Shareholders of Exxon Mobil (XOM) handed America’s largest oil company its first defeat, electing two of four candidates activist investors nominated to its board.
For climate activists who have long championed changes at the world’s largest fossil fuels companies, the vote marked a dramatic leap forward in its push to hold firms accountable for their greenhouse gas emissions.
“This is a watershed day for climate,” said Danielle Fugere, president of shareholder advocacy group As You Sow. “The speed of change is building and I think we all can acknowledge now that there’s no longer room for these companies to make changes on the margins. They have to jump in, and start transitioning to a net zero world.”
The result of the proxy campaign, which pit the oil giant against small hedge fund Engine No. 1, sent a resounding signal of shareholder discontent with Exxon Mobil’s handling of climate change, and tied the company’s financial performance directly to its carbon footprint.
That marked just one of several victories for activists like Fugere on Wednesday.
At Chevron’s (CVX) shareholders meeting, 48% voted in favor of a proposal filed by Fugere’s group, calling for mandatory disclosures of climate-related impacts, while an overwhelming majority voted on a separate proposal calling for a cut in Chevron’s greenhouse gas emissions, including customers’ emissions.
Over in Europe, a Dutch Court ruled that Royal Dutch Shell, Europe’s largest oil company, must cut its carbon dioxide emissions by 45% from 2019 levels, by the end of 2030, rapidly accelerating its decarbonization efforts.
“It used to be that investors looked only at the risk to the company,” said Fugere. “But now, shareholders are reflecting the fact that climate change will impact every company across the world, that it’s impossible to know when damage will occur when supply chains will be disrupted.”
‘We will hold you accountable’
Recent data has only increased the urgency for action. Last week, an International Energy Agency (IEA) report said government pledges to curb carbon dioxide emissions fell well short of requirements to limit global warming to roughly 34 degrees Fahrenheit. The organization that spent decades securing oil supplies for industrialized countries, said all new oil and gas projects would need to end immediately, to reach net zero emissions by 2050.
“The only thing we’re asking for, please don’t spend these billions on more fossil fuels, because these will be stranded assets,” said Mark Van Baal, founder of activist group Follow This. “Please spend these billions on whatever renewable projects you can get a hold of. We need the Sahara full with solar panels. We need the North Sea filled with wind turbines.”
Van Baal began his activist campaign against European oil majors back in 2015, by calling on individuals to buy shares on his website, to accelerate change from the inside. Over the last month, he’s successfully brought a series of climate resolutions to a vote at BP, Equinor, and Shell in Europe, while garnering an overwhelming majority of shareholder votes for ConocoPhillips and Chevron in the U.S.
“In 2015, I went to the AGM of Shell on behalf of a few hundred shareholders with just one share. Now we have over 6,000 retail shareholders who buy just one symbolic share on our website,” he said. “More importantly, more and more institutional investors like pension funds support our resolution now, because they fully understand that climate change is such a big threat to all their billions that these companies, who can make or break the Paris Climate Agreement, have to change.”
In the case of Exxon Mobil, it only took six months to get institutional investors aligned with the activists. While Engine No. 1 held a tiny fraction of the company’s shares, its resolution ultimately won the backing of its three biggest fund managers — BlackRock (BLK), Vanguard, and State Street — along with the three biggest U.S. pensions.
“Now we see that it’s possible to make these changes if enough investors are frustrated at a company’s lack of progress [on climate],” Fugere said. “Boards have to represent investors and now investors are saying hey, if you’re not doing your job, we will hold you accountable.”