In an era of rising geopolitical tensions, it is folly to let Wall Street determine the nation’s energy policy.
Woke investors threaten the West’s security
Since Russia attacked Ukraine two months ago, Western governments have been learning the hard way about the critical importance of energy to their national security. Germany’s 20-year, trillion-dollar “Energiewende” (Energy Transformation) has made its economy totally dependent on supplies of Russian natural gas and paralyzed its response to Russian aggression. French president Emmanuel Macron faces a tougher re-election fight this month thanks to soaring energy prices and failure to replace the nation’s aging fleet of nuclear power stations. The Biden administration is tapping America’s Strategic Petroleum Reserve in an effort to tamp down energy costs as inflation heads toward double digits.
As the West grapples with the energy implications of a hostile Sino-Russian alliance, the steering group of the Net-Zero Asset Owner Alliance, whose members manage over $10.4 trillion of assets, issued a statement urging Western governments not to sacrifice climate goals for energy security. “The world is still heading for an excess of fossil fuel-based energy use that will vastly exceed the carbon budget needed to meet the 1.5° Celsius Paris agreement goal. This trend must be halted,” the United Nations-backed alliance said in its April 8 statement, arguing that “the national security argument for accelerating the net-zero transition has strengthened considerably.”
What, one might ask, is the standing of asset managers to opine on national security matters? They have no expertise in this domain. It turns out that their understanding of the economics of energy policy is defective, too.
The Net-Zero Asset Owner Alliance claims that development of new oil and gas reserves will lock in fossil fuel subsidies, exacerbating market distortions. In fact, the International Energy Agency (IEA) in its 2021 net-zero report states that under its net-zero pathway, tax revenues from oil and gas retail sales fall by about 40% over the next twenty years. “Managing this decline will require long-term fiscal planning and budget reforms,” the IEA warns. Similarly, Britain’s Office of Budget Responsibility estimates that net zero policies will result in the loss of tax receipts representing 1.6% of GDP. So much for the fossil fuel subsidy myth. If fossil fuels were heavily subsidized, eliminating them would mean fossil fuel subsidies disappear. Instead, it’s tax revenues that would melt away to zero.
The net-zero investors cite figures for the decline in solar and wind energy costs. These numbers are based on so-called levelized cost of energy (LCOE), a metric that aims to measure a plant’s lifetime costs. Wind and solar power are intermittent, but LCOE metrics exclude the costs of intermittency, which increase the more wind and solar are put on the grid. Because wind and solar output responds to weather and not to demand, the value of this output declines the more installed wind and solar capacity is available. It was for these reasons that MIT professor of economics Paul Joskow concluded in a foundational 2011 paper that using LCOE metrics to compare intermittent and dispatchable generating technologies, such as coal and natural gas, is a “meaningless exercise.”
Wind and solar investors don’t need to understand the economics of the grid to make money – they are shielded from the intermittency costs their investments inflict on the rest of the grid, which is one reason why their views on energy policy can be taken with a pinch of salt. Their economic illiteracy does, however, make it easy for them to subscribe to the green fairy tale of 100% renewables. They’re not responsible for keeping the lights on – that depends on traditional power plants staying fueled up and ready to spin, which is what Germany can’t do without Russian gas. Adopt the net-zero alliance’s call for no new fossil-fuel investment, and the cost of energy is bound to spiral. And if the lights go out, politicians – not woke investors – get the blame.
Investors’ opinions on energy and national security would matter less if they didn’t have political power. Bloomberg opinion writer Matt Levine argues that asset managers of giant funds form a parallel system of government that exercises overlapping legislative powers with those of governments. These government-by-asset-managers, as Levine calls them, tell companies to do things they think are good for society as a whole, “making big collective decisions about how society should be run, not just business decisions but also decisions about the environment and workers’ rights and racial inequality and other controversial political topics.”
Foremost among these areas is climate policy. Although the Biden administration has set a net-zero goal, Congress has not legislated it, and it lacks the force of law. The absence of legislation passed by democratically accountable legislators, however, presents no barrier to government-by-asset-managers legislating climate policy for the companies in which they invest. “Investors are making net zero commitments for themselves and demanding that companies issue greenhouse gas reduction targets and transition plans for meeting those targets,” says the Reverend Kirsten Snow Spalding of the not-for-profit Ceres Investor Network on Climate Risk and Sustainability.
Neither Spalding nor the Net-Zero Asset Owner Alliance make a case that forcing net-zero targets on companies will boost investor returns, demonstrating that this is not about investors’ traditional concerns – making money – but about pursuing politics by other means. In this, the Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) is working hand in glove with woke climate investors. Commenting on the SEC’s newly proposed rule on climate-risk disclosure, Spalding says that for investors who have committed zero emissions by 2050, “this draft rule is absolutely critical.”
It’s no coincidence that SEC chair Gary Gensler chose Ceres to make his first appearance to talk about the SEC’s proposed rule. Of course, Gensler didn’t justify it in the same terms as Spalding. To have done so would have heightened the risk of the courts striking down the rule in subsequent litigation. Instead, Gensler attempted to justify the rule as bringing “some standardization to the conversation” and putting material climate information – the SEC issued guidance in 2010 on how companies should disclose such risks – in one place, saving investors the bother of piecing together the information from different sources. Gensler’s explanation, to put it politely, is an implausible one for imposing on corporate America what amounts to a parallel climate-reporting regime to the established framework of financial reporting. Whatever Gensler might say in public, the effect of the SEC rule – if implemented – would be to empower investors to impose net-zero targets on companies, to monitor progress in meeting them, and to hold company boards to account for them.
Unlike elected politicians, woke climate investors are not accountable for the effects of their climate policies: They exercise power without responsibility. This arrangement weakens America’s ability to respond to the geopolitical challenges of a revanchist Russia and an expansionist China. “We are on a war footing – an emergency,” Energy Secretary Jennifer Granholm declared at the CERA energy conference in Houston last month. “We have to responsibly increase short-term supply where we can right now to stabilize the market and to minimize harm to American families.” Addressing oil executives in the audience, Granholm told them: “I hope your investors are saying these words to you as well: In this moment of crisis, we need more supply . . . right now, we need oil and gas production to rise to meet current demand.”
As Granholm suggested, woke investors have been trying to do the opposite. Despite the war in Ukraine, there has been no let-up in investor pressure on oil and gas companies to scale down their operations. Whatever criticisms might be made of the Biden administration’s handling of the war in Ukraine, it is responsible for taking the awesome decisions that war involves. Investors, by contrast, have no responsibility for the nation’s security and America’s ability to lead the West. By helping investors impose their desired energy policies on American oil and gas companies, the SEC is undermining the national security prerogatives of the Biden administration and eroding America’s ability to meet the challenges of a dangerous world. The SEC is playing in a domain that it has no business being in.
Rupert Darwall is a Senior Fellow at the RealClear Foundation.