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Rise of the Partisan AG: Schneiderman Takes on Peabody

In November 2015, New York Attorney General Eric Schneiderman announced that he had reached a settlement with Peabody Energy—the world’s largest publicly-traded coal company at the time—after investigating the company’s risk disclosures for two years.

Using New York’s powerful Martin Act, Schneiderman was able to fish through internal company documents under the pretext of protecting the company’s shareholders from financial fraud. What he found instead was evidence that Peabody had internally projected how it would fare under a range of future policy scenarios aimed at limiting the effects of climate change, but hadn’t shared those projections with its investors.

Schneiderman accused Peabody of failing to adequately disclose the risks of climate change to its business and eventually reached a settlement with the company. Though Peabody did not have to pay any fines or penalties, it agreed to amend its financial disclosures.

But for Schneiderman, his victory wasn’t really about protecting Peabody’s shareholders or netting a big financial reward; after all, Peabody didn’t even have to pay a fine. Instead, it became clear in Schneiderman’s statements that he was in it to send a message to energy manufacturers.

“This case represents an unprecedented first step in the absolutely critical work of forcing coal and other fossil fuel companies to start being honest about the damage they are doing to our planet,” (emphasis added) Schneiderman said. “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.”

There is nothing in Schneiderman’s statement about the rights of the shareholder; instead, he turns the event into a commentary about the future of fossil fuels. Is that the kind of bias New York residents are voting and paying for?

At the end of the day, the New York Attorney General wanted to make his politics known through the court room – because that’s all he can do. As a law enforcement officer, he lacks the ability to pass legislation or take executive action. Instead, he used his office to intimidate energy manufacturers to change how they do business.

Emboldened by his settlement with Peabody, Schneiderman next set his sights oil companies, which we will discuss in a forthcoming blog. Relevant to manufacturers in America, the Peabody example shows what form activism can take in the halls of the political justice system when left unchecked.