ExxonMobil shareholders successfully demand climate policy accountability

Jun 15, 2017

In what’s been called a “historic” decision, 62 percent of Exxon Mobil shareholders have called on the world’s largest oil company to report the impacts of climate change and international climate policies on its business.

Industry analysts says this is a stunning defeat for management and a sign that shareholders are beginning to demand more transparency from energy and fossil fuel companies than they have in the past. A similar Exxon Mobil shareholder resolution last year won just 38 percent of the vote.

“This year, for the first time, we're seeing investors cast majority votes calling on companies in the oil, gas and power sectors to assess and disclose how they're preparing for a low-carbon future,” says Andrew Logan, director of oil and gas programs at the nonprofit business sustainability group, Ceres. “Prior to this year, I would say a vote in the 30 to 40 percent range would be considered over the top, but now we are seeing a majority vote at companies like Exxon Mobil, Occidental and PPL."

Significantly, Logan adds, the three largest owners of Exxon stock — BlackRock, Vanguard and State Street — all voted in favor the proposal. “It is very hard for a company, even a company as large and stubborn as Exxon Mobil, to go against its core investors in that way,” he says.

These three large investors are largely index funds, Logan points out, which means they can't sell the stock. “They're stuck with it in perpetuity. If you're stuck owning stock until the company goes away, you have a very strong vested interest in making sure the company sticks around as long as possible.”

The vote by Exxon shareholders came after an investigation by Inside Climate News, in collaboration with Columbia University and the Los Angeles Times, into Exxon’s lack of disclosure to investors about its exposure to the risks of climate change. Exxon is still under investigation by several states attorneys general for potentially misleading shareholders about climate risk to the company.

While it might be hard to know for certain what role these investigations played in the shareholders’ decision, Exxon’s history on climate change “has not done much to build trust with investors,” Logan believes. “Sometimes a vote is as much about how much investors trust management as it is about the issue under question. So, I think one way to look at the vote today is that investors by and large don't trust this company and the way it's being run.”

Occidental Petroleum and PPL face similar demands from their shareholders, which Logan calls an “historic shift” in how investors look at climate change and climate risk.

“I think what's happening is that the biggest investors in the world are now wanting to challenge their largest holdings around what they see as a core financial issue,” he explains. “That’s a very different place than we were even a couple of years ago.”

This article is based on an interview that aired on PRI’s Living on Earth with Steve Curwood.

From Living on Earth ©2017 World Media Foundation