Investors Are Changing Business. Americans Can Do the Same for Public Lands

While members of Congress debate if and how the nation should address the threats posed to our environment by climate change, shareholders in some of our nation’s most influential and impactful companies are not waiting for Washington to come up with a solution to climate change — they are forcing action.

Recently, 18 large institutional investors in General Motors (who together manage about $1.96 trillion) communicated in a letter to the company that they want the company to stop lobbying against federal fuel economy standards, an effort they accurately argue will worsen climate change if successful.

This campaign, waged against General Motors just weeks before its June 4 stockholder meeting, is just the latest example of a growing trend. Investors have long recognized the real and present threat climate change poses to their wealth.

Recently, they have banded together to change the way some of America’s most recognizable brands operate. Last year, shareholders at Royal Dutch Shell passed a resolution tying for the first time executive compensation, in part, to reaching climate impact goals.

As a venture capitalist committed to investing in companies innovating and scaling climate change improvement such as Tesla and Advanced MicroGrid Solutions, it is welcome news that investors are understanding the opportunity to influence the actions of the companies they, in part, own. For the nation to seriously address climate change, however, the solution cannot come just one shareholder meeting at a time; it also requires national action.

That is why it is paramount that the American people follow the lead of shareholders across the country in recognizing their opportunity to influence the outcome. While far from national headlines, the U.S. federal government is one of the largest energy asset managers in the world.  

During the last decade, federal lands and waters accounted for 40 percent of the coal, 26 percent of crude oil and 23 percent of the natural gas produced domestically. All the while, less than 5 percent of the nation’s solar, wind and geothermal energy comes from public lands. As a result, studies indicate that as much as 25 percent of our nation’s greenhouse gas emissions (the pollutants causing climate change) come from energy developed on federal land.

Despite this fact, the federal government has done little to inform its shareholders — American taxpayers — about the impact that the development of fossil fuels has on our environment and public health.

Imagine if the American people banded together, the same way GM’s investors have, and demanded accountability and a new course of action. Managing emissions starts with measuring them, and once metrics are in place, emissions would eventually fall dramatically.  

Instead, the federal government continues to operate these areas as a treasure trove for industry with no visibility and no emissions scorecard. We can and must do better. It is critical that Americans understand their power and demand change.

An important first step in this process would be for Congress to pass the Transparency in Energy Production Act, legislation that will soon be reintroduced by Rep. Alan Lowenthal (D-Calif.), the chair of the House Natural Resources Subcommittee on Energy and Mineral Resources, that would require companies drilling on public lands to disclose their greenhouse gas footprint. This information would be invaluable in providing the American people with the data they need to change the way our government manages these lands.

Ongoing conversations about the Green New Deal, infrastructure and clean energy are clearly important, but the fact remains that we can take a dramatic step toward addressing the threats posed by climate change, by shining a light on the well-kept secret of fossil energy developed on our public lands.


Nancy Pfund is the founder and managing partner of DBL Partners, a leading venture fund in California, and she is also a member of the Business Coalition for Conservation and Climate, a collection of business executives working together to encourage the federal government to reduce greenhouse gas emissions on public lands.

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