ESG and Energy Reform: Holding Ourselves Accountable

In 2014, the Onion published this headline: “Scientists Politely Remind World That Clean Energy Technology Ready To Go Whenever.” The satirical report sharply criticized how most countries, at the time, were prone to overlooking the clean energy alternatives readily available to them in favor of the established oil, gas, and coal industries that made up such a large proportion of the global economy. By now, it seems like most countries have taken the hint: CO2 emissions finally reached somewhat of a plateau in 2022, after steady rises every year for the past few decades. A survey in July showed that, even in the United States, carbon emissions fell by 5% compared to May of last year – this change, admittedly, being partially due to the mild winter in the Northern Hemisphere.

The U.S. has always been one of the slowest countries in the transition towards clean energy while most other countries have placed it as a top priority. In 2021, we still produced 14.9 tons of CO2, per person – as opposed to Germany’s 8.1 tons and the United Kingdom’s 5.2 tons. The U.S. is still the world’s top producer of unrefined oil and natural gas – while we import an average of six million barrels of crude oil a day, mostly from Canada. Oil makes up nearly 8% of the U.S.’s GDP, despite the controversy that surrounds the average American’s grossly disproportionate carbon footprint.

Government regulatory bureaus have not only failed to control the energy monopoly that oil and gas companies seem to have on our economy – they’ve encouraged its growth, often to immense public backlash. For example, the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) opens up nearly 90% of all publicly-owned U.S. land to oil and gas leasing. Recent reforms and regulations on this use serve to “increase returns to the public” rather than phase out oil and energy use, the way that most of the “public” wants. The Biden administration has even given explicit approval to large-scale, long-term oil enterprises like the Willow Project – a massive oil drilling project in Anchorage, Alaska, projected to add 9.2 million metric tons of CO2 to the atmosphere per year.

Organizations like the Center of Biological Diversity criticize these financial incentives as nothing more than stopgap measures, focused on ensuring that the government gets a cut of the profits that can be made from non-renewable energy. Other conservation groups take a more direct approach in confronting the BLM’s environmental harms. Earthjustice, for example, filed a lawsuit to stop the Willow Project entirely. Their case is currently pending appeal in the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals.

Individual companies, hoping to make themselves more palatable to their environmentally-conscious consumers, have also started to hold themselves accountable for shifting towards greener-energy alternatives, primarily through the adoption of ESG initiatives: goals focused around improving the Environmental, Social, and Governance scores assigned to different corporations. They’re held responsible for transparency in their ESG disclosures both by their profit margins and by regulatory agencies like the Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) – providing both the internal and external pressures necessary to change the behavior of even the most pollution-heavy companies.

The former holds companies accountable by providing a monetary incentive for corporations to meet their ESG initiatives. Greater transparency in company environmental disclosures is consistently tied to positive financial growth, creating greater trust across all levels of corporate governance and greater trust with the consumers that these corporations market towards. The latter allows the government to intervene directly through the SEC’s Climate and ESG task force. This team charges companies with misrepresentation (or even fraud) if they fail to make a good-faith effort to meet their ESG initiatives or lie in their public ESG disclosures. Multiple initiatives have both been proposed and passed by the SEC that create more transparency in private entities’ climate-related risks. The large fines and injunctions that the SEC has the power to impose further encourage corporations to be upfront with their environmental impacts – while their consumers push them to be more environmentally friendly overall.

It’s telling that even the Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC) is currently expanding its legal team specifically to manage climate change concerns and “energy transition law.” The U.S. often treats OPEC like a rival – having come head-to-head with it many times in the past and currently fighting to try to get the “No Oil Producing and Exporting Cartels” (NOPEC) Act through Congress, the same way they’ve done for the past two decades. As public opinion continues to shift towards clean energy over the oil, gas, and coal industries that dominated the market in the past, it wouldn’t be surprising if the United States started to focus its own legal power on the same fields of law – with pressures coming from both their external rivals and internal company movements towards ESG, overall.