Environmental Disclosure in SEC Filings

This post is by Margaret E. Tahyar’s colleagues Betty M. Huber and Brianne Lucyk.

Preparing environmental disclosure for Securities and Exchange Commission filings has always been a complicated task. Although most of the securities and accounting rules governing environmental disclosure have been in place for some time, environmental costs and liabilities can take various forms, the key facts are often difficult to ascertain and the underlying environmental laws (and their enforcement) are constantly changing. Further complicating matters is the fact that many publicly traded company operations are subject to multiple jurisdictional requirements, from very local to international or supranational regimes. Finally, and particularly problematic for disclosure purposes, is the fact that environmental matters often take many years to investigate, address and resolve, which raises significant estimation and other challenges.

This memorandum describes the current requirements relating to environmental disclosure in SEC filings. Many of the disclosure obligations relate to costs and liabilities that are familiar to all companies—such as costs to investigate and remediate contamination and costs and liabilities arising from the failure to comply with laws or the existence of environmental litigation—but there are some recent developments that companies must consider.

Certain new and proposed changes to environmental accounting rules may affect current and near-term qualitative and quantitative disclosure. In particular, the Financial Accounting Standards Board is looking for more footnote disclosure about a company’s environmental liabilities. There is also a general movement towards “fair value” (or mark-to-market) accounting. Complying with these changes can be difficult given the uncertainty in the timing and cost of many environmental liabilities, as noted above.

Climate change must also be considered when preparing SEC disclosure. While there are many uncertainties, and the current profound international economic crisis may adversely affect the ability of the new U.S. administration to move forward with aggressive climate change laws, costs relating to climate change are already affecting some companies and will, in the future, affect many others. Certain environmental interest groups and regulators have made climate change disclosure a focus of their agendas, and companies must therefore consider practical and political issues in addition to purely legal requirements.

Finally, it is worth noting that some of these developments may result in a need for companies to collect information not currently being collected (from the measurement of carbon emissions to new “fair value” estimates to careful tracking of legal developments).

This memorandum discusses these recent developments and provides practical guidance on how to analyze and address the related disclosure issues facing your company.

The memo is available here.

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