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Sunday, November 15, 2015

World’s Largest Coal Company Misled Public On Climate Change

Members of the St. Louis Police Department watch over a protest by members of the United Mine Workers of America outside the of headquarters of Peabody Energy.

The world’s largest private coal company misled its investors and the public about the financial risks of climate change, New York state’s attorney general announced on Monday.

In a press release, Attorney General Eric Schneiderman said Peabody Energy violated New York laws prohibiting “false and misleading conduct” in public statements about its business.

Specifically, Schneiderman found that Peabody failed to tell its investors about how regulations to fight climate change could hurt the coal industry. Instead, Peabody insisted it had no idea how climate regulations would affect its business, and provided its investors with “incomplete and one-sided discussions” of the future of coal in a climate-concerned world, Schneiderman said.

“As a publicly traded company whose core business generates massive amounts of carbon emissions, Peabody Energy has a responsibility to be honest with its investors and the public about the risks posed by climate change, now and in the future,” Schneiderman said in a statement. “I believe that full and fair disclosures by Peabody and other fossil fuel companies will lead investors to think long and hard about the damage these companies are doing to our planet.”

The state laws Peabody was found to have violated are the Martin Act and Executive Law, both of which “prohibit false and misleading conduct in connection with securities transactions,” the attorney general said.

Peabody did not admit or deny those findings, but signed a document on Sunday agreeing to revise its shareholder disclosures with the Securities and Exchange Commission. Per that document, Peabody will have to correct its financial statements to be honest about how a global climate deal or other carbon regulation could hurt its business.

The document can be found in full here.

Peabody’s violations will not result in financial punishment, as both laws only allow monetary penalties if shareholders need to be reimbursed for financial losses. It’s difficult to know what, if any, financial harm was passed on to shareholders due to Peabody’s misleading statements, since this particular situation was about the future risks of climate change. If in the future, however, investors find that Peabody’s misleading statements cost them money, they would likely have the option to sue.

The settlement comes just a few days after the two-year investigation became public. On Friday, Scheiderman announced that his office had issued subpoenas to both Peabody and oil company ExxonMobil, both related to the fossil fuel giants’ public statements on climate change.

Environmentalists and Democratic politicians have accused ExxonMobil of engaging in a cover-up to mislead the public about the risks of human-caused climate change in order to sell more of its carbon-intensive product. Exxon has vehemently denied the accusation.

Either way, Schneiderman’s two investigations are sparking serious legal discussion about how honest fossil fuel companies must be when it comes to the carbon emissions they create — especially if honesty might mean knowingly lowering profits. Should coal companies be forced to admit that their coal is creating a climate risk? If so, should they be allowed to fund politicians who advocate against climate action? Are these corporate activities protected free speech?

Bloomberg View columnist Matt Levine offered a nuanced discussion of those questions on Friday. And ultimately, he said, it may just come down to whether these companies lied to their own investors — even if the lie was in their investors’ financial interest.

“If you lie to the public about the risks that fossil fuel use poses to life on earth, you are just exercising your right as a citizen,” Levine wrote. “But if you lie to your investors about the risks that fossil fuel regulation poses to your stock price, you are committing fraud and will get in bad trouble.”

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