Oil majors face shareholder resolutions on climate change

INVESTORS CONCERNED about climate change have never been better organised, thanks to Climate Action 100+, a coalition with more than $33trn in assets under management. Nor have they ever had more success. Last year shareholders of Royal Dutch Shell persuaded it to pledge emissions reductions from both its operations and its products. In May BP’s shareholders voted to require the European oil-and-gas giant to disclose how its strategy matches the goals of the Paris climate agreement.

Edward Mason, the head of responsible investment for the Church of England, sees “a gulf opening between the European supermajors and the American ones”. On May 29th the shareholders of ExxonMobil, the world’s biggest listed energy company, and Chevron, another American major, voted against climate resolutions. Yet even in Europe green investors’ impact is more a ripple than a wave.

In America oilmen have been shielded in part by regulators. Even before ExxonMobil’s annual meeting, America’s Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) had sided with the company by agreeing that an emissions resolution brought by the Church of England and New York state’s retirement fund amounted to micromanagement. This allowed the motion to be omitted from its proxy materials.

At the same time, some big asset managers have become more restrained. In 2017 BlackRock helped pass a resolution requiring ExxonMobil to disclose how climate change, or efforts to combat it with measures like carbon taxes, might affect its business. It has seemed warier of the new campaigns at Exxon. After the SEC’s decision, the Church of England and New York sought to split the roles of chairman and chief executive at ExxonMobil, hoping that a more independent board would set a greener strategy. Preliminary results show only 41% of votes in favour. ExxonMobil insists it shares green investors’ concerns about climate change, pointing to investments in biofuels and carbon capture and storage. “Exxon seems stuck in time,” counters Thomas DiNapoli, New York’s state comptroller.

European firms seem forward-looking by comparison. Look closer, though, and they too appear grounded in the past. Shell aspires to halve its “net carbon footprint” by 2050. Shorter-term targets support the ambition—but leave room for emissions to rise so long as solar and wind power account for a growing share of Shell’s energy production. BP opposed targets for total emissions, supporting instead the resolution focused on strategy disclosure.

Bruce Duguid of Hermes Investment Management, who worked with BP on behalf of Climate Action 100+, says that disclosure will help investors understand if the billions which BP continues to spend on oil and gas creates too much risk. BP will describe how big new capital projects stack up against the Paris goal of keeping warming “well below” 2°C relative to preindustrial times. Equinor, Norway’s state behemoth, agreed to something similar in April. As with Shell, BP’s resolution does not require it to cut oil and gas output. Greenpeace, a combative NGO, blocked entrances to BP’s headquarters in London ahead of its annual meeting on May 21st.

Energy companies have made the right noises in other areas. ExxonMobil, Shell and BP have each devoted $1m to support an American proposal for a carbon tax. In April Shell said it would drop its membership of the American Fuel & Petrochemical Manufacturers, describing the lobby group’s climate policies as being in “material misalignment” with its own. BP plans to review its membership of trade groups.

For the time being, though, Shell, BP and ExxonMobil remain members of the American Petroleum Institute, which has sought to ease rules on emissions of methane, a potent greenhouse gas. They also maintain links with the Western States Petroleum Association, which last year fought a carbon tax in Washington state. BP spent over $13m directly to help defeat a ballot initiative in favour of the levy.

Some investors in America will continue to seek changes, including on company boards. “The story of the next year is, how do we increase the pressure for companies to act fast?” says Andrew Logan of Ceres, a consortium of investors that helps co-ordinate Climate Action 100+. Others are beginning to question the value of shareholder engagement. The Church of England has said it will divest by 2023 if no advances are made. “Investors’ patience is not limitless,” says Mr Logan. “It’s going to be measured in years, not decades.”

This post was originally posted at https://www.economist.com/business/2019/06/01/oil-majors-face-shareholder-resolutions-on-climate-change.

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