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Exxon Turns up the Heat on Shareholders Over Climate Change Vote

Energy companies frequently "flare" or burn off vast supplies of methane at drilling sites because it earns less money than oil.Energy companies frequently "flare" or burn off vast supplies of methane at drilling sites because it earns less money than oil.
Energy companies frequently "flare" or burn off vast supplies of methane at drilling sites because it earns less money than oil. Bloomberg via Getty Images

Exxon Mobil (XOM) has stepped up efforts to persuade investors to vote against climate-related proposals at Wednesday’s annual meeting with a campaign of calling, writing and lobbying shareholders in person.

The world’s largest publicly-traded oil company opposes a proposal requiring it to report on the risks to its business from new technologies and global climate change policies, insisting it already provides the information.

Last year, the same proposal was backed by 38.1 percent of shares voted.

The stakes are higher this year. The business-impact issue is central to lawsuits by two state attorneys general alleging Exxon understated the risks to both consumers and shareholders. Wall Street support of similar measures also has convinced energy companies including Occidental Petroleum to address the Paris climate accord’s goal of keeping global temperature increases under 2-degrees Celsius. European peers such as Royal Dutch Shell, Total and BP have already done so.

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If the proposal garners less than last year’s 38 percent support, it could endorse Exxon’s view which is that its current reporting is appropriate, said Rob Schuwerk, senior counsel for environmental think tank Carbon Tracker Initiative.

But if support this year exceeds 50 percent, the oil company likely would do more to explain potential business impacts from having to meet the Paris agreement’s temperature goal. A result in between the two, he said, would be the “the hazy middle” that would still show growing investor interest in climate issues.

Exxon took a conciliatory approach in a letter to investors on Tuesday. Vice President Jeff Woodbury wrote that on many of the shareholder proposals “the corporation agrees with the underlying objective – we just have a different view on the best means to achieve it.”

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Prior shareholder letters insisted the proposals were misguided or ignored the company’s efforts to spell out its position that even a world intent on limiting temperature rises would still need more oil – a position shared by bodies such as the International Energy Agency, which sees oil demand rising for some years to come yet.

Anne Sheehan, head of corporate governance at California State Teachers’ Retirement System, which backs the additional climate reporting, said Exxon’s letter suggests the voting is at least very close and may be going against the company.

“You’re not going to do an eleventh-hour shareholder communication if everything was going swimmingly,” she said in an interview.

In addition to the vote on the climate-impact report, Exxon holders will consider proposals to shift spending away from oil exploration to dividends and buybacks. They’ll also vote on a proposal requiring it to report on its efforts to restrict emissions of methane, a powerful greenhouse gas.

Exxon opposes all these proposals and has actively lobbied shareholders. This campaign “is a lot more intense than normal,” said one investor, who spoke on condition of anonymity. “I think they’re pulling out all the stops.”

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Climate campaigners are also active. They have organized rallies and held media briefings. In Dallas, where the meeting takes place, they have put up billboards and signs seeking to sway votes.

Any change likely will be driven by institutional holders shifting their positions. Big investors including State Street and BlackRock, which together hold about 9 percent of Exxon shares, recently have made clear they are now giving more attention to climate issues.

Bob Litterman, chairman of the risk committee at asset-management firm Kepos Capital said no matter the outcome of the votes on Wednesday, pressures on Exxon to spell out the potential impact of global warming on the value of its energy assets will only grow (Kepos holds derivatives betting that oil companies will underperform the S&P 500 index).

“Whether it’s shareholders or attorneys general or the passage of time, they’re going to have to become honest” about the potential for their assets to become uneconomic to pursue, Litterman said.

By an accidental irony, the vote as President Donald Trump nears a decision on whether to pull the U.S. out of the Paris Climate Accord. Trump had fallen out badly with G7 leaders over the weekend over his refusal to commit to the deal.