Over the past year, the backlash against so-called ESG investing has swept through red states as legislatures enacted laws punishing investment firms that use environmental, social, and governance metrics in their decision making.
As the saying goes, it’s bigger in Texas.
After banning 10 ESG-friendly financial firms from doing business with the state last summer, right-wing lawmakers in Austin have set their sights on another, bigger target: the insurance industry. Republican lawmakers in the Texas House and Senate have introduced legislation to ban insurers from considering ESG scores as they establish insurance rates. If enacted and implemented, the law could boot some of the country’s best-known insurance brands from operating in Texas. Most big insurers—the Hartford, Allstate, and State Farm, to name a few—currently embrace ESG metrics.
The move would be a big blow for the industry, potentially beyond Texas. Insurance companies fear that restrictions on ESG considerations could hamper their ability to make sound decisions about policies they offer their customers given that environmental, social, and governance issues can represent real financial risks.
Lone Star lawmakers are not moved. “I hope Texas delivers a wake up call,” says Jason Isaac, a former state legislator who led the charge to pass anti-ESG legislation and now works on energy issues at the conservative Texas Public Policy Foundation. “Insurance companies are licensed and regulated in the state of Texas, so [if this passes], they can no longer do business in the state.”
The outcome of this showdown between right-wing lawmakers and the powerful insurance industry is not a foregone conclusion. Supporters and opponents alike acknowledge the legislation has a chance of passing this year in the Texas legislature, which has adopted a range of aggressive right-wing measures in recent years. But “there’s definitely going to be a fight,” says Luke Metzger, who heads the non-profit Environment Texas, of the insurance legislation.
ESG investing has grown dramatically over the last decade, in step with concerns about climate change. Investors had $8.4 trillion placed in “sustainable assets” in 2022, according to data from Forum for Sustainable and Responsible Investment. That’s up from less than $4 trillion a decade prior.
Last year, opposition to the movement took off. Some businesses, in Texas and elsewhere, say that ESG measures make it harder to finance their operations and growth. Oil and gas and related projects, for example, can sometimes get low marks from ESG graders, making it more difficult to access capital. As of December, at least 18 states had passed or introduced anti-ESG laws.
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Until recently, the insurance industry had received far less attention from ESG opponents than financiers. And, now, few seem eager to highlight the looming confrontation in Texas. Opponents, particularly corporate leaders, fear that openly opposing the House and Senate legislation will make them a target for state officials. On the other side, many leaders of anti-ESG efforts in Texas did not respond to requests for comment, or ultimately declined to talk on the record.
But the state business and political community is quietly paying attention, in large part because the insurance measure would in some ways shift the landscape more dramatically than those targeting financial firms. For one, the previously passed Texas ban on financial firms only stops the ten sanctioned firms from doing business with government entities within the state. It does not affect the ability of those firms to do business with corporations or retail customers. The insurance ban would go further, effectively restricting insurance companies that use ESG metric from doing any business in the state, including with consumers and other businesses.
Some ESG supporters also argue that it would be harder to nix ESG consideration in the insurance business than in finance. Calculating risk is central to insurance companies, as risk determines how much customers pay and whether they’re offered a policy at all. Increasingly, climate-linked concerns are a part of that risk. Physical risks like flooding or wildfires might strike an asset; transition risks like producing a carbon-intensive product that runs afoul of new regulations could hurt the business making it.
Those are precisely the kinds of risks that ESG metrics aim to measure, and for that reason have taken on increased significance for the industry. A 2022 survey from the consulting firm PWC found that 85% of insurers said ESG would “impact all functions of their business.” “There is not an industry more directly affected when you think of the costs of fires and floods and droughts, than the insurance industry,” says Steven Rothstein, managing director of the Accelerator for Sustainable Capital Markets at the non-profit group Ceres.
To make matters worse for the insurers, Texas may only be the start. ESG experts say that behind closed doors fears have grown that Republicans may target the insurance industry in other states, too. “They’re definitely concerned,” says Leslie Samuelrich, president at Green Century Capital Management, an investment advisory firm, of the insurance industry. “If you can see it move from investments, and then it moves to insurance,” says Samuelrich. “Where does it go next?”
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