the needle some more.

But there was always a lag in the regulatory structure that enables SEC to keep up with the changes in investment expectations that public companies would be more forthcoming with ESG data and other information. And there was of course organized corporate opposition.

(SEC must derive its authority from landmark 1933 and 1934 legislation, expansions and updates in 1940, 2002, 2010 legislation, and so on. Rules must reflect what is intended in the statutes passed by Congress and signed into law by the President. And opponents of proposals can leverage what is/is not in the laws to push back on SEC proposals.)

There is an informative CFO magazine article on the subject of corporate environmental disclosure, published September 9, 2004, after the Enron collapse, two years after Sarbanes-Oxley became the law of the land, and 15+ years after the SEC focused on environmental disclosure enhancements. Author Marie Leone set out to answer the question, “are companies being forthright about their environmental liabilities?” Check out “The Greening of GAAP” at: http://ww2.cfo.com/accounting-tax/2004/09/the-greening-of-gaap/

And we add this important aspect to corporate ESG disclosure: Beginning in 1990 and in the years that followed, the G1 through G4 frameworks provided to corporate reporters by the Global Reporting Initiative (GRI) helped to address the investor-side demand for more ESG information and the corporate side challenge of providing material information related to their ESG strategies, programs, actions and achievements.

The G&A Institute team sees the significant progress made by public companies in the volume of data and narratives related to corporate ESG performance and achievements in the 1,500 and more reports that we analyze each year as the exclusive data partner for The GRI in the United States, United Kingdom, and The Republic of Ireland.

We have come a very long way since the 1970s and the SEC Concept Release provides a very comprehensive foundation for dialogue and action — soon!

Please remember to take action and leave your comments here:
http://www.sec.gov/rules/concept.shtml