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Peabody Energy: Exxon not alone in misleading investors about climate threat

Peabody Energy: While ExxonMobil is under investigation, Peabody Energy agreed to be more transparent with investors after the New York Attorney General’s office found it misled its investors by downplaying the potential economic impact of climate change on its business.

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Smoke streams from the chimneys of the E.ON coal-fired power station in Gelsenkirchen, Germany in 2014. The U.N. weather agency says levels of carbon dioxide and methane, the two most important greenhouse gases, reached record highs last year. Pushed by the burning of coal, oil and gas for energy, global CO2 levels are now 143 percent higher than before the industrial revolution, say researchers.

AP Photo/Martin Meissner/File

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Fossil fuels have seen better days. In September came the news that Royal Dutch Shell has suspended Arctic drilling, then the Keystone XL pipeline was rejected by the president last week, and Monday, the world’s largest coal mining and distribution company agreed to be more forthcoming with investors about the potential financial impact of global decline in demand for coal.

The non-monetary settlement between Peabody Energy and the New York State Attorney General’s office ends a two-year investigation by the state that found the St. Louis-based company misled its investors by downplaying in its mandatory financial disclosures the future economic impact of climate change on its business.

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The company also falsely claimed that it could not estimate the financial loss it would face from global regulations to curb the use of coal.

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“Peabody has in fact made market projections about the impact of potential climate change regulatory actions,” the AG’s office wrote in the agreement. And they didn’t bode well for the company’s financial future, it said.

Attorney General Eric T. Schneiderman called this case, “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,” reported The New York Times.  

Next on his docket is ExxonMobil, which is accused of lying to the public and to its investors about the risks of climate change and how much they might hurt the oil business.

According to the Times, Schneiderman issued a subpoena Wednesday evening to the company, demanding its financial records and emails.

This comes weeks after an investigation by InsideClimate News revealed that an Exxon scientist warned company executives decades ago about human-caused global warming, yet it spent $30 million to discredit climate science to protect its carbon-based business.

“The fossil fuel industry has long thought of itself as invincible to public critique, but no longer,” says Jamie Henn, spokesperson for activist group 350.org, in a statement e-mailed to The Christian Science Monitor.

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The nonprofit has persuaded 390 institutions worldwide – from Stanford University to The Guardian Media Group to the Rockefeller Brothers Fund – to commit to selling their investments in oil, coal, and natural gas companies.

“As the divestment movement continues to chip away at their social license, fossil fuel companies are losing the ability to brush aside these investigations,” says Mr. Henn.

The economics are changing, too, as oil remains under $50 per barrel and as stricter regulations on coal make cleaner fuel options more attractive.

Peabody has not been forthcoming about the significant financial strain the company will likely face because of stricter government regulations of emissions, hesitation of governments and banks to finance overseas coal-burning power plants, and successful divestment campaigns that could pull billions out of fossil fuel companies.

The Times reported that in 2013 the company projected that aggressive regulatory action could reduce the dollar value of the coal it mines out of the southern Powder River Basin in Montana by 38 percent, and of the Illinois Basin by 33 percent in a decade.

And in March 2014, a consulting firm hired by Peabody projected that if a $20-per-ton carbon tax were to pass, it would reduce the demand for coal for use in electric power generation in this country by 38 to 53 percent compared with 2013 levels.