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Exxon Investors Seek Assurance as Climate Shifts, Along With Attitudes

By Clifford Krauss and John Schwartz
New York Times
Exxon Mobil has been under pressure for over a year to explain its handling of climate change issues in the past. Now the company faces new pressure to explain its future, particularly how it will change in response to a warming world.

HOUSTON — Exxon Mobil has been under pressure for over a year to explain its handling of climate change issues in the past. Now the company faces new pressure to explain its future, particularly how it will change in response to a warming world.

At the company’s planned annual meeting on Wednesday in Dallas, shareholders will vote on a resolution to prod Exxon Mobil to disclose the risks of climate change to its business.

Such resolutions have been floated before, and they typically do not pass. But there is a growing chorus of investors, many of them large institutional shareholders, who say they are worried that Exxon Mobil, the largest publicly traded energy company in the world, is not adequately preparing for tighter times if countries start acting on the pledges they made last December as part of the Paris climate change accord.

Exxon Mobil, for example, projects that global demand for oil will keep growing — by just over 13 percent from today, to 109 million barrels of oil a day by 2040.

But the International Energy Agency’s projections include one situation where demand could drop by 22 percent, to 74 million barrels a day by 2040, if measures are put in place to keep global warming at levels that, while still dangerous, could avoid the most devastating consequences.

The shareholder resolution calls for Exxon Mobil to publish an annual assessment of impacts of various climate change policies, including ones that would lead to the steep drops foreseen in the most severe energy agency’s forecast. Another resolution calls for the company to give shareholders a bigger say over governance.

Exxon Mobil previously tried to block the climate change resolution, but the Securities and Exchange Commission ruled in March that shareholders must be allowed to vote.

Alan T. Jeffers, a company spokesman, said last week that Exxon Mobil welcomed a dialogue with shareholders.

“We want them to understand that we see the issue of climate change, we see the risks of climate change and take them seriously, and we are working hard on lower emissions technology,” he said.

Mr. Jeffers added that his company’s projection was not set in stone, and that Exxon Mobil was flexible enough to move in new directions in the future.

But big owners of the stock worry that the optimism of Exxon Mobil’s outlook for oil demand is dangerously misguided.

“Investors can’t afford to have Exxon become the next Kodak,” said Scott M. Stringer, the comptroller of New York City, whose pension fund owns roughly $1 billion worth of Exxon Mobil stock.

"It is impossible for them to do business for the next 100 years as they have the last 100 years," added Mr. Stringer, who supports the risk-disclosure resolution.

Some protesters are exhorting investors to sell all of their fossil-fuel stocks and are conducting campaigns to pressure Exxon Mobil and other companies to “keep it in the ground” — that is, to stop extracting the very fossil fuels that are their lifeblood.

And while some of those activists would consider it a victory to see these companies driven out of business, a growing number of institutional shareholders want to see these companies move profitably into a future in which fossil fuels play a smaller role, while renewable sources like wind and solar play a larger one.

In recent months, Exxon Mobil has been under increasing pressure to move faster, in part because of the efforts of the attorneys general of New York, California and several other states. They are investigating Exxon Mobil over its past funding of publicity that cast doubt on the science of climate change, while Exxon’s own scientists were speaking and writing about the seriousness of global warming.

But many investors are more interested in Exxon Mobil’s plans for the future than what the company did and said decades ago.

“Our concern is about looking forward,” said Anne Simpson, an investment director for California Public Employees’ Retirement System, which is backing the disclosure resolutions. “The critical thing now is the next 25 years.”

Mr. Jeffers noted that shareholders had withdrawn a similar disclosure resolution a few years ago when Exxon Mobil promised to report on the risks it faced because of evolving emissions policies. It concluded that there was no current risk of demand drying up to a degree that the company would have to leave some of its oil reserves in the ground, a problem known as “stranded assets.”

That conclusion did not satisfy Exxon Mobil's critics.

“The world is changing around Exxon,” said Andrew J. Logan, director of oil and gas and insurance programs at the sustainable investing organization Ceres, which backs the resolutions.

He noted that the range of large shareholders promoting the resolutions included New York State, the Church of England and the Norwegian sovereign wealth fund. “The fact that this array of actors lining up against Exxon is so diverse is a powerful demonstration of just how isolated the company is at the moment,” Mr. Logan said.

But many investors said they would be voting with management on the climate resolution.

“Exxon Mobil goes the extra mile to ensure they are fulfilling their role as a good steward of the environment,” said Paul L. Lucas, a Midland, Tex., energy investor. “That’s why it costs Exxon more money to do business because they do business the right way.”

Chevron, which is facing a similar resolution, is having its annual meeting on Wednesday as well. Executives at Chevron say it already carefully assesses various risks to its investments.

Foreign energy companies have been more receptive to such resolutions. Last year, even before the Paris agreement was completed, several large European oil companies, including Royal Dutch Shell, Statoil of Norway and BP accepted resolutions that were similar or virtually the same as those facing Exxon Mobil and Chevron.

Those companies, which are based in countries where the governments and public opinion are demanding new climate change initiatives, have pledged to seek renewable energy opportunities.

Statoil even acknowledged that it may, in fact, end up leaving some fossil fuels in the ground. ”Probably there will be assets stranded, yes, because the costs of CO2 doesn’t make them attractive,” said Bjorn Otto Sverdrup, Statoil’s senior vice president for sustainability.

By contrast, the political environment around climate change remains polarized in the United States. For example, Representative Lamar Smith, a Republican who is chairman of the House Committee on Science, Space, and Technology, has accused the Obama administration and federal researchers of manipulating global warming research to pursue the administration's "suspect climate agenda."

Last week, Mr. Smith also sent a letter to the New York attorney general, Eric T. Schneiderman, demanding all communications since 2012 between Mr. Schneiderman’s office and climate change activist organizations. Mr. Smith said state attorneys general were doing the bidding of environmental activists who set out to make pariahs of Exxon Mobil in pursuit of policies to limit climate change.

Analysts sympathetic to companies like Exxon Mobil and Chevron say that some of the activists, especially divestment groups on college campuses, are trying to lower the equity values of oil companies and choke off capital for exploration.

That, these analysts say, would keep the benefits of cheap energy out of the hands of the poor and emerging middle classes in the developing world.

But proponents of the resolutions say transparency about climate risks can help shareholders better assess their investment and prod Exxon Mobil and other companies to take part in a more sustainable future.

Proponents point to a recent paper, for example, by Chatham House, a research organization based in London, that said Exxon Mobil, Chevron and Shell “are faced with the choice of managing a gentle decline by downsizing or risking a rapid collapse by trying to carry on business as usual.”

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