by Seth Heald, cross posted from Power for the People VA
Black curtains are visible inside the pedestrian bridge over Marshall Street leading to the Richmond Convention Center (background on the left). They were installed to block shareholders’ view of protesters lining the sidewalk outside Dominion Resources’ 2017 shareholder meeting last week. Photo credit: Chesapeake Climate Action Network.
A stunning development occurred during Dominion Resources’ annual shareholder meeting in Richmond last Wednesday. But as shareholders, board members, and company officials left the meeting, no one yet knew about it. What’s more, the Richmond Times-Dispatch’s coverage also missed it, focusing instead on the company’s name change to Dominion Energy. (To its credit, the Norfolk Virginian-Pilot did break the story two days later.) Dominion’s hometown newspaper didn’t just bury the lede; it overlooked it altogether. And therein lies an interesting tale.
What was so stunning? Simply this—some 48 percent of Dominion shares that were voted supported the resolution of a major shareholder, the New York State Common Retirement fund, calling on the company’s board of directors to report on how the company will deal in coming years with the fact that the world needs to reduce greenhouse-gas emissions to an extent consistent with limiting global warming to 2 degrees Celsius. The resolution’s full text is available on p. 60 of Dominion’s 2017 proxy statement.
Understanding why the vote on this resolution is stunning requires some context.
Shareholders have been submitting resolutions for at least eight years urging Dominion’s board to face up to global warming and the company’s role as a major carbon polluter contributing to that warming. In the past, some resolutions have gotten favorable votes as high as 24 percent, while others have been in single digits. Many large investors routinely follow the company board’s advice, and Dominion’s board always recommends a “no” vote on any environment- or climate-related resolution. Getting favorable votes is an uphill battle when a company’s powerful board is working against you.
That’s why the 48 percent vote for the retirement fund’s resolution this year is so huge. The total value of the nearly 198 million shares voting for the resolution was $15.5 billion, based on Dominion’s May 9 closing stock price.
“The vote by Dominion’s shareholders speaks volumes,” said New York State comptroller Thomas P. DiNapoli, trustee of the state’s retirement fund. “This is a wake-up call for the company to be responsive and explain how the Paris Agreement’s worldwide effort to rein in global warming will impact its business. Shareholders need to know what steps Dominion is prepared to take to address climate risk.”
But there’s still more to the tale. The stunning vote spike didn’t become known until hours after the meeting, and even then only to those who knew where to find the results and had a calculator handy to compute the vote percentages. That delay was no accident, but the result of Dominion’s efforts to keep the news from coming out during the meeting.
Until a few years ago, Dominion announced vote totals on shareholder resolutions during each meeting. That’s easy enough to do, since virtually all votes are cast in advance, and literally just a handful are cast on paper ballots collected during the meeting. But as favorable vote percentages on shareholder resolutions crept upwards over the years, Dominion discontinued the practice of announcing vote counts during the meeting. Instead it now reports only whether the resolutions got more than 50 percent of the vote. So this year it was simply announced during the meeting that the four shareholder resolutions on the ballot failed to get a majority of votes. End of story; nothing more to see here, folks.
By law, however, Dominion must report the actual shareholder vote totals to the Securities and Exchange Commission for public disclosure. It did so in the afternoon following the meeting, and put its SEC filing on the company’s website. Those who thought to look for them and knew where to look could find the vote results. Then, with a calculator or spreadsheet they could compute the vote percentages.
Dominion’s quiet move to prevent shareholders (and reporters) attending the meeting from learning the vote totals until later in the day is part of a pattern of subtle and not-so-subtle company efforts to tightly control messaging at its shareholder meetings. The control efforts have evolved each year as more shareholders have questioned the company’s environmental and climate record during meetings, and as demonstrators have begun to appear regularly outside to protest.
The company’s control effort reached somewhat absurd levels this year, as shareholders had to show their drivers’ licenses and admission tickets at four separate checkpoints before gaining entry to the meeting. As shareholders crossed an elevated pedestrian bridge across Marshall Street from the parking garage to the Richmond Convention Center, they found black curtains temporarily set up on floor stands to line the glass walls of the bridge, serving no purpose but to block any views of demonstrators on the street below. Then, when shareholders descended an escalator to the hallway outside the first-floor meeting room, they also found a long line of temporary stands of more black curtains. They were about eight feet high—just enough to block views through the wall of windows facing Marshall Street, where protesters had gathered on the sidewalk. This served to cast a bit of a funereal pall over the hallway, as shareholders drank coffee and ate Virginia ham biscuits before the meeting.
But enough about the voting process and window curtains. Understanding the true significance of the big vote spike for the retirement fund’s climate resolution requires a brief look at how Dominion addresses, and fails to address, the climate crisis. Dominion occasionally talks up its reductions in carbon intensity in electricity generation over the years. That’s the amount of carbon dioxide emitted per unit of electricity. And the company touts new solar projects, which are growing, but not nearly fast enough to catch up with Virginia’s neighboring states or to reduce carbon emissions on the needed timetable.
But Dominion has plans to increase its total carbon-dioxide emissions over the next fifteen years. And what the company never, ever does, is link its plans and its planned future greenhouse-gas emissions to what climate science tells us is needed to keep global warming to no more than 2 degrees Celsius. Indeed, as I wrote last year, Dominion executives studiously avoid even mentioning climate change in public, even when the topic is right in front of them, begging for attention. George Mason University climate-communication expert Edward Maibach and coauthors reported last year that silence on climate change can lead to more silence, in what they call a “climate spiral of silence.”
Meanwhile, while publicly silent about climate, Dominion still belongs to and supports the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC), which has a long track record of misinforming state legislators about climate science and working to block meaningful action to reduce greenhouse-gas emissions.
That’s why the 48 percent vote for the retirement fund’s resolution is so huge. Shareholders owning nearly half of the Dominion shares that were voted last week told the company’s board of directors and management that they need to start publicly talking and seriously thinking about climate change, and to explain how they will operate a business that is consistent with the need to keep global warming under 2 degrees.
Perhaps Dominion’s board believes, as at least one Dominion executive does, that climate change is an overblown issue that is pushed by “warmists,” that there’s been no global warming for fifteen years, and that global warming (which by the way isn’t happening) may not be human-caused. Such a belief would allow the board to ignore this shareholder vote, and assume that in future years the resolution will never get a majority vote because climate change concerns will go away as more people see climate change as a hoax. But maybe Dominion’s board, or at least a majority of its members, know better and will listen to the wake-up call delivered to them last week.
As I left the meeting I passed again by the black curtains in the convention hall windows and on the pedestrian bridge over Marshall Street. Just as Dominion used curtains to block views of protesters, its executives seemingly wear blinders to avoid looking at (and talking about) climate change. It’s past time for the blinders to come off and for Dominion’s management and board to look around at the wider world out there.
On May 22, Seth Heald will receive a master of science degree in energy policy and climate from Johns Hopkins University. His final paper in the program was about climate silence and moral disengagement. He is a Dominion Energy shareholder, and chair of the Sierra Club’s Virginia Chapter.