On February 2, 2010, the SEC published its interpretive release providing guidance to public companies on the SEC’s existing disclosure requirements as they apply to climate change. The release can be found here. A February 4, 2010 memo from the Gibson Dunn law firm analyzing the SEC’s release can be found here.
While the interpretive release take pains to emphasize that it only clarifies existing obligations, the release nevertheless represents the Commission’s clearest statement about expectations for public company’s climate change disclosures. The release’s specificity and its reliance on requirements that have themselves previously been cited in suits pertaining to more traditional environmental disclosures raise the question whether suits pertaining to climate change-related disclosure may be next.
The release cites several existing disclosure rules that it says required public companies to provide disclosures regarding climate change, including Items 101, 103 and 303 (among others) in Regulation S-K.
The release also identifies four topics that could require climate change-related disclosures, including: the impact of climate change legislation and regulation; the impact of international climate change accords; indirect consequences of climate change regulation or business trends; and the physical impacts of climate change.
Public companies will now have to accommodate their disclosure practices to the SEC’s guidance. While the SEC claimed only to be clarifying existing requirements, the practical reality is that many companies will now have to reconsider their disclosure process and practices, and, in many cases, alter the content of their disclosures.
With the SEC’s clarification of the disclosure requirements comes the opportunity for claimants or even for the SEC itself to later allege that a company’s climate change disclosures fell short of requirements. By way of illustration of how these claims might arise, it is worth considering that the very disclosure provisions with respect to which the SEC provided its climate change guidance have previously served as reference points in claims alleging misrepresentations or omissions of more traditional environmental liabilities and exposures.
For example, as I noted in a prior post (here), the SEC has in the recent past brought disclosure-related enforcement actions against reporting companies for alleged failures to observe existing environmental reporting requirements.
Nor are these types of claims limited solely to regulatory enforcement actions; investors have also brought damages actions relating to alleged misrepresentations or omissions regarding environmental issues. For example, as I noted in a recent post here, shareholders of Tronox Corporations recently filed a securities class action lawsuit against the company and certain of its directors and offices, as well as the company’s corporate predecessors in interest, based upon the company’s alleged failure to disclose the true nature of its environmental and tort liabilities.
There may be a temptation to view climate change related considerations as remote and distant future concerns, but as I noted in a recent post here, climate change related issues are already a practical component of current business conduct, for example, in the M&A context.
Just as disclosure obligations regarding traditional environmental concerns have given rise to disclosure-related enforcement actions and even shareholder litigation, the newly clarified expectations regarding climate change disclosures seem likely to create a context out of which similar actions may arise in the future.