The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Peabody Energy, the world’s largest coal company, to disclose more climate risks to investors

Peabody Energy headquarters in St. Louis in 2009. (Jeff Roberson/AP)

This story has been updated.

Peabody Energy, the world’s biggest publicly traded coal company, agreed Sunday to disclose more fully potential risks to its business from climate change regulations and resulting impacts on coal demand as part of a settlement with New York attorney general Eric Schneiderman.

The agreement follows recent news that Schneiderman is also investigating ExxonMobil for allegedly misleading the public and investors about climate change. Taken together, the revelations suggest that we could be entering a world in which, as nations get more serious about capping and regulating greenhouse gas emissions, fossil fuel firms will also face more regulatory scrutiny for their statements to investors and the public.

Peabody, which is headquartered in St. Louis, Mo., had revenue of $6.79 billion in 2014, but has also been buffeted by powerful trends affecting coal in general, including low natural gas prices and increasing carbon and other environmental regulations. Still, growing energy demand in nations such as India is expected to be significantly fueled by coal for decades.

The attorney general charges that Peabody said in regulatory filings that it could not predict the risks to its business from future greenhouse gas regulations. Schneiderman also charged that the company centrally emphasized a limited and relatively optimistic scenario for the global coal future in required 10-K filings for investors, out of several scenarios outlined by the respected International Energy Agency. These statements were “incomplete and omitted less favorable IEA projections for future coal demand,” according to Schneiderman and his office.

“As a publicly traded company whose core business generates massive amounts of carbon emissions, Peabody Energy has a responsibility to be honest with its investors and the public about the risks posed by climate change, now and in the future,” Schneiderman said in a statement released to the media.  “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.” 

According to the agreement, Peabody will give a fuller sense of these risks and the IEA’s findings, but will not pay a fine.

“There is no other action associated with this settlement, no admission or denial of wrongdoing and no financial penalty,” said a statement released by Peabody Energy on the news. The company said that with future regulations remaining uncertain, it had previously resisted trying to predict them, but that it would now include more detail about the possibility of adverse environmental regulations — which could arise due to the fact that coal is a particularly carbon intensive form of fuel.

Peabody also noted its involvement in efforts to advance the technology of carbon capture and storage (or sequestration), which might someday allow for the widespread capture of carbon emissions from the burning of coal before they hit the atmosphere, but that has been criticized as being too expensive, except when used for enhanced oil recovery.

The Peabody and ExxonMobil inquiries, together, could mark a sign of a new stringency on the part of regulators, suggests Kelly Strader, a law professor at Southwestern Law School in Los Angeles.

“I think this is just the beginning,” says Strader. “We can’t even imagine I think the number of companies that might be affected by policies responding to climate change.”

According to a source close to the investigation, this concludes the inquiry into Peabody, which began initially under Schneiderman’s predecessor and now New York governor Andrew Cuomo, but was given new impetus by Schneiderman in 2013.

“It’s the next brick in, we’re finally going to do something serious here,” says Bruce Nilles, an attorney who heads the Beyond Coal campaign for the Sierra Club, of the news. “And you add this to all the other things that are happening across the country, with states leading on climate change, the Keystone decision, Peabody having to be forthright with investors, there’s a critical mass building.”

The agreement was also celebrated by, a grassroots climate advocacy group that has been at the center of the push to block infrastructure projects, like the Keystone XL pipeline, and also to push major shareholders, such as universities, to divest from the stocks of fossil fuel companies. Jamie Henn, the group’s director of strategy and communications, called the agreement “a small settlement that will make a huge impact,” going on to say that “The Peabody settlement is a good sign that the Exxon investigation could also have a far reaching impact.”

Peabody’s stock closed up 3.36 percent on the New York Stock exchange Monday, on a down day overall for stocks.