“Parental Control: The Impact of the Sarbanes-Oxley Act Upon Environmental Disclosure Requirements of Public Companies”

This Note was written by former staff member Dawn R. Franklin. The abstract was written by staff member Tanner James.

A law is only as good as its enforcement, and in the world of publicly-traded corporations, poor enforcement invites exploitation and noncompliance. In the context of the environment, this creates one unsuspecting loser: the shareholders. Through delayed, misleading, or simply nonexistent reports, companies dupe shareholders in to paying premium prices per share while hiding environmental violations that, once made public, will result in plummeting share value.

As protection, shareholders must rely on regulatory statutes and policies that are often more bark than bite. Regulation S-K and Financial Accounting Standard No. 5 ("FAS 5") both explicitly require routine environmental status reports, especially if a liability may reasonably exist. Furthermore, there are also implied disclosure requirements in the Securities Exchange Acts of 1933 and 1934, as well as Environmental Protection Agency policies that exist to stimulate more frequent, honest, and accurate environmental reporting. Unfortunately, although the guidelines and requirements are well-established, the incentive to break or circumvent the rules (e.g., more investors) has long outweighed the risk of violation.

Times have changed, however. The adoption of the Sarbanes-Oxley Act of 2002 ("SOX") heralded a new era of corporate disclosure. The rules remain the same—Regulation S-K, FAS 5, etc., all exist unchanged. The key difference is in the enforcement. Specifically, SOX gave the old rules new teeth.

To encourage compliance, SOX introduced a new element of accountability: the consequences of failure to comply are shared by the company and their senior officers. For instance, willful false certification of required reports could result in a $5 million dollar fine and 20 years in prison for a guilty officer. Few CEOs are willing to risk their money and freedom in exchange for temporarily-misled stockholders.

While the incentive for better reporting is a key benefit to SOX, the trickle-down effect is just as important. More accountability at the top turns in to more accountability throughout, and, in turn, better organization. Ultimately everything comes together to paint a much happier, fairer picture for both shareholders and the environment, alike. No longer do shareholders have to rely on illusory protection from unenforced regulations. With corporate officers finding themselves under the intense heat of the SOX spotlight, shareholders can invest with confidence, knowing that there are not any hidden environmental catastrophes looming.