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Duke Energy opposes shareholder proposals on climate, political spending

Duke Energy Corp. is pushing back against shareholder proposals targeting the company's political spending, coal use and environment-related activities.

In a March 21 proxy statement, the company's board of directors urged shareholders to vote against resolutions seeking disclosure of "direct or indirect" political and lobbying expenses and seeking a report on the public health risks and climate impacts of coal use.

The New York State Common Retirement Fund filed a shareholder resolution pressing Duke Energy to provide a public report, updated semiannually, disclosing its policies and procedures for making corporate contributions to political candidates, parties, trade associations or organizations, and ballot measures or referendums.

Mercy Investment Services Inc. and the Sisters of St. Francis of Philadelphia submitted a proposal asking Duke Energy to prepare an annual report detailing its policies and procedures governing direct and indirect lobbying expenses. The shareholders want Duke Energy to disclose its payments for direct or indirect lobbying at local, state and federal levels.

The board recommends shareholders vote against these resolutions at the company's May 2 annual meeting, which will be webcast.

Duke Energy said it already discloses its lobbying expenses and corporate contributions on the corporate governance section of the company's investor-specific website. Duke Energy also produces a semiannual report that is publicly available and noted that its corporate political contributions and lobbying activities are subject to state and federal regulation.

A shareholder proposal from As You Sow and Daughters of Charity requests that "Duke Energy publish a report assessing how it will mitigate the public health risks associated with Duke's coal operations in light of increasing vulnerability to climate change impacts such as flooding and severe storms."

The shareholders said Duke Energy has incurred "brand damage" from the 2014 coal ash spill at the retired Dan River coal plant and concerns over ash management in 2018 following Hurricane Florence in North Carolina. "Hurricane Florence highlighted Duke's lack of preparation for storms and flooding, the frequency and intensity of which are increasing due to climate change."

The investors want Duke Energy to consider how the company's use of coal-fired generation "exacerbates public health harms" and how its coal operations and coal ash disposal impact the public health of low-income and minority communities.

In response, Duke Energy argued the proposal "makes many inaccurate assertions" regarding its ash management.

"After the Dan River ash release in 2014, we accepted responsibility for the release and took the opportunity to lead the industry in the closure of ash basins, a nationwide challenge," Duke Energy wrote in its proxy. "We have already excavated over 22 million tons of ash across our jurisdictions and moved it to fully lined disposal facilities."

Duke Energy disputed that ash spills at its H.F. Lee Energy Complex and L.V. Sutton sites were the result of the company's "lack of preparation for hurricanes."

"In fact, the opposite is true," the company said. "Duke Energy's dam improvement projects for ash basins and our ongoing closure work helped our facilities perform well during Hurricane Florence and the flooding that followed. Significantly, there have been no ash basin dam failures during or following the storm."

Duke Energy said it already provides "extensive disclosures" on its ash management practices.

In addition, Duke Energy's board recommends shareholders vote against a resolution seeking to have the company report annually on the costs and the benefits to shareholders, the public health and the environment of Duke's environment-related activities.

Steven Milloy, a former employee of Murray Energy Corp., is behind a campaign questioning whether utilities have "good financial reasons" for shuttering coal-fired plants and building more wind and solar projects.

Duke Energy in 2017 announced plans to curb its carbon dioxide emissions by 40% from 2005 levels by 2030. In 2018, Duke Energy released its first climate risk assessment in which it envisioned eliminating coal by 2050 and touted the reduction of carbon emissions by 31% since 2005.

"No law or regulation required this reduction," Milloy wrote. "Shareholders should have an honest accounting of this action's cost and the action's actual and current (vs. hypothetical or imagined) benefits. After all, Duke's reduction in CO2 emissions is not an obvious benefit to anyone or anything."

In its opposing statement, the board said "a number of the proponent's underlying assumptions regarding the need for such a report are flawed" and highlighted several state and federal environmental regulations that require significant emissions reductions.

The board said that based on its numerous public disclosures tied to environment-related activities, developing a separate report as requested by Milloy would be an "unnecessary, redundant and inefficient use of shareholder resources."