By Sr. Barbara Jennings, CSJ
On May 26, 2021, a little known investment company called Engine No. 1 challenged and won a proxy battle with one of the world’s largest public oil and gas companies, Exxon Mobil. Three of Engine No. 1’s four proposed Board Members who have qualified energy industry experience were elected to the board. They will challenge company management to transform their business model for a low carbon economy, which will benefit all stakeholders including workers and shareholders alike.
Shareholder elected Greg Goff, former CEO of Andeavor and EVP of Marathon Petroleum who thinks that mitigating climate change is part of corporate responsibility; Kaisa Hietala, a former VP of Finnish renewable energy company, Neste Oyi; and Alexander Karsner, a strategist at Alphabet, Inc. These three candidates beat out three of Exxon Mobil’s current, reelected board members.
Shareholders proposals co-filed by members of the Seventh Generation Interfaith also received majority votes at the Exxon Mobil AGM. Dana Investments, the Capuchins, and the School Sisters of Notre Dame, Central Province co-filed a proposal asking for a report on climate lobbying (64% vote). The Sisters of St. Agnes co-filed the proposal asking for broader lobbying disclosure (55% vote). The Dubuque Franciscan’s co-filed the separate chair proposal (22% vote). Members of SGI and ICCR also co-filed successful climate proposals at Chevron, ConocoPhillips and Phillips66.
Members of ICCR have dialogued and filed shareholder resolutions at Exxon Mobil since the early 1990’s. The company always responded with platitudes about their amoeba studies for alternative fuels, but refused to set targets or goals. What has changed?
Here are my educated guesses:
- The Time has come! Finally, extreme weather events and consistent calls from scientists have increased public awareness of climate change, although a decreasing percentage remain climate deniers. Climate Activists like Greta Thunberg are finally getting through to all of us, especially to young people.
- It is irrefutable that drilling, and burning petroleum produces is a major cause of climate change as well as of human rights abuses. The latest IPCC report removed any uncertainty: “It is unequivocal that human influence has warmed the atmosphere, ocean and land.”
- There is growing popularity of ESG strategies. It has become easier to invest sustainably through many asset managers. Bloomberg projects ESG assets may hit $53 trillion by 2025, a third of global AUM.
- The International Energy Agency (IEA) Net Zero by 2050: a Roadmap for the Global Energy Sector report published shortly before the Exxon Mobil AGM called on governments and companies to stop investment in new fossil fuel supply projects or coal plants; no sales of new internal combustion engine passenger cars after 2035; and net-zero emissions in the global electricity sector by 2040.
- Pope Francis continues to remind us to care for our common home. The Vatican released 14 recommended actions in June 2020, including ‘ethical responsible and integral criteria for investment decision making.” The Vatican Dicastery for Promoting Integral Human Development urges that Church divestment from fossil fuels and reinvestment in renewables is a moral imperative.
- The U. S. Catholic Bishops are reviewing their Socially Responsible Investment Guidelines for the first time in 20 years. Bishop Gregory Parkes, USCCB Treasurer, who worked in the banking industry before entering the priesthood, is seeing the “financial writing on the wall” for fossil fuel companies who will not or cannot diversify.
- A U. S. House subcommittee is “demanding that Exxon Mobil, Shell, Chevron testify before Congress about the industry’s decades-long effort to wage disinformation campaigns around climate change.” (St. Louis PostDispach, July 3, 2021 and New York Times, June 16, 2021)
The majority votes at Exxon Mobile indicate a tipping point in pushing fossil fuel companies to transition to low-carbon business models. SGI and ICCR members have persisted and led the way with corporate engagements…and are continuing to see success.