Thirteen attorneys general and Consumers’ Research on Tuesday filed two motions to the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC) to stop Vanguard from purchasing shares in publicly traded utilities.
Both motions argue that Vanguard’s Environment, Social, and Governance (ESG) investment advocacy puts politics before consumers and that FERC should reject Vanguard’s authorization unless Vanguard can prove that its policies will not impact energy consumers. Vanguard, BlackRock, and State Street, the three largest asset managers, apply for blanket authorization before FERC every three years. The attorneys general and Consumers’ Research intervened to block Vanguard’s authorization.
ESG investing is the latest vector through which large corporations, especially the big three asset managers, can exert their undue influence upon publicly trade companies to have them adopt left-wing causes such as green energy or diversity requirements the companies otherwise would not adopt.
Kentucky Attorney General said in a written statement that Vanguard’s commitment to net-zero emissions requirement for public utilities would only hurt consumers:
Kentucky joined a coalition of attorneys general, led by Indiana and Utah, in challenging Vanguard’s application to extend its blanket authorization under the Federal Power Act for the acquisition of certain securities of publicly traded utilities. Consumers across our country are already feeling the sting of skyrocketing electricity bills, and Vanguard’s request to extend its authorization, coupled with its commitment to imposing net-zero requirements on publicly traded utilities, would only increase these costs. Kentuckians and Americans deserve access to affordable and reliable utilities, and we will oppose any effort that will undermine Kentucky’s economy, destroy good paying jobs, and make it harder for Kentuckians to heat their homes and feed their families.
Will Hild, the executive director of Consumers’ Research, a consumers advocacy group, said that BlackRock, Vanguard, and State Street use to leverage the utilities’ shares to force them to adopt left-wing policies that spike energy bills:
We took this action on behalf of American energy consumers because time and time again we see massive wall street firms pretending to “passively” manage their shares, but instead they use those assets to bully utility companies into adopting radical left-wing policies that drive up electric bills and risk the stability of our power grid. Affordable, reliable energy production is the foundation of America’s economy and the quality of life we enjoy. FERC’s job is to defend utilities from exactly this type of reckless interference. They should act to protect these utilities and American consumers from fat cat wall street wreckers who blithely endanger our electricity supply.
The attorneys general wrote in their motion to intervene to FERC that Vanguard may have “breached” its promises to the commission by engaging in environmental activism:
The Commission granted the 2019 Authorization based on assurances from Vanguard that it would refrain from investing “for the purpose of managing” utility companies.4 Vanguard also guaranteed that it would not seek to “exercise any control over the day-to-day management” of utility companies nor take any action “affecting the prices at which power is transmitted or sold.”5 Now, Vanguard’s own public commitments and other statements have at the very least created the appearance that Vanguard has breached its promises to the Commission by engaging in environmental activism and using its financial influence to manipulate the activities of the utility companies in its portfolio.
While Consumers’ Research notes in its motion to intervene that BlackRock is the most “notorious spear carrier” concerning corporate activism, the group noted that Vanguard also plays an instrumental role in advancing climate change policies on a corporate level.
Consumers’ Research elaborated:
In publications on its website, Vanguard details its “important role” in promoting “meaningful progress across both [its] actively managed and index-based products” such that portfolio companies adopt its climate goals.15 To be sure, it is not the case that Vanguard pursues its environmental agenda only through special “ESG” investment vehicles, while passively managing its other funds. Rather, according to Vanguard, even those funds “without explicit ESG mandates  nonetheless align to net zero [carbon] objectives because of the existing philosophy and process used by the investment managers.”16 Even supposedly passive index funds are managed by Vanguard’s “investment stewardship teams” that pressure portfolio companies to adopt “emission reduction goals.”1
Consumers’ Research concluded in its motion to intervene, “With each passing day, BlackRock, Vanguard, and State Street exert greater influence on U.S. energy markets under the guise of “passive investing.” Because Vanguard should not have a blank check to dictate energy policy in America, Consumers’ Research moves to intervene, protests, and urges the Commission to deny the Application.”