ExxonMobil is about to face the financial might of its shareholders asking about climate change

No way to stop the fire.
No way to stop the fire.
Image: Reuters
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Update: On Wednesday, shareholders voted in favor of the resolution. Read more.

For ExxonMobil, climate change has become that annoying friend who crashes every party and gets all the attention. The latest party spoiled is Exxon’s 2017 annual general meeting, where today (May 31) shareholders will vote on a resolution to ask the oil giant to publish a report explaining how its business will fare in a world that takes drastic action to mitigate climate change.

Shareholder activists proposed the same resolution last year, but it failed to pass after only 38% voted in favor. But a few differences in this year’s vote give good reasons to believe that it will pass. “We’re cautiously optimistic,” Patrick Doherty said on a May 30 conference call. Doherty is the director of corporate governance at New York State Retirement Fund, the third-largest pension fund in the US and one of the shareholders that has been organizing support for the resolution.

Earlier in May, shareholders of Occidental Petroleum, one of the largest US fossil-fuel companies, passed a similar resolution in a vote at its annual meeting. That was the first time such a resolution passed at an American fossil-fuel company. The Exxon vote also comes on the heels of strong shareholder support shown in similar votes at other energy companies, such as Duke, DTE, PNM, XCel, and Dominion Resources. Some of Exxon’s competitors, such as BP and ConocoPhillips, already publish reports on how climate-change risks could affect their businesses.

What’s more is that the world’s largest asset managers, BlackRock and Vanguard, which together own 12% of ExxonMobil, are thought to be in support of the resolution, according to the Wall Street Journal. BlackRock was one of the largest stakeholders that supported the similar Occidental resolution.

There is no guarantee the Exxon resolution will pass. But Doherty said he would consider it a success if this year’s resolution receives a higher percentage of shareholder vote than the 2016 version, even if it isn’t a majority.

ExxonMobil remains one of the most bullish oil and gas companies, maintaining that peak oil demand is not in sight (paywall). It is also under investigation in the US on accusations of spreading disinformation about climate change by funding climate deniers as far back in the past as the 1970s. Shell, on the other hand, is preparing for oil demand to peak before 2021. Accordingly, at its 2017 annual general meeting, the company devoted 40 minutes to a presentation on how the company plans to deal with climate change’s effect on its oil and gas business.

Many fossil-fuel company shareholders worry about the creation of “stranded assets,” which may result from underestimating climate-change risks. For instance, Carbon Tracker, a financial think tank, warned Exxon in 2014 that investing in Canadian tar sands, an expensive form of oil known to have a severe negative impact on the environment, would be a bad idea. Earlier this year, Exxon wrote off nearly $16 billion investment in the oil sands project.

“This is not necessarily about putting major energy companies out of business, it is about preserving value,” Sue Reid, vice president of climate and energy at sustainable investor network Ceres, which is coordinating the efforts on the resolution, told Climate Home. “If investors don’t see companies responding to these very real concerns, [there will be] questions about the value of continuing to invest in those entities.”

If the vote passes and Exxon publishes an account of the business risks posed by climate change, what next? Bob Litterman, former head of risk management at Goldman Sachs, who now works for asset-management firm Kepos Capital, says Exxon should prepare to live in a low-carbon future. Litterman says there are lots of ways to do that. For example, it could ask for a price on carbon (which is something Exxon is already doing). Exxon could move towards renewable energy, like the French oil and gas firm Total, or invest in low-carbon technologies, such as carbon capture and storage. Either way, it’ll first need to admit—and investigate—the business impact of a world waking up to the realities of climate change.