Big Oil’s New Shareholder Activism: Problem or Solution?
The social megatrend of the increased influence of environmentalists is now shaking the holy of holies: the boardrooms of the supermajors. After six months of proxy conflict and vote counting, green investors claim victory in their clash against America’s biggest oil company – ExxonMobil
Three seats of the twelve members of ExxonMobil’s board appear to have been won by outsiders, each with experience in renewable fuels. The force behind the reshuffle was Engine n ° 1, an investment firm whose belief is to generate value when Wall Street pursues Main Street goals.
The newcomers are barely activists throwing bombs. Greg Goff and Kaisa Hietala are both former refining executives, and Alexander Karsner served the country as U.S. Assistant Secretary of Energy during the second Bush-43 presidency. Exxon is not dismantled from the inside. Instead, the No.1 engine’s victory reflects shareholders’ frustration with what they call years of “platitudes and gaslighting ” without substantial progress towards environmental responsibility.
Exxon insiders retain a qualified majority, but have been kicked in the shins to remind them that at least some shareholders want to move from short-term profit to long-term sustainability. The green transition is no longer a prophesied future event. Big investors, like Black rock
, the world’s largest asset manager and owner of 6.7% of Exxon – believes more needs to be done, lest lack of preparation will cause the stock’s value to plummet.
Just as electric vehicles may be approaching a tipping point adoption, where they and their source of electric power prove to be as affordable and accessible as traditional cars, energy companies may be close to their own tipping point. It’s bad business to phase out all of the oil and gas E&P, but it’s now just as unwise to ignore what could be a very different economy a decade from now.
Exxon isn’t the only recalcitrant company to be trained this way. Chevron
Part of this frustration is undoubtedly related to declining growth among major industry players over the past decade. Exxon’s investment in Permian Basin is just one example of large spending that activists are frustrated with has not produced strong returns. Investors want profit, and some are starting to view renewables not just as a public good, but as a serious historic growth opportunity.
After all, other oil giants have started to take action that could make them the titans of the 2030s. Britain’s British Petroleum (BP) and Norwegian Equinor got together for early investment in offshore wind power generation. The application of the expertise gained through the management of offshore oil rigs is an example of how energy leaders can transfer their current skills and resources to long-term gains.
I’ve written about offshore wind before, which could power millions of homes and reduce tens of millions of tonnes of CO2 emissions. These platforms, including the new “vertical axis wind turbines”, could represent such an opportunity for offshore drilling operations looking to pivot into the future.
Oil companies including Total, Shell and Repsol have target 2050 as the date they expect to be net zero issuers. Twenty-nine years may seem like an eternity, but energy projects often have a lifespan of 30 years, and the struggle for leadership in a post-fossil fuel economy has already begun. Think of the oil companies that overtook coal miners in the last century.
A business that moves too slowly or too late will likely struggle to reinvent itself or compete with smarter, faster competitors. While there is no doubt that hydrocarbons will continue to play a dominant role in the global economy for the next two decades, some shareholders believe that they are preventing their companies from moving in the direction of. Blockbuster or Tower Records.
Exxon and Chevron have a considerable advantage in terms of their size and wealth. If investors keep pushing for more action, companies have the resources and expertise to engage in long-term renewable projects – if that makes economic sense.
Young investors are influenced by prevailing values and ideology and want to feel that their money will be safe three decades from now. The current differences in approach are generational, political and economic. In the implementation of policies beneficial to the common good: shareholders of energy companies, consumers and company staff all benefit in the coming decades. The free market – not arbitrary regulation and government decree – can and should be the arena in which these struggles are settled.