The climate crisis is here for Big Oil
By Charles Riley • Thursday, May 27 CNN Business
Big Oil suffered a trio of unprecedented defeats on Wednesday as investors and climate activists used shareholder votes and the courts to press for much greater urgency in rescuing the planet from a climate catastrophe.
The first blow came in the Netherlands, where a court ruled that Royal Dutch Shell must move much faster than planned to slash its carbon emissions in a case brought by the local branch of Friends of the Earth.
The Anglo-Dutch company was ordered to slash its CO2 emissions by 45% by 2030 from 2019 levels. Crucially, the target includes emissions created when consumers use the oil, gasoline and natural gas that Shell produces.
Big implications: Shell said it would appeal the ruling. But the decision is remarkable, setting numerous precedents that could eventually force other oil and mining companies to change their business models.
For the first time, a court took the goals set out in the Paris Climate agreement and applied them to a company. Shell had been targeting a 20% reduction in carbon intensity by 2030, and 45% by 2035. Now it must move faster.
“The court understands that the consequences could be big for Shell,” said Jeannette Honée, a spokeswoman for the court. “But the court believes that the consequences of severe climate change are more important than Shell’s interests,” she added.
Hours later, attention shifted to Exxon Mobil's annual shareholder meeting, where a plucky hedge fund called Engine No.1 was seeking to unseat four board members in a corporate version of David vs. Goliath.
Balance of power: Engine No. 1 holds just 0.02% of Exxon's shares and has only existed for six months. Exxon was the world's most valuable company as recently as 2013, generated sales of $179 billion in 2020 (a down year) and once wielded enough influence to be described as having its own foreign policy.
Engine No. 1 argued the climate crisis poses an existential threat to Exxon — one the company hasn't taken seriously enough — and Wall Street's biggest guns agreed.
"A refusal to accept that fossil fuel demand may decline in decades to come has led to a failure to take even initial steps towards evolution, and to obfuscating rather than addressing long-term business risk," the hedge fund wrote in its investor presentation.
Scoreboard: Despite the long odds, Engine No. 1 won at least two board seats in the shareholder vote. It could add to that total when counting resumes.
Engine No. 1 triumphed in the proxy fight by recruiting powerful allies that share its concerns about Exxon's direction. Institutional Shareholder Services advised shareholders to vote for three of Engine No. 1's candidates.
Advisory firm Glass Lewis urged shareholders to back two Engine No. 1 candidates. The California Public Employees Retirement System (CalPERS), another powerful pension fund, also backed the campaign.
"Investors are no longer standing on the sidelines. This is a day of reckoning," Anne Simpson, managing investment director at CalPERS, said in a statement.
BlackRock, the world's largest asset manager, backed three of the candidates put forward by Engine No. 1. Exxon has traditionally recruited board members who lack "specific energy industry experience," BlackRock explained in a statement, while the Engine No. 1 nominees have significant expertise in renewable energy, technology and infrastructure.
"We continue to be concerned about Exxon’s strategic direction and the anticipated impact on its long-term financial performance and competitiveness. In our view, the board would benefit from the addition of diverse energy experience to augment existing skillsets," said BlackRock.
The third blow: Chevron investors added to the pressure on the industry, voting in favor of a shareholder proposal on Wednesday asking the company to cut emissions generated by the use of its energy products.
Taken together, the defeats send a loud message to other fossil fuel companies as the International Energy Agency warns the world it needs to immediately stop drilling for oil and gas to prevent a climate catastrophe.
What's next: Climate activists will continue to apply pressure to energy companies and investors, pushing for change by using their new battle-tested strategies of attacking via the courts and shareholder resolutions.
Urgent update: There is about a 40% chance of the annual average global temperature temporarily reaching the critical 1.5 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels in at least one of the next five years, according to a report published Thursday by the World Meteorological Organization.
Under the Paris climate accord, countries committed to reduce their carbon output and halt global warming below 2 degrees Celsius — and if possible, below 1.5 degrees Celsius — by the end of the century to avoid the worst impacts of climate change.