A Look Back at the Trump EPA and Enforcement

On January 13, 2021, one week prior to the end of the Trump administration, the Environmental Protection Agency released its annual enforcement report for the prior year – “EPA Enforcement Annual Results FY 2020.” https://epa.maps.arcgis.com/apps/Cascade/index.html?appid=9dfe57199392498f872bac6bf2e4867c  In keeping with the rhetorical style of the former president, EPA claimed that it had achieved “tremendous results for the public and the environment.” When one looks below the surface, however, a different picture appears.

EPA’s FY 2020 report identifies the following as the “highlights” of its “National Compliance Initiatives” (NCI) efforts to address “the most serious environmental violations,” violations on which EPA “focuses” its enforcement and compliance resources:
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ESG – Global ESG funds flow increases to $80.5 B in Q3 of 2020 and $2.5 Trillion in ESG AUM

Per a neat article in Funds Fire last week, Moody’s Investor Services issued a February 2021 report  that showed Global ESG flows increased to $80.5 billion in the third quarter of 2020, up 14% from the previous quarter, with sustainable fund assets under management reaching a new high of $1.23 trillion.

In the third quarter, U.S.-based sustainable equity funds saw net inflows of $3.8 billion, even as overall U.S. equity funds saw net outflows of $118.5 billion, the Moody’s report shows.

Clean energy was the top-performing U.S. equity sector, with a total cumulative return of 185%, followed by consumer discretionary, which returned 48.3% last year. Meanwhile, despite entering 2020 with a low valuation, the energy sector lost 33% last year.

President Biden’s focus on renewable infrastructure, along with key political appointments that are likely to influence investment regulations, are likely to have further impact on ESG investing, according to Moody’s.

Per the report, Invesco, which manages $1.37 trillion and oversees $35 billion in dedicated ESG mandates, has targeted 2023 for full ESG integration. BlackRock aims to increase its $200 billion in sustainable investment assets to $1 trillion by the end of the decade.

Further, according to the report, AllianceBernstein was among the firms that had positive momentum in ESG in 2020. At the end of 2020, the firm’s suite of ESG strategies jumped to $16.5 billion, an increase of 60% over the prior year.

According to Funds Fire, Institutional ESG flows, as tracked by eVestment, increased to $109 billion in 2020 from $27.6 billion in 2018. Institutional ESG assets increased to $2.55 trillion from $1.79 trillion over the same period.

The Triple Bottom Line: While numbers can sometimes be manipulated to make a point, in this instance, the sheer numbers and upwards trajectory speaks for itself.  An increase from $27 Billion to over $109 Billion in 3 years; and an increase in ESG assets from 1.79 Trillion to over $2.55 Trillion is significant no matter how  you chose to view ESG investing.

Duane Morris has an active ESG and Sustainability Team to help organizations and individuals plan, respond to, and execute on Sustainability and ESG planning and initiatives within their own space.  We would be happy to discussion your proposed project with you.  Contact your Duane Morris attorney for more information.

If you have any questions about this post, please contact Brad A. Molotsky  (bamolotsky@duanemorris.com), Nanette Heide, Darrick Mix, Michael Schwamm, David Amerikaner or the attorney in the firm with whom you are regularly in contact.

ESG – Calvert tightens its proxy voting standards to require Diversity by Gender and by Color on Boards

In a post earlier today, the President and CEO of Calvert Research and Management, Jon Streur, discussed his view on why Calvert “raised” their standards for proxy voting on board diversity.  Calvert, with over $31 Billion in assets under management, is one of the foremost fund managers who have been utilizing an ESG lens within which to evaluate companies for decades.

Per John, “[a]t Calvert, we have used the power of our proxy vote to hold boards accountable for their attention to diversity for three decades. This year, expectations for corporate diversity are rising, and we are more aware than ever of the value of diverse leadership for long-term corporate performance. For this reason, we are increasing our standards for board diversity.”

As a result of their change in voting standards, Calvert will vote AGAINST the nominating/governance committees of public companies that have fewer than 2 women on the board.

Previously, they voted against the nomination of directors for company boards that lacked representation of women.

They also indicated that for companies in the US, the UK, Australia and Canada, Calvert will also vote AGAINST the nominating/governance committee at public companies that have fewer than 2 people of color on the Board or are less than 40% diverse.

Previously, Calvert’s minimum standard was 1 person of color and a board that was 30% diverse.

Research indicates that diversity is a financially material ESG issue. In research begun in 2019 and continuing currently, Calvert found that in “evaluating the financial materiality of gender diversity factors” that gender diversity factors are associated with improved equity returns for both the U.S. and non-U.S. markets.

Per their data, companies with at least 2 women on the board outperformed when compared to those with fewer women on the board, and U.S. large-cap companies with more than 2 women saw even greater improvement. In the U.S. and certain like markets, similar results were found for ethnically diverse boards.

The Triple Bottom Line: According to Jon and Calvert, “proxy voting is a vital way to hold companies accountable for their commitments to board diversity. This and other tools of structured engagement can help encourage positive change”.

Duane Morris has an active ESG and Sustainability Team to help organizations and individuals plan, respond to, and execute on Sustainability and ESG planning and initiatives within their own space.  We would be happy to discussion your proposed project with you.  Contact your Duane Morris attorney for more information.

If you have any questions about this post, please contact Brad A. Molotsky  (bamolotsky@duanemorris.com), Nanette Heide, Darrick Mix, David Amerikaner or the attorney in the firm with whom you are regularly in contact.

Department of Labor Revises its Position on the Place of ESG Investing in Retirement Plans

On March 10, 2021, the Department of Labor (the “Department”) released a statement (which can be found here) that two heavily contested ESG-oriented Final Rules from the previous administration will not be enforced:

  • Financial Factors in Selecting Plan Investments, 85 Fed. Reg. 72846 (November 13, 2020)
  • Fiduciary Duties Regarding Proxy Voting and Shareholder Rights, 85 Fed. Reg. 81658 (December 16, 2020)

The Final Rules require plan fiduciaries under the Employee Retirement Security Act of 1974 (ERISA) to limit their considerations, for purposes of investing and proxy voting, to solely “pecuniary factors.”  ERISA is the law that regulates all retirement plans.  In 2019, retirement plans were estimated to own approximately 30% of all U.S. stock.[1]

The Final Rules effectively barred ERISA plan fiduciaries from considering ESG factors when selecting investments and deciding whether to vote by proxy on matters on matters involving investments already held by a plan.

The Department opined that the Final Rules inconsistent with the goals of Executive Order 13990, Protecting Public Health and the Environment and Restoring Science to Tackle the Climate Crisis, which requires federal agencies to review existing regulations adopted by the prior administration, by stating that the Final Rules “already had a chilling effect on appropriate integration of ESG factors in investment decisions, including in circumstances that the rules can be read to explicitly allow.”

The Department’s statement makes clear that the Final Rules will be revisited and new regulations will be released in their place.  Until those new regulations are released, the Final Rules will not be enforced and ERISA fiduciaries can rely on previously applicable guidance.  The anticipated new regulations are likely to encourage ESG considerations in investment and voting.

 

 

 

[1] Steve Rosenthal & Theo Burke, Who’s Left to Tax? US Taxation of Corporations and Their Shareholders, New York University School of Law Urban-Brookings Tax Policy Center (2020).

Green Infrastructure Stormwater Management Rules Take Effect in New Jersey

Amendments to New Jersey’s Stormwater Management Rules, N.J.A.C. 7:8, requiring the use of “green infrastructure” measures for stormwater management took effect on March 2, 2021.

Green infrastructure encourages the infiltration of stormwater into the ground, promoting natural filtration of pollutants and sediment and thereby reducing discharge impacts on streams, rivers, and other waterways. The new rules make green infrastructure the preferred and predominant method for managing stormwater for all regulated residential and non-residential projects.

Previously, the state’s Stormwater Management Rule had allowed projects to use traditional engineered structures such as pipes and culverts to manage stormwater, although the Department of Environmental Protection (NJDEP) had encouraged property owners and project proponents to make use of green infrastructure through financial and technical assistance. The rule change formalizes the state’s requirement that new projects implement green infrastructure measures, such as rain gardens, bioretention basins, vegetated swales, pervious paving, and green roofs, as part of project planning and design.

NJDEP adopted amendments to the Stormwater Management Rule on March 2, 2020; the amendments allowed a year before the rule took effect to allow projects in the system to proceed under existing rules, and to allow municipalities to adopt revised local ordinances and to train municipal review staff.

Going forward, any application for a residential development in the state will be reviewed under the revised Stormwater Management rules. Any application for a non-residential project will be reviewed for compliance with the local stormwater control ordinance, which is required under a municipality’s Municipal Separate Storm Sewer System (MS4) permit. Under the MS4 permit, the stormwater control ordinance must be at least as stringent as NJDEP’s Stormwater Management rules.

Additionally, any applications submitted to NJDEP under its Flood Hazard Area, Freshwater Wetlands, and Coastal Zone Management programs will be reviewed by NJDEP under the new rules.

By making green infrastructure a requirement in new development, New Jersey is taking decisive action to advance Governor Murphy’s stated commitment to improving the management of the state’s watersheds.  The change will improve the sustainability of the state’s waterways and will reduce the runoff of harmful pollutants and sediments.

Governor Murphy Selects 20 Member NJ Council on the Green Economy

Early today, February 25, 2021, Governor Phil Murphy announced his 20 picks to the newly created NJ Council on the Green Economy (“NJCOGE“). 

This Council on the Green Economy and the umbrella organization of the Office of Climate Action and the Green Economy are focused on “building a roadmap for transitioning the workforce into high-quality, family-sustaining clean energy jobs that will provide opportunities for all New Jerseyans” per Governor Murphy.

As announced in the 2021 budget discussions, various state leaders believe that NJ’s recovery from the pandemic will be partly driven by the clean energy economy – one centered around clean power sources and offshore wind and on shore solar.

Governor Murphy’s $44.8 billion plan discussed in his Budget Address on February 23rd calls for $200 million to be invested in an “offshore wind port” in Camden County along the Delaware River. This wind port is intended to serve as a staging area for supply chains related to the growing wind industry and provide a place to ship wind turbines across the country.

Separately, NJ is enjoying a bit of a renaissance in the solar installation arena given its current TREC program.

The 20-members of the NJ COGE are:

Honorary Chair: First Lady Tammy Murphy
Executive Director: Jane Cohen, executive director, Office of Climate Action and the Green Economy
Co-Chair: Shawn LaTourette, acting commissioner, New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection
Co-Chair: Robert Asaro-Angelo, commissioner, New Jersey Department of Labor and Workforce Development
Co-Chair: Joseph Fiordaliso, president, New Jersey Board of Public Utilities
Donnel Baird, founder, BlocPower
Tom Churchelow, president, New Jersey Utilities Association
Francisco Cortes, president, NJ State Veterans Chamber of Commerce and Corporate Advisory Board Member of the Statewide Hispanic Chamber of Commerce New Jersey
Dave Daly, president, PSE&G
Kim Gaddy, environmental justice organizer, Clean Water Action
Aisha Glover, vice president of urban innovation, Audible
Lisa Jackson, former Environmental Protection Agency administrator and vice president of environment, policy, and social initiatives, Apple
Sean Jackson, chief executive officer, Isles
Andrea Jung, president and chief executive officer, Grameen America
John Kennedy, chief executive officer, New Jersey Manufacturing Extension Program
Kevin Lyons, associate professor of supply chain archaeology, Rutgers University
Debra Coyle McFadden, executive director, New Jersey Work Environment Council
Bill Mullen, president, New Jersey Building and Construction Trades Council
Alli Gold Roberts, director of state policy, Ceres
Charlie Wowkanech, president, AFL-CIO

The goal of the NJ COGE will be to provide sustainable energy career options for thousands of NJ workers.

Just this past September, Governor Murphy signed a first of its kind “environmental justice” bill which will focus resources and attention environmentally on many lower-income, minority neighborhoods long plagued by some of the worst pollution in the state according to NJ BIZ.

That measure requires large-scale projects – whether new construction or an expansion to an existing building – that produces heavy pollution in lower-income, typically African American and Latino communities, to report on and consider the local impact.

Duane Morris has an active ESG and Sustainability Team to help organizations and individuals plan, respond to, and execute on Sustainability and ESG planning and initiatives within their own space.  We would be happy to discussion your proposed project with you.  Contact your Duane Morris attorney for more information.

If you have any questions about this post, please contact Brad A. Molotsky,  (bamolotsky@duanemorris.com), Seth Cooley, Lori Mills, David Amerikaner or the attorney in the firm with whom you are regularly in contact.

Cannabis and Social Justice (the “S” in ESG) in New Jersey

Given NJ Governor Murphy’s signature to legalize adult use recreational cannabis in NJ earlier this week, yesterday, 2-23-21, NJ Attorney General Gurbir S. Grewal announced that he has directed local law enforcement officials to drop all outstanding marijuana cases that were based on the now-legal recreational use of pot, a move that came a day after the NJ decriminalization bill and a regulatory framework for an adult cannabis market were signed into law.

The Administration was negotiating with the NJ Assembly and Senate over various decriminalization efforts, including this one, and had reach a point of agreement. While a compromise, it represents a big step forward in the social justice arena for those charged with previous cannabis related offenses.

Duane Morris has an active ESG and Sustainability Team to help organizations and individuals plan, respond to, and execute on Sustainability and ESG planning and initiatives within their own space.  We would be happy to discussion your proposed project with you.  Contact your Duane Morris attorney for more information.

If you have any questions about this post, please contact  Brad A. Molotsky (bamolotsky@duanemorris.com) or the attorney in the firm with whom you are regularly in contact.

If interested in ESG issues, please join us for next months FREE ESG panel where we will focus on the Built Environment – March 24 at 12-1 EST.

 

ESG Series – Monthly Free ESG Discussion with Industry Thought Leaders Kicks Off to over 200!

We are soo excited to report on the first of our monthly ESG (Environmental, Social and Governance) zoom webinars focusing on various and sundry ESG and Sustainability issues and topics.

Scheduled for the 3rd week of each month, these FREE webinars will gather “thought leaders” from around the globe to engage in discussion, answer questions and provide their views on what is going on in the arena, what they are planning and how they are executing.

Today’s session featured thought leaders Sara Neff, SVP of Sustainability at Kilroy Realty Trust, Dr. Chris Pyke, SVP at Arc Sokoru and Uma Pattarkine, VP of ESG at Centre Square and was a tour-de-force regarding defining Sustainability, juxtaposing it with ESG and showing how they are different.

We then ventured into a discussion of what are ESG focused companies and how their “alpha” compares vs. non-ESG companies, identified the lack of transparency in the real estate sector regarding others reporting on ESG and followed this up with sharing various “S” reporting methodologies.

Thereafter, we broke down the differences between GRI, CDP, GRESB, SASB, and the reporting of goals and outcomes. Spent some time on how folks are measuring and reporting ESG outcomes. We wrapped up the discussion focusing on how and why LEED and other third party certification methodologies are critical to showing and measuring success.

Key takeaways:

Sustainability – now becoming more carbon focused especially at the building level; measures social impact; provides a lens within which to view long term value creation and survival capabilities and resource allocation

ESG – more focused on disclosures of material, non public information, a set of practices companies should consider following; metrics to measure sustainability through

ESG Performance – ESG focused companies continue to show demonstrable outperformance metrics; the data is now more readily available and is indeed being measured; ESG centric companies have/continue to rebound faster, better and more efficiently than non-ESG focused companies in the face of the pandemic.

More C-suite, Boards, investors, employees and customers are asking ESG and Sustainability related questions and demanding answers on the ESG front than ever before.

Real Estate is currently ranked dead LAST in terms of disclosure and reporting on ESG, behind even the Energy Sector.

LEED continues to help set an aspirational tone for the sustainability movement and continues to require better results in order to score their certifications (v4 is now the standard) and operates and provides an impartial judge to call “balls and strikes” to show real action in buildings.

More and more public companies are reporting ESG goals and what they are doing, where they are doing it and how they are doing it – i.e., over 80% of the S/P 500 are reporting their ESG metrics.

We will publish a link to the webinar in the near future and all are welcome to listen and comment back and ask questions.

Next months panel will focus on the Built Environment and will be held on March 24 at 12-1 EST.

Duane Morris has an active ESG and Sustainability Team to help organizations and individuals plan, respond to, and execute on Sustainability and ESG planning and initiatives within their own space.  We would be happy to discussion your proposed project with you.  Contact your Duane Morris attorney for more information.

If you have any questions about this post, please contact Brad A. Molotsky (bamolotsky@duanemorris.com) or the attorney in the firm with whom you are regularly in contact.

Potential for Bipartisan Climate Change Action in 2021 with the Biden Administration

As we almost turn the page from 2020 to 2021, many have cause for optimism with regard to the incoming Biden Administration and the potential for bipartisan climate change engagement and action.  A hint of cautious optimism is, indeed, in the air.

President elect Biden campaigned on an ambitious climate action agenda and both R’s and D’s seem ready to address climate change and risk as part of a renewed focus on the environment.

To read the full text of this post by Duane Morris partner Brad Molotsky, please visit the Duane Morris Opportunity Zones – Insight from the Land of OZ Blog.