Is the public finally waking up to the inherent absurdities taking place in the energy space in the U.S. and across the Western world in recent years? Recent votes taken on ESG and climate change-related shareholder initiatives at major oil company annual board meetings indicate that may well be the case.
Though it has received scant attention across the legacy news media in general, the Financial Times reported recently that such shareholder initiatives were overwhelmingly rejected by shareholders of both ExxonMobil and Chevron, with most receiving less than 10 percent support. Similar initiatives in the previous few years would typically generate support in the 30-40 percent range, with a handful even gaining majority support.
The Financial Times reports that a petition requiring ExxonMobil to set emissions goals consistent with the 2015 Paris Climate Accords garnered just 11 percent of the vote, while Chevron’s shareholders gave a similar proposal less than 10 percent support. The same initiatives presented last year garnered 33 percent and 28 percent support, respectively, at the two companies.
“It’s incomprehensible that most investors still accept the US super majors’ refusal to cut emissions this decade,” Follow This founder Mark van Baal was quoted by FT after the votes were taken.
While it all may be incomprehensible to Mr. van Baal, there is no question that a palpable shift is underway. It is important to remember that it was only two years ago when ExxonMobil’s shareholders were so consumed with ESG mania that they voted to put three ESG-focused candidates sponsored by ESG investment house Engine No. 1 on the company’s board of directors. Apparently, that mania has now faded among ExxonMobil and Chevron investors, leading to speculation that the shift in investor sentiment could be reflective of a shift in the population at large.
It is a trend among shareholders that is not isolated to U.S.-based majors. Sentiment among investors at this year’s board meetings held by both Shell and BP produced similar results. Despite vocal and near-violent protests that broke out at the beginning of Shell’s annual meeting, during which some protesters attempted to rush the stage where Chairman Andrew Mackenzie was speaking, Shell’s proposed transition plan received 80% support from shareholders. In April, only 17 percent of BP shareholders supported an initiative that would have forced the company to adopt a plan to cut emissions more rapidly than already planned.
Regardless of whether these votes are reflective of a shift in public attitudes, they are without doubt reflective of shifting public comments from the management teams at these major oil and gas companies. Following both the World Economic Forum meeting in Davos in January, and the annual CERAWeek Conference in Houston in February, I wrote about the new refocusing by company CEOs at those events on their core business of producing, refining and selling oil and gas and their component products. It was a stark contrast to their more ESG and climate-focused remarks presented at the same events over the previous half-decade.
Both Chevron and ExxonMobil also presented aggressive plans to increase investment in their oil and gas operations, both domestically and globally, at their board meetings, and Chevron also recently announced a $6.3 billion acquisition of shale producer PDC Energy. BP CEO Bernard Looney made big news in January when he announced that his company plans to refocus more capital investment in its core oil and gas business after years of prioritizing renewable investments. Shell CEO Wael Sawan also generated attention with a similar commitment in early spring.
Such a shift among company management, investors and in the public at large has long seemed an inevitable consequence from a policy environment that makes no logical sense, produces higher costs of energy, results in denying consumers access to conveniences like gas stoves and consistently ends with disastrous events like power blackouts. It was inevitable that the public would eventually start to make the connection between the policies and the impacts they create on their daily lives.
These votes indicate this awakening is finally coming about. Woe be to policymakers who fail to adjust accordingly.
David Blackmon is an energy writer and consultant based in Texas. He spent 40 years in the oil and gas business, where he specialized in public policy and communications.
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