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May 16, 2013

First Carbon Bubble Resolution Wins Strong Support at CONSOL Energy
    by Robert Kropp

Twenty percent of shareowners support an As You Sow request that the company report on the financial risks associated with having to leave most of its coal reserves in the ground.

SocialFunds.com -- Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) rules permit a first-time shareowner resolution to be returned to the next year's proxy ballot if it wins three percent of shareowner votes at a company's annual general meeting. And it was not so very long ago that sustainable investors would be satisfied with enough votes on environmental, social, and corporate governance (ESG) resolutions to pass the three percent threshold.

As Laura Berry of the Interfaith Center on Corporate Responsibility (ICCR) told SocialFunds.com last year, "It used to be we'd get excited if we got three or five percent of the vote." In recent years, however, the number of mainstream investors supporting resolutions addressing sustainability issues "has been going up in orders of magnitude," Berry continued.

This week, As You Sow announced the vote results for a first-time shareowner resolution the organization filed with CONSOL Energy, a coal and natural gas company whose 4.5 billion tons of proven and recoverable coal reserves are the largest in the US. Those coal reserves are treated as assets by the company and the financial markets.

However, as recent reports from the International Energy Agency (IEA) and Carbon Tracker conclude, up to 80% of all fossil fuel reserves accounted for at present must remain unburned if the effects of climate change are to mitigated in a meaningful way.

"If laws and regulations are adjusted to recognize this limitation, the vast majority of fossil fuel companies will be left with stranded assets in the form of unburnable reserves and underused infrastructure," As You Sow stated. The resolution requests that CONSOL report to shareowners on "various scenarios the company deems likely, or reasonably possible, in which a portion of its reserves or infrastructure become stranded due to carbon regulation."

The issue of unburnable reserves gained additional prominence thanks to a widely-cited article in Rolling Stone authored by Bill McKibben of 350.org. McKibben's article is credited with launching the campaign by college students across the country to pressure their institutions' endowments to divest their holdings in fossil fuel companies.

'The fossil fuel industry is a rogue industry," McKibben said. "The fossil fuel industry has bought one party in Washington DC and scared the other into silence. Unless we can weaken the power of this industry, we’ll never see the sort of climate progress we need."

The results of a survey released today by First Affirmative Financial Network reveals that the overwhelming majority of respondents expect that risks associated with fossil fuel holdings will increase. Almost two-thirds say that large-scale divestment will occur within the next ten years.

As You Sow's resolution attracted significant support, especially for a first-time filing, at CONSOL Energy's annual meeting last week as 20% of shareowners supported it.

"The global overvaluation of fossil fuel-based energy companies creates the risk of a 'carbon bubble' that is estimated to be an order of magnitude larger than the housing bubble that devastated the US economy," said Danielle Fugere, President and Chief Counsel of As You Sow. "This vote underscores that shareholders are becoming increasingly jittery about the financial risks climate change poses to unprepared companies. They are demanding to be fully informed of how, or if, their company is responding."

Andrew Behar, As You Sow's CEO, added, "Overvalued fossil fuel reserves, if not acknowledged, could create chaos in the global marketplace. Energy companies must acknowledge this issue and give shareholders a chance to adjust their investment behavior accordingly."

A similar resolution, filed by the Unitarian Universalist Association (UUA), will be voted on by shareowners at the annual meeting of Alpha Natural Resources, the nation's third-largest coal producer, on May 22nd.

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