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Deconstructing Shareholder Climate Activism: Why Institutional Investors Are Bullying Carbon Majors

Madison Condon, Externalities and the Common Owner, 95 Wash. L. Rev. 1 (2020), available at SSRN.

At Chevron’s 2020 annual meeting, a majority of voting shareholders approved a resolution urging the oil giant to bring its lobbying efforts in line with the Paris Climate Agreement’s goal of limiting global warming to two degrees Celsius. What seemed like a pipe dream not long ago has become a fixture on Wall Street. Climate activism has emerged as a dominant theme at shareholder meetings in the energy sector and beyond, with some resolutions receiving nearly sixty percent of votes. In her excellent article, Externalities and the Common Owner, Professor Madison Condon draws on modern portfolio theory to offer an intriguing explanation for the changing tide in shareholder climate activism.

In recent years, concerned shareholders have garnered majority approval for resolutions calling for corporate emission reduction targets, better disclosure of climate risk, and suspension of lobbying against carbon regulation, among other climate action – often against the vocal opposition of the company’s own board. This surge in shareholder support for climate-related proposals is likely the product of a multitude of factors, including the growing sense of urgency surrounding global climate change. Professor Condon makes a compelling case that a key driver of shareholders’ newfound love for climate activism may be a paradigm shift in the approach of institutional investors to corporate governance.

Along the way, Professor Condon incisively slaughters not one, but two sacred cows of the corporate governance literature. First up, the general assumption that rational shareholders will exercise their governance rights to maximize the firm’s value. Condon persuasively lays out the inherent conflict (at least in the near term) between the corporate objective of profit maximization and a shareholder-driven commitment to voluntary emission reductions, even more so when such a commitment is to be adopted by carbon majors like Shell, Total, or Chevron. The second bovine casualty of the article’s sharp analysis is the widely held belief that broadly diversified institutional investors are “rationally reticent” to invest their time and effort in corporate governance. After all, portfolio diversification tends to produce relatively small stakes in individual companies so the significant costs of shareholder engagement would translate to only small returns to the diversified investors’ portion of ownership. And yet, recent proxy seasons offer ample evidence of climate activism by pension funds, insurance companies, mutual funds, and other institutional investors bullying big oil and other carbon majors into climate action. So what gives?

The answer flows indirectly from Einer Elhauge’s observation that the proliferation of institutional investment has reduced market competition as key companies are increasingly owned by the same large shareholders. Since 1950, the share of institutional ownership in U.S. equities has grown from little over 5% to nearly 80%. Today, there is a more than 90% chance that any two competing firms in a given industry share at least one large shareholder that holds a stake of five percent or more in both companies – a more than fivefold increase compared to 1994. As Elhauge and others hone in on the anti-competitive effects of such “horizontal shareholding,” Professor Condon adds a novel climate dimension to the discourse.

Externalities and the Common Owner crafts a compelling argument that BlackRock, CalPers, Vanguard, and other “universal owners” have a strong financial incentive to advance corporate governance that will “mitigate climate change risks and damages to their economy-mirroring portfolios.” These broadly diversified institutional investors are willing to accept the negative short-term impacts of climate activism on the bottom line of individual firms if their engagement helps reduce systemic climate risk sufficiently to avert, or at least mitigate, damage to their other portfolio holdings. To illustrate this paradigm shift from the traditionally firm-centric to a portfolio-maximizing shareholder governance strategy, Professor Condon cites to several investor declarations revealing a growing emphasis on portfolio returns. She also offers an intuitive back-of-the-envelope calculation comparing costs and benefits using William Nordhaus’s acclaimed Dynamic Integrated Climate Economy Model. Based on Condon’s math, a broadly diversified investor like BlackRock with significant stakes in Exxon and Chevron might lose over $6 billion by supporting shareholder resolutions that force a 40% reduction in the two companies’ greenhouse gas emissions. But these losses would be more than compensated by the nearly $10 billion in damages from climate change that the emission reductions would avert from the rest of BlackRock’s portfolio.

Having laid out the economics of institutional investors’ externality-internalizing strategy of portfolio maximization, Professor Condon surveys the various avenues for influencing corporate officers, from shareholder proposals and board elections to informal communication and compensation. Next, she explores how sacrificing individual firm profits and value in the interest of portfolio returns may violate fiduciary duties owed by both firm managers and investment managers. Against this background, Professor Condon translates her observations and argument into a convincing amendment of the traditional narrative of institutional investors’ rational reticence to exercise their corporate governance rights.

The final section of Externalities and the Common Owner explores some of the broader normative issues presented by the portfolio-maximizing strategy of diversified institutional investors. Professor Condon ponders whether the net welfare gains from climate and other pollution reduction benefits will be enough to outweigh the negative welfare impacts from reduced competition and monopsony pricing in labor markets. A separate line of inquiry explores challenges related to the democratic legitimacy and accountability of a small group of heavyweight investors privatizing the kind of environmental governance choices traditionally left to governments and their elected officials. The author concludes that “[t]he net welfare effects of common ownership require further study, but intuition suggests this behavior is not aligned with aggregate social welfare.” (P. 79.)

Whether your scholarly interests lie in corporate governance, climate policy, or anywhere in between, Externalities and the Common Owner is a must-read. Professor Condon provides a deeply thought-provoking account of the evolving role of institutional investors in the war on carbon, while charting an intriguing agenda for future research on the benefits and drawbacks of portfolio maximization approaches to shareholder engagement.

Cite as: Felix Mormann, Deconstructing Shareholder Climate Activism: Why Institutional Investors Are Bullying Carbon Majors, JOTWELL (August 20, 2021) (reviewing Madison Condon, Externalities and the Common Owner, 95 Wash. L. Rev. 1 (2020), available at SSRN), https://lex.jotwell.com/deconstructing-shareholder-climate-activism-why-institutional-investors-are-bullying-carbon-majors/.

The Internet of Beliefs and Strategies: How NGOs Fight Energy Projects in a Digitally Connected World

David B. Spence, Regulation and the New Politics of (Energy) Market Entry, 95 Notre Dame L. Rev. 327 (2019), available at SSRN.

A burgeoning literature explores the siting challenges, equity issues, and justice concerns associated with energy project development. The important role that NGOs like the Sierra Club, 350.org, or the Environmental Defense Fund play in the ensuing conflicts is widely acknowledged, yet the dynamics of NGO mobilization are relatively underexplored.  Professor David Spence’s fine article, Regulation and the New Politics of (Energy) Market Entry, goes a long way toward closing that gap, offering critical insights into NGO strategy, framing, and coordination.

Professor Spence starts by laying out the tensions resulting from the U.S. energy economy’s reliance on private investments to build and maintain the infrastructure necessary to meet the American public’s demand for energy services. These investment decisions are guided by statutes and regulations that reflect the evolving prioritization among three fundamental objectives that make up the so-called energy trilemma: affordability, reliability, and environmental performance. Historically, the first two objectives dominated but, more recently, climate change and other environmental prerogatives have emerged as the driving forces behind much energy investment.

Next, the article surveys the wide range of regulatory barriers to entry facing new energy projects in the form of frequently fragmented licensing regimes across municipal, state, and federal levels of governance. As Professor Spence astutely observes, the horizontally and vertically overlapping nature of this licensing process offers NGOs and other opposing parties a plethora of points for intervention, enabling conflicts to play out along multiple fronts simultaneously. The intensity of conflicts over energy infrastructure siting, the article argues, has been amplified by two related “centrifugal forces”: the rise of digital connectedness and the growing hyperpolarization of our society.  Feeding off each other, both phenomena foster the heightened media presence and emotional intensity of recent conflicts over energy projects, such as the Keystone XL pipeline or the Cape Wind project.

At the heart of Professor Spence’s article lies a data set that comprises more than three hundred energy projects that became the targets of opposition from over four hundred NGOs between 2000 and 2017. It is a testament to the author’s open-minded and balanced thinking that these projects run the technological and environmental gamut, from oil-and-gas exploration to pipelines to LNG terminals, from coal-fired power plants to nuclear reactors to wind and solar installations. The same attention to diversity and detail carries over to the way the article distinguishes among various types of NGOs, from local and state to national and international organizations.

Professor Spence uses his impressive data set to test a variety of hypotheses geared toward better understanding the tactical and issue-related decision-making of NGOs. The findings are compelling and offer novel insights into NGO strategies. The article highlights three specific patterns to support its thesis that polarization and digital interconnectedness have exacerbated the frequency and intensity of energy project siting conflicts in the twenty-first century.

First, mass mobilization around risk-based arguments emerges as the default strategy for NGO opposition to energy project development. Claims about the economic or environmental justice impacts of projects, for example, were far less likely to be part of NGO messaging and strategy. Professor Spence persuasively argues that risk-based anchoring of NGO campaigns is a likely product of the ease of instantaneous communication to a large audience facilitated by our growing digital interconnectedness.

The second pattern observed in the data cautions readers to take NGOs’ risk-based communications with a grain of salt, at least for certain types of projects. In the context of wind farms, smart meters, transmission lines, fracking operations, and nuclear power, many NGOs made claims about associated health risks that are not supported by scientific consensus. Professor Spence points out that such risk-related overrepresentations are significantly more prevalent among local NGOs, compared to their national counterparts.

Both the general propensity of NGOs to mobilize around risk and the tendency to misrepresent health risks observed among some NGOs may, according to Professor Spence, reflect a natural adaptation to today’s “post-truth” politics. In this brave new political landscape, increasingly insulated communities of belief have supplanted societally representative deliberations in search of truth.

The third pattern discernable from the data suggests a growing degree of coordination among NGOs, likely facilitated by our digital connectedness. Tactical coordination would explain the similarity between local and national NGOs’ strategies related to litigation, political action, and issue arguments across a range of projects. There are, as Professor Spence notes, limits to this kind of collaboration among (and even within) NGOs, such as when local chapters of a national NGO oppose clean energy infrastructure because of a project’s local environmental impacts, placing themselves in direct conflict with the parent organization’s general approval of and possible campaign for clean energy projects.

With Regulation and the New Politics of (Energy) Market Entry, David Spence has taken a major step toward helping us understand the strategic decision-making behind NGO opposition to energy infrastructure development.  Given the quality of his data set and his analytical acuity, we can only hope that this piece will be his first of many forays into the world of NGOs. I for one would love to see what insights Professor Spence’s data can offer on the way other factors may influence NGO decision-making and strategy. Does it matter, for example, whether a project is sponsored by local as opposed to national or international firms? What impact, if any, do different models for public participation during the licensing process have? Do macroeconomic shocks, such as the financial crisis, correlate with discernable changes in NGO decision-making and strategy? I could go on but trust that my point is made: more, please!

Cite as: Felix Mormann, The Internet of Beliefs and Strategies: How NGOs Fight Energy Projects in a Digitally Connected World, JOTWELL (June 19, 2020) (reviewing David B. Spence, Regulation and the New Politics of (Energy) Market Entry, 95 Notre Dame L. Rev. 327 (2019), available at SSRN), https://lex.jotwell.com/the-internet-of-beliefs-and-strategies-how-ngos-fight-energy-projects-in-a-digitally-connected-world/.

William’s World: An Essay About the History of Just Price

Reading Professor William Boyd’s fine piece, Just Price, Public Utility, and the Long History of Economic Regulation in America, I couldn’t help but think of Jostein Gaardner’s international bestselling novel Sophie’s World. To be clear, there’s no teenage girl in Boyd’s essay receiving letters from a mysterious stranger that enlighten her on the history of philosophy (or, in Boyd’s case, economic regulation). But, like Gaardner, Boyd does an outstanding job of bringing to life and making accessible what many might otherwise consider a dense, perhaps even tedious subject matter—the history of price regulation. And unlike Gaardner, Boyd manages to do so with remarkably little sacrifice in breadth and depth of coverage.

Professor Boyd’s essay takes readers on an intriguing journey through time, tracing the doctrine of “just price” all the way back to the Aristotelian concept of corrective justice, devoted to preserving equality in exchange, commonly understood as an arithmetic proportion around a mean. From ancient Greece, readers are guided to medieval Italy where Thomas Aquinas and other Scholastics expanded Aristotle’s framing into the notion of commutative justice, a construct intended to encompass the full range of voluntary and involuntary interpersonal relationships, including but not limited to economic exchange.

Drawing on the work of Max Weber and Joseph Schumpeter, among others, Boyd relates cost-of-service pricing—a staple of modern-day regulation of public utilities—back to medieval markets and their notion that just price reflected the “common estimation” as the market clearing price under free competition. Another worthwhile stop is at the grain markets of France’s ancien régime where the police des grains enforced trading prices as the product of customary practices and formal rules of exchange to ensure a just price for life’s basic necessities, evidence of the emerging concept of a moral economy. At the dawn of industrialization, Boyd reminds us, price regulation, was widely accepted as a necessary means for maintaining social stability.

With this historic tour de force, professor Boyd sets the stage beautifully for his discussion of public utility regulation in the United States. From Munn v. Illinois over Smyth v. Ames to FPC v. Hope Natural Gas, his essay traces the defining moments in the evolution of the modern concept of public utility. Along the way, Boyd makes a persuasive argument that, Munn’s famous image of private enterprises “clothed with a public interest” notwithstanding, expanding government regulation of (previously) private economic activity was motivated primarily by growing concerns over deviations from the elusive ideal of just price. To drive this point home, Boyd reminds readers that the concept of just price had long been more than a mere numbers game, as the arithmetic mean promoted by Aristotelian corrective justice might suggest. The prevailing view among economists suggests that the just price doctrine was, at its core, about preventing coercion in economic exchange, especially in the context of essential services and other necessities.

With the doctrine of just price properly understood as a safeguard against the coercive exercise of market power, Boyd makes it easy to follow along on the final stage of his essay’s time travel through recent and ongoing efforts to complement, if not altogether replace, traditional regulation of public utility with competitive markets.  Pointing to agency capture and other pathologies of the regulatory process, Boyd persuasively reframes the move from cost-of-service regulation to greater reliance on competitive markets as a mere resurrection of the historically prevailing notion of just price as facilitating economic exchange free from coercive forces. Today, the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission and other regulators are retreating from the actual setting of prices, instead focusing on creating and monitoring markets with sufficient competition to realize the ideal of just price—whatever the exact number—properly conceived of as the product of economic exchange free from structural inequities.

Professor Boyd closes by musing that the experiment of just price may have run its course. It is this, the very last sentence that prompts my only gripe with his excellent essay. It is undoubtedly a tribute to Boyd’s refreshing intellectual humility that the author understates the importance of his own work. In doing so, however, an opportunity is missed to emphasize the critical role that the doctrine of just price, in its various iterations over time, has yet to play as we decide the future of public utility in the United States and beyond.

Two examples of the need for continued guidance from Aristotle and his intellectual progeny quickly come to mind: first, the ongoing debate over the “fairness” of policies that seek to promote the transition to a low-carbon future by enabling better-to-do homeowners to put solar panels on their rooftops and thereby reduce their electric utility bills. The doctrine of just price so ably unpacked and brought to life by professor Boyd has a lot to teach us in the assessment, and ultimately, design of policy incentives and electricity rates, among others. The second example builds on Boyd’s discussion of competitive wholesale power markets. With their (current) inability to internalize the social costs of carbon and other externalities, these markets remind us of the Scholastics’ insight that only fully competitive markets operating free from market failures, should be trusted to realize the ideal of just pricing.

With Just Price, Public Utility, and the Long History of Economic Regulation in America, William Boyd adds important historic perspective and a much needed voice of reason to the increasingly polarized debate over the future of public utility regulation. Boyd himself describes his fine essay as part of a larger project. I for one cannot wait to see the sequel. If it is as captivating and compelling a read as Just Price, we are all in for another treat.

Cite as: Felix Mormann, William’s World: An Essay About the History of Just Price, JOTWELL (May 16, 2019) (reviewing William Boyd, Just Price, Public Utility, and the Long History of Economic Regulation in America, 35 Yale J. Reg. 721 (2018)), https://lex.jotwell.com/williams-world-an-essay-about-the-history-of-just-price/.

Clean Electricity for the People by the People

Shelley Welton, Clean Electrification, 88 U. Colo. L. Rev. 571 (2017), available at SSRN.

Climate change has made the timely decarbonization of the electric grid a top priority for policymakers in the United States and across the globe. In the absence of a meaningful price on carbon, net metering, tax credits, and other incentive programs dominate the low-carbon policy landscape. Critics of clean energy incentives have long argued that government should not engage in the business of picking winners and losers among competing technologies. With her thoughtful article, Clean Electrification, Professor Shelley Welton reminds us that public policy support for a low-carbon energy economy has disparate impacts not only on technologies but also on ratepayers, utilities, and other stakeholders.

U.S. policymakers increasingly seek to enlist ratepayers in the war on carbon, harnessing technology innovation to turn previously passive electricity customers into active partners in grid decarbonization efforts. This vision of a “participatory grid” rests on smart appliances, rooftop solar, energy storage, and other technologies capable of empowering ratepayers to more actively manage their energy consumption, generation, and other grid interactions. Access to these technologies and, hence, to the benefits of active grid participation, however, comes at considerable cost raising concerns over the vision’s implications for distributional equity, as evidenced by “solar fairness” debates across the country.

Professor Welton acknowledges and unpacks the various equity concerns surrounding the participatory grid, shedding light on the different stakeholders and their perspectives. In one of my favorite sections, she compares and contrasts the “distinct but overlapping equities” of climate law and energy law. Welton hones in on the disproportionately harsh impact of global warming, sea level rise, and other manifestations of our changing climate on lower-income households. Against this background, she makes a persuasive argument that, whatever the inequities of a decarbonized participatory grid, they do not justify a business-as-usual scenario as climate change itself will bring about far more serious inequities if left unmitigated.

Professor Welton’s article places the current equity debate into historic context, tracing energy law’s preoccupation with balancing equity and efficiency from the beginnings of public utility law all the way to present-day restructuring efforts. From this historical analysis, Welton distills “widespread access to affordable power” as energy law’s overarching distributive tenet. Nowhere is this commitment more apparent than in the Tennessee Valley Authority Act, the Rural Electrification Act, and other New Deal efforts to electrify rural America.

Eighty years ago, the New Deal’s electrification campaign raised the standard of living for rural communities and expanded their access to radios, refrigeration, and other amenities of modern-day technologies. Now, Professor Welton urges her readers, it is time for a successor campaign, clean electrification, to broaden public access not only to the grid itself but, critically, to the emerging suite of participatory technologies required to maintain access to affordable power in a de-carbonizing world. Welton identifies several openings in public utility regulation for a clean electrification campaign, including the long-standing mandate to maintain “just and reasonable” electricity rates and questions over ownership and management of the rich data produced by an ever-smarter grid. In the balanced thinking that distinguishes her article throughout, Welton cautions that widespread grid participation may not be achieved in the near term unless public policy moves beyond its current individualistic notion of participation to embrace more collective forms, such as community solar programs and semi-autonomous micro grids.

With Clean Electrification, Professor Welton adds to the emerging literature on clean energy equity a careful historical analysis of equity’s deep roots in energy law as well as a compelling argument for a concerted effort by policymakers, utilities, and others to usher in a low-carbon, high-participation energy economy. At a time when pundits polarize political debates over the future of net metering and other clean energy policies, Welton presents herself as a welcome voice of reason.

Cite as: Felix Mormann, Clean Electricity for the People by the People, JOTWELL (April 18, 2018) (reviewing Shelley Welton, Clean Electrification, 88 U. Colo. L. Rev. 571 (2017), available at SSRN), https://lex.jotwell.com/clean-electricity-for-the-people-by-the-people/.

Empowering Federal Regulation for a Changing Electricity Sector

Joel B. Eisen, FERC’s Expansive Authority to Transform the Electric Grid, 49 U.C. Davis L. Rev. 1783 (2016).

Today’s electricity sector has little in common with the industry’s humble origins in the late 1800s, when small power plants located every ten blocks or so served nearby customers through a local grid. Nor does it share many commonalities with the heavily regulated, largely monopolized electricity sector of the 1930s, whose interstate grid prompted passage of the 1935 Federal Power Act. And yet, this more than eighty-year-old statute continues to define the requirements and scope of federal and, indirectly, state regulatory authority over today’s electricity sector. As deregulation and competitive markets, the rise of renewable energy, smart metering, and demand response transform the way electricity is generated, traded, transmitted, and used, regulators and courts are struggling to apply the Federal Power Act to a changing industry.

Earlier this year, the Supreme Court offered its views when, in Federal Energy Regulatory Commission v. Electric Power Supply Association, the Court recognized federal authority to regulate wholesale market operators’ compensation of demand response—temporary reductions in electricity consumption by end-users at times of peak demand. In his thoughtful article FERC’s Expansive Authority to Transform the Electric Grid, Professor Joel B. Eisen places FERC v. EPSA in historical context, proposes a set of principles to guide FERC’s regulation of rules and practices that affect rates in wholesale power markets, and applies these principles to a hypothetical carbon price added to fossil-fueled electricity.

In FERC v. EPSA, a 6-2 majority of the Supreme Court reversed the D.C. Circuit’s vacatur of FERC’s Order No. 745 regarding demand response compensation in wholesale power markets, holding that the order was within FERC’s authority under the Federal Power Act to ensure that rules and practices directly affecting wholesale rates are just and reasonable. EPSA and other critics had previously argued that the Federal Power Act could not be stretched to apply to wholesale market compensation for demand response—a concept clearly not contemplated during the Act’s drafting over eighty years ago.

Professor Eisen’s article offers an in-depth historical analysis that contextualizes and, ultimately, supports the Supreme Court’s expansive reading of FERC’s authority under the Federal Power Act. Starting with railroad regulation in the early 1900s—the origin of the Federal Power Act’s “practices affecting rates” language—continuing with regulation of the electric utility industry from the Act’s 1935 passage to the beginning of deregulation in the 1980s, and culminating with regulation of today’s increasingly market-based electricity sector, Eisen examines the regulatory regime’s evolution across two industries and one century. In the process, he identifies “a distinctive arc, featuring flexibility about conduct being regulated” that FERC v. EPSA continues.

But Professor Eisen’s article offers more than historical context and validation for the Supreme Court’s interpretation of the Federal Power Act. Policymakers, regulators, courts, and practitioners will appreciate the four-factor framework that Eisen proposes to guide future application of the Act’s “practices affecting rates” standard for FERC authority. First, to be jurisdictional an activity must involve “FERC regulation of market rules or other aspects of direct participation by jurisdictional entities.” Second, FERC may offer incentives to adjust inputs to markets under its supervision in order to maintain system reliability—even if these input adjustments impact the states. Third, the notion of practices under the Federal Power Act has evolved from firm-specific to market-wide practices, allowing (and, possibly, requiring) FERC to regulate the structure and operation of wholesale electricity markets. Fourth and finally, the activity in question must have “direct and significant impacts on wholesale rates,” that is, “without the actions of an intervening decision maker.” To illustrate the import of his proposed framework, Professor Eisen applies the above factors to a hypothetical FERC-mandated carbon adder for fossil-fueled electricity traded on wholesale power markets, which he suggests could be reconciled with FERC v. EPSA, assuming a proper finding of discrimination.

With FERC’s Expansive Authority to Transform the Electric Grid, Professor Eisen adds to the growing literature on (clean) energy federalism an unprecedented historical analysis of FERC’s authority under the 1935 Federal Power Act and a practical guide for its application to today’s electricity industry. Demand response is but one of many drivers of the grid’s ongoing transformation, with others, such as electricity storage, already waiting in the wings. FERC v. EPSA and Professor Eisen’s fine article suggest that the Federal Power Act is still very much alive and up to the task of guiding the transition to a bright energy future.

Cite as: Felix Mormann, Empowering Federal Regulation for a Changing Electricity Sector, JOTWELL (July 4, 2016) (reviewing Joel B. Eisen, FERC’s Expansive Authority to Transform the Electric Grid, 49 U.C. Davis L. Rev. 1783 (2016)), https://lex.jotwell.com/empowering-federal-regulation-for-a-changing-electricity-sector/.