Last week, SEC Chair Gary Gensler gave testimony before the Senate Banking, Housing and Urban Affairs Committee. While his prepared testimony largely revisited familiar themes, the Committee’s questioning offered a bit more insight. Committee Chair Senator Sherrod Brown cautioned at the outset that Republicans have “bellyached”—and he assumed would today—about Gensler’s “ambitious agenda,” but added that, “if Wall Street and its allies are complaining,” that means Gensler is doing his job. And right on cue, Ranking Member Senator Pat Toomey cast doubt on recent SEC actions that, he said, raised questions about how well the SEC was handling its responsibility to facilitate capital formation. Where was the SEC, he asked, when some crypto lending platforms “blew up,” resulting in billions in losses? And while the SEC has failed to provide regulatory clarity for the crypto market, he contended, it has instead been busy proposing many controversial and burdensome rules that are outside the SEC’s mission and authority. After West Virginia v. EPA (see this PubCo post), he warned, the SEC should consider itself to be on notice from the courts. In particular, some on the Committee—on both sides of the aisle—took aim at the SEC’s climate disclosure proposal—particularly Scope 3 disclosure—and Gensler’s responses made clear that he heard the criticisms, both from the Committee and from commenters, and that there would be some changes to the proposal as the SEC tries to “find a balance.” But far would those changes go?
“California Approves a Wave of Aggressive New Climate Measures” was a headline in the NYT on Thursday, and that included a “record $54 billion in climate spending, a measure to prevent the state’s last nuclear power plant from closing, sharp new restrictions on oil and gas drilling and a mandate that California stop adding carbon dioxide to the atmosphere by 2045.” But one climate bill didn’t make the cut. That was SB 260, California’s Climate Corporate Accountability Act, which, on Wednesday, failed to pass in the California legislature, notwithstanding much ink being devoted to it this past year (see, e.g., this Bloomberg article). Had the bill been signed into law, it would have mandated reporting and disclosure of GHG emissions data—Scopes 1, 2 and 3—by all U.S. business entities with total annual revenues in excess of a billion dollars that “do business in California.” Those requirements for GHG emissions reporting and attestation exceeded even the SEC’s proposed climate disclosure proposal. (See this PubCo post.) And, under the existing broad definition of “doing business” in California, the bill would have captured a large number of companies, estimated to be about 5,500, including many incorporated outside of California. (Nothing new for the Golden State—see this PubCo post and this PubCo post.) According to Politico Pro, Scott Wiener, the sponsor of the legislation, said in a statement that he was “deeply disappointed in this result….If we want to avoid a full climate apocalypse, we need to understand corporate pollution—all the way down the supply chain.” He added that “he ‘won’t give up’ and that he’s ‘very likely’ to reintroduce SB 260 next year.” Time will tell.
In this July report, Responses to the SEC’s Climate Proposal, KPMG discusses various themes and observations that it gleaned from its review of comment letters on the SEC’s 510-page comprehensive and stunningly detailed climate disclosure proposal issued in March. As you probably recall, the proposal was designed to require disclosure of “consistent, comparable, and reliable—and therefore decision-useful—information to investors to enable them to make informed judgments about the impact of climate-related risks on current and potential investments.” KPMG found that the sentiment about climate standard-setting as a general concept was favorable, with 29% of those commenting very supportive and 50% supportive of the concept. Only 21% had a negative response—12% very unsupportive and 9% generally unsupportive. But that positive attitude toward the general concept did not necessarily translate to support for the specific proposal from the SEC.
West Virginia v. EPA: SCOTUS gives its imprimatur to the “major questions” doctrine, shaking up the “administrative state”
West Virginia v EPA, the next-to-final decision handed down by SCOTUS this term, is a significant decision regarding a rule that the EPA said was never even in effect, that it had no intention of enforcing and that it planned to later replace with a new still-to-be-developed rule. As the NYT phrased it, “it’s a case about a regulation that doesn’t exist.” (Sort of like an episode of Seinfeld—the show about nothing—except that it’s not the least bit funny.) So SCOTUS could have stopped right there, but the Court forged ahead—an indicator by itself—with a decision that is nevertheless shaking up administrative law and the extent of rulemaking authority that federal agencies have—or thought they had. Its impact will likely be felt, not just at the EPA, but also at many other agencies, including the SEC. Of course, the conservative members of the Court have long signaled their desire to rein in the dreaded “administrative state.” (See, for example, the dissent of Chief Justice John Roberts in City of Arlington v. FCC back in 2013, where he worried that “the danger posed by the growing power of the administrative state cannot be dismissed.”) With this new decision by the Chief Justice (joined by five other justices), that desire has now been sated—for a while at least. In the majority opinion, SCOTUS declared that this case “is a major questions case,” referring to a judicially created doctrine holding that courts must be “skeptical” of agency efforts to assert broad authority to regulate matters of “vast economic and political significance,” requiring, in those instances, that the agency “point to ‘clear congressional authorization’ to regulate.’” In addition to the blow that the decision deals to climate regulation—“Court Decision Leaves Biden With Few Tools to Combat Climate Change,” is one of the headlines from the NYT—we can now expect the major questions doctrine to be brandished regularly against significant agency regulations across the board, and, with Congress perpetually at loggerheads and limited in its ability to authorize much of anything these days, it could well stymie much agency rulemaking. Does anyone question that, with SCOTUS’s new imprimatur, the doctrine will be raised in anticipated litigation against whatever version of the SEC’s climate disclosure regulation is adopted? As reported by Reuters, when asked by Bloomberg TV on Thursday about the impact of the decision on other agencies, Senator Patrick Toomey “singled out the SEC rule,” claiming that the SEC is “attempting to impose this whole climate change disclosure regime…with no authority from Congress to do that.” To better understand the major questions doctrine, it may be useful to take a closer look at the case.
At a recent meeting of the SEC’s Investor Advisory Committee discussing the SEC’s climate disclosure proposal, a speaker in charge of ESG investing at an asset manager raised the possible risk that companies, faced with a disclosure mandate, would just buy carbon offsets to satisfy investors that they are making progress toward their climate goals. His firm, he said, has been seeing this phenomenon occur, but he thought that the practice could lead to poor outcomes. Companies would probably experience better outcomes, he advised, if they first considered spending those same funds on investments that would actually reduce their carbon footprints. (See this PubCo post. ) What’s that about? While many experts view carbon offsets as essential ingredients in the recipe for net-zero, some commentators worry that they are just part of a “well-intentioned shell game” or perhaps, less generously, a “racket with trees being treated as hostages”? And some think both concepts—essential and racket—may be true in some cases at the same time. Are carbon offsets effective or are they just a way to assuage, as the NYT phrases it, “carbon guilt”?
While the proposed requirement to disclose material Scope 3 greenhouse gas emissions seems to be one of the most contentious—if not the most contentious—element of the SEC’s climate disclosure proposal (see this PubCo post and this PubCo post), two of the SEC’s Democratic Commissioners, Allison Herren Lee and Caroline Crenshaw, told Bloomberg that they think it still doesn’t go far enough. They are advocating that Scope 3 GHG emissions data be subject to attestation—like the proposed requirement for Scopes 1 and 2—to ensure that it is reliable. This discussion might just be a continuation—or perhaps a reinvigoration—of an internal debate that reportedly led to delays in issuing the proposal to begin with. As previously discussed in this PubCo post, the conflicts were reportedly between SEC Chair Gary Gensler and the two other Democratic Commissioners, Lee and Crenshaw, about how far to push the proposed new disclosure requirements, especially in light of the near certainty of litigation. One major issue at the time, Bloomberg reported, was whether to mandate disclosure of Scope 3 GHG emissions, which, some companies contended, is not under their control and “unfairly makes companies vulnerable to shareholder lawsuits and government enforcement actions.” Another major point of contention was reportedly was whether to require that auditors sign off on the emissions disclosures. The current proposal may reflect a compromise on these issues, but apparently one that does not sit comfortably with Lee and Crenshaw.
SEC’s Investor Advisory Committee hears about non-traditional financial information and climate disclosure
Last week, at a meeting of the SEC’s Investor Advisory Committee, the Committee heard from experts on two topics: accounting for non-traditional financial information and climate disclosure. Interestingly, two of the speakers on the first panel are among the eight new members just joining the Committee. In his opening remarks, with regard to non-traditional financial information, SEC Chair Gary Gensler characterized the discussion as “an important conversation as we continue to evaluate types of information relevant to investors’ decisions. Whether the information in question is traditional financial statement information, like components in an income statement, balance sheet, or cash flow statement, or non-traditional information, like expenditures related to human capital or cybersecurity, it’s important that issuers disclose material information and that disclosures are accurate, not misleading, consistently applied, and tied to traditional financial information.” With regard to climate disclosure, Gensler returned to his theme that the SEC’s new climate disclosure proposal is simply part of a long tradition of expanded disclosures, addressing the topic of “a conversation that investors and issuers are having right now. Today, hundreds of issuers are disclosing climate-related information, and investors representing tens of trillions of dollars are making decisions based on that information. Companies, however, are disclosing different information, in different places, and at different times. This proposal would help investors receive consistent, comparable, and decision-useful information, and would provide issuers with clear and consistent reporting obligations.” In her opening remarks, SEC Commissioner Hester Peirce asked the Committee to “consider whether our proposed climate disclosure mandate would change fundamentally this agency’s role in the economy, and whether such a change would benefit investors. Are these disclosure rules designed to elicit disclosure or to change behavior in a departure from the neutrality of our core disclosure rules?”
Jarkesy and climate disclosure: how far will the courts go in constraining the administrative state?
On Wednesday, in an Expert Forum sponsored by Cornerstone Research, Stanford professor and former SEC Commissioner Joe Grundfest and Vice Chair and Chief Legal Officer of Millennium Management and former SEC General Counsel Simon Lorne discussed “The Evolving SEC Landscape: Jarkesy v. SEC and the Proposed Climate Rules.” The two seemingly disparate topics were united by a common thread—the intense skepticism exhibited by some courts (including a likely majority of SCOTUS) of the vast power of the administrative state and their undisguised enthusiasm to constrain it. As Grundfest put it, in a slightly different context, the words are different but the melody is the same. What will be the impact?
Yesterday, the SEC announced that it had extended or reopened the public comment period on three proposals, including the proposed rulemaking to enhance and standardize climate-related disclosures. (See this PubCo post, this PubCo post and this PubCo post.) The comment period was originally scheduled to close on May 20, 2022, but will now be extended until June 17, 2022. (And rumor has it that the SEC will often accept comments submitted within a reasonable time after the deadline.) According to SEC Chair Gary Gensler, the proposal had “drawn significant interest from a wide breadth of investors, issuers, market participants, and other stakeholders….Commenters with diverse views have noted that they would benefit from additional time to review these three proposals, and I’m pleased that the public will have additional time to provide thoughtful feedback.” For example, in April, 36 trade and industry associations asked the SEC to provide a 180-day comment period, contending that, “given the size, scope, complexity, and ramifications of the rule,“ the time period allowed for comment was “woefully inadequate for the magnitude of this rule, which runs to 506 pages, contains 1,068 footnotes, references 194 dense academic and governmental reports, imposes a $10.235 billion cost on society, and seeks answers to 196 discrete questions.“ While the extension will certainly be welcome, will it be considered sufficient?
SEC’s Small Business Capital Formation Advisory Committee discusses climate disclosure and SPAC proposals
On Friday, the SEC’s Small Business Capital Formation Advisory Committee held a virtual meeting to discuss two of the SEC’s recent rulemaking initiatives: climate disclosure and SPACs, particularly as those proposals, if adopted, would impact smaller public companies and companies about to go public. The committee heard several presentations, including summaries of the proposals from SEC staff members, and voiced concerns about a number of challenges presented by the proposals. The committee also considered potential recommendations that it expects to make to the SEC.