Warren Buffett Faces Pressure to Invest for the Climate, Not Just for Profit

His holdings in Kinder Morgan, Suncor, Phillips 66 and BNSF, and his cavalier comments about climate change, have aroused the ire of activists.

Thousands of bankers, investors, business journalists and just plain fans will flock to Omaha, Neb., on Saturday in a yearly pilgrimage to glean insight from the world's most famous investor: Warren Buffett.

What they are unlikely to get is any guiding wisdom on climate change, even though the world's most famous climate scientist, James Hansen, will be among the attendees pushing for it.

The occasion is the annual shareholder meeting of Berkshire Hathaway, Buffett's vast holding company, where the chief executive will hold court for up to five hours in the 18,000-seat CenturyLink Center, his answers parsed for even the slightest nuance that might signal how others should invest.

Warren Buffett

Warren Buffett (Photo by Paul Morigi/Getty Images for FORTUNE)

Hansen, the former NASA scientist who sounded the alarm on global warming decades ago with congressional testimony, will be there to urge Berkshire Hathaway's shareholders to support a resolution requiring the company to disclose climate risks facing its insurance business. Outside the arena, a coalition of activists will be chanting and waving signs, encouraging Buffett to take a bold stand on climate change.  

The protest and the resolution, introduced by a Nebraska-based nonprofit, seek to highlight Buffett's conflicting messages on climate change. While he accepts that global warming is real, significant and human-driven, he seems to make investments without considering it. He opposes the shareholder resolution to disclose climate risks and has opposed previous efforts to establish greenhouse gas-reduction targets. And Buffett's investments support both renewable energy and fossil fuels.

As one of the world's most powerful investors, whose decisions move markets—Berkshire Hathaway's $552 billion in assets last year equals the gross domestic product of Poland—Buffett has the opportunity to change the business world's approach to climate.

"If Mr. Buffett were to decide that fossil fuel-based investments were no longer worth his time or money and focused on renewable energy or other low-carbon investments, that would be a huge shock to the markets," said Max Messervy, manager of the insurance program at Ceres, a nonprofit that promotes sustainable business practices. "The markets pay attention to where he puts his money."

Climate Chameleon

Though Buffett profits handsomely from substantial fossil fuel holdings, he has escaped the vilification aimed at other economic giants, like Charles and David Koch. While the Koch Brothers have actively worked to undercut climate science, environmental regulations and clean energy development, Buffett has not pushed for any particular political agenda on energy issues. Nor has he been accused of misleading investors or the public on global warming science or risks, claims lodged against ExxonMobil, coal giant Peabody Energy and other fossil fuel corporations.

The 85-year-old Buffett is a long-time Democrat who has supported liberal causes such as higher taxes on the wealthy, and he's drawn praise from environmental groups for investing billions of Berkshire Hathaway dollars in wind- and solar-generating plants. His company's electric utilities own a massive 7 percent of the nation's wind generation capacity and 6 percent of its solar. This month, Berkshire-owned MidAmerican Energy announced a plan to spend $3.6 billion through 2019 on wind energy, a big step toward the company's goal of delivering 100 percent clean energy in Iowa.

Yet at the same time, other Berkshire utilities have led fights to block rooftop solar development in Nevada and Utah and invested hundreds of millions to extend the life of coal-fired power plants, locking in carbon emissions for another generation. Through its holdings, Berkshire Hathaway also has about $6.7 billion invested in fossil fuel companies, including the oil refiner Phillips 66 and the Canadian tar sands operator Suncor Energy, Inc. His company's rail giant, BNSF, drew $4.6 billion in revenue from hauling coal last year.

"The Buffett utility empire is a fractured one," said Bill Corcoran, western director for the Sierra Club. "It is really a creature running in a lot of different directions, and therefore obscures a clear narrative of what Warren Buffett thinks and wants his companies to do in addressing climate change and building out renewable energy."

Berkshire Hathaway's "all-of-the-above" approach to energy is hardly a mystery for analysts, who say Buffett's business decisions are based purely on their potential to generate returns for his investors. Wind farms, for example, "don't make sense without the tax credit," Buffett told Fortune in 2014, referring to a federal production tax credit currently worth 2.3 cents per kilowatt hour produced. Berkshire's annual report notes that it derives "significant" tax benefits from wind generation.

"He's the quintessential value investor," Messervy said. "If he thinks some asset is undervalued by the market, he's going to invest in it."

Berkshire Hathaway did not respond to requests for comment for this article, but in February Buffett addressed the climate risk resolution in a letter to shareholders. "It seems highly likely to me that climate change poses a major problem for the planet," Buffett wrote, but not a problem for profits. He closed by saying: "As a citizen, you may understandably find climate change keeping you up nights. As a homeowner in a low-lying area, you may wish to consider moving. But when you are thinking only as a shareholder of a major insurer, climate change should not be on your list of worries."

Activist shareholders have sponsored resolutions at least three times since 2011 asking Berkshire Hathaway to set emissions-reductions goals, according to Ceres. Each time Buffett has opposed them, and they have never received more than 10.1 percent of the vote.

An Energy Giant

Berkshire Hathaway's 62 subsidiaries reach into nearly every major sector of the economy. The company also holds minority stakes in almost four dozen other companies, including giants Kraft Heinz, Coca Cola, AT&T and Walmart. In some states, your whole day could be touched by his companies: from waking up in your Clayton Homes-built bedroom, pulling on Fruit of the Loom sweatpants and sitting down to read a Berkshire-owned newspaper. MidAmerican-generated electricity could be brewing your coffee. The gas fueling your stove could have been carried through a pipeline of Kinder Morgan, in which Berkshire holds a minority position worth about $500 million. Your car or home might be insured by GEICO or another Berkshire-owned insurance business.

One-tenth of American homes could be fueled by the amount of coal hauled by BNSF, which Berkshire bought in 2010. The railroad derived 22 percent of its revenue from coal last year. And while its corporate sustainability report touts the company's stewardship, including efforts to reduce its greenhouse gas emissions, it makes no reference to the impact of burning all that coal. 

Berkshire also holds several oil and gas companies, including its recent acquisition of the oil-field chemicals and drilling fluids businesses of Weatherford International. Over the last couple of years, Buffett increased its stake in Phillips 66 to about $5.3 billion, and in Suncor to about $850 million.

Berkshire Hathaway Energy includes four U.S. utilities serving 4.7 million customers and two interstate natural gas pipeline companies, as well as distribution and transmission companies in Great Britain and Canada. In July, the division's chief joined a dozen other major corporations at the White House as part of the American Businesses Act on Climate Pledge. The company, which said it had already spent some $15 billion on renewable energy, committed to invest "up to an additional $15 billion." It also said that by 2019, it would retire more than 75 percent its coal generation in Nevada. Berkshire Hathaway Energy currently owns or purchases more than 5,500 megawatts of wind power, the second most of any U.S. utility, according to the American Wind Energy Association.

All of this has won it praise from some environmental groups. But at the same time, two of its utilities have been the subject of activists' ire for their continued reliance on coal and fierce opposition to rooftop solar. Small-scale solar generation presents a threat to utilities because it reduces the need for new, large power plants, the construction of which is the easiest way for the companies to boost profits.

In December, after a sustained lobbying campaign by Berkshire-owned NV Energy, the Nevada Public Utilities Commission dealt a heavy blow to rooftop solar there by approving a steep hike in fees to be phased in over 12 years that will apply not just to new installations, but also to anyone who already has solar panels. About 17,000 homes and small businesses had installed solar panels in Nevada, but the new rates halted that momentum. SolarCity, a leading installation company, quickly said it would cease its Nevada operations and eliminate 550 jobs.

"There are several key approaches we need utilities to enable and take to address climate change, and that includes a certain amount of rooftop solar," said Corcoran, of the Sierra Club. "I think however that the far bigger problem for the climate is the continued insistence by PacifiCorp to continue running its coal plants."

Berkshire-owned PacifiCorp operates across six states, and Corcoran said it's the biggest coal generator in the West. The company has spent hundreds of millions to maintain its coal plants for decades to come rather than invest in renewables, he said. In December 2012, for example, Oregon's utility commission penalized the company $17 million for choosing to retrofit old coal plants with pollution controls without studying alternative options.

In March, Buffett addressed the Nevada fight, telling CNBC that his company is not opposed to net-metering, the incentives Nevada and other states have used to encourage rooftop solar, but that the state's previous fee structure was costing most customers money by forcing NV Energy to buy solar at higher rates than it could produce on its own.

Christine Tezak, managing director at ClearView Energy Partners, LLC, a consulting firm that advises institutional investors and corporate strategists, said she thinks environmental groups' critiques of Berkshire are misguided. "The thing that strikes me as a bit ironic, if you will, is that the strategy that the Buffett-owned utilities are following is absolutely consistent with the strategy laid out in the Clean Power Plan of the Obama administration." She said utilities with large coal assets are in the midst of shifting to cleaner fuels, pointing to MidAmerican's recent announcement as an example, and that they have a responsibility and regulatory obligation to do that while holding down costs.

Without a federal tax credit, it's unlikely Berkshire's utilities would be investing substantial sums in renewable energy. In the 2014 Fortune interview, Buffett said the tax credits were "the only reason to build" wind farms. MidAmerican's proposed wind investment of $3.6 billion announced this month, for example, would bring in credits of the same value over 10 years, the company said.

Corcoran and others say that while they welcome MidAmerican's renewable energy investments, the other utilities' actions are undermining a more rapid shift to clean energy.

"So long as Berkshire Hathaway Energy has such an inconsistent approach to clean energy," Corcoran said, "it is impossible with integrity for Warren Buffett to project an image of clear and timely action on climate change."

'I Was Really Angry'

While Berkshire Hathaway's most direct impacts on climate change may be through its utilities, activists have turned their attention to the company's insurance business. Insurance companies have the potential to play a powerful role in shifting the economy to be more climate-friendly. Not only are they society's risk managers, but they also can influence markets by how they invest large amounts of capital.

In acknowledgement of this role, Ajit Jain, who heads the company's reinsurance group, in 2014 signed on to a "Climate Risk Statement" of the Geneva Association, an insurance industry think tank in Switzerland. The statement lays out a host of ways the industry can help evaluate and mitigate the risks posed by climate change. And when the Bank of England issued a report last September warning of the risks posed to the insurance sector, a small Nebraska nonprofit saw an opportunity.

The Nebraska Peace Foundation had scrounged together $180,000 to buy one Class A share of Berkshire Hathaway stock in 2014 so they could introduce a resolution. "There's not a whole lot you can do in Nebraska, but we have the 'Oracle of Omaha,'" said Tim Rinne, the state coordinator for Nebraskans for Peace, a social justice organization that controls the foundation. Rinne's group modeled its shareholder resolution on the Bank of England report, asking Berkshire Hathaway's insurance division to report on the risks posed by climate change and what the company is doing to address them.

In February, Buffett issued his response in a letter to shareholders, invoking what he called "Noah's Law: If an ark may be essential for survival, begin building it today, no matter how cloudless the skies appear." He claimed, however, that climate change has not yet produced the type of catastrophic weather that could pose a threat to his company's profits.

That he addressed the issue at all was a victory for the group. But the comments were roundly criticized by climate advocates, who noted that climate change has already been linked to more extreme weather, not to mention sea level rise, drought, heat waves and other dangerous impacts.

Jane Kleeb

Bold Nebraska's Jane Kleeb (Photo: Flickr user Chesapeakeclimate/Creative Commons)

"I was really angry," said Jane Kleeb, who runs Bold Nebraska, a citizen advocacy group that focuses on energy and climate. "I couldn't believe that he said if you live in a low lying area you should probably move, and we understand climate change may keep people up at night, but we're not going to do anything." 

Kleeb's group is planning the rally outside the shareholder conference and latched onto his reference to Noah's ark as an organizing principle. The group has been gathering signatures on a petition urging shareholders to vote in favor of the resolution that it will present to the company on Saturday.

"He needs to be challenged to take a stronger leadership role on climate change," she said. Bold Nebraska was among several groups, including the Sierra Club and Greenpeace, that have been pressuring Buffett's companies in Nevada and other states, but she said the fight so far has taken place far away from his Omaha headquarters. "This is our attempt to make sure he feels that at home as well."

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