Exxon Attempts to Defuse Green Critics by Opening Up Books

Apr 11, 2014 11:39 am ET

(Adds this year’s sole environmental resolution in ninth paragraph.)

April 11 (Bloomberg) -- Exxon Mobil Corp., a lightning rod for environmental activists since the Valdez oil spill a quarter-century ago, is appeasing some of its harshest critics by agreeing to disclose internal risk and cost assessments.

Shareholders of the world’s second-largest corporation by market value will vote on just one environmental resolution on May 28, according to a proxy filing today. That’s after Irving, Texas-based Exxon convinced activist investors to withdraw two proposals dealing with greenhouse gas restrictions and hydraulic fracturing.

Environmentalists and corporate-governance activists from groups including the Sisters of St. Dominic and Arjuna Capital have made Exxon’s annual meeting a focal point for objecting to everything from drilling shale to producing motor fuels linked to climate change.

This year, the company sought to head off criticism by striking deals with some of its opponents after months-long negotiations. On March 20, Exxon agreed to provide details on oilfields and other assets whose value may be threatened by carbon limits; two weeks later, the producer promised to disclose risks associated with hydraulic fracturing, or fracking.

In exchange, resolutions on both issues were withdrawn by their proponents. Exxon satisfied the first agreement on March 31 by issuing a report that said its oil and natural gas reserves won’t lose value because demand for energy will trump efforts to curtail climate change.

Binary Outlook

The fracking report will be released later this year, Alan Jeffers, an Exxon spokesman, said in an April 3 interview.

The disclosure agreements haven’t been enough to silence all of Exxon’s critics. Mark Lewis, an analyst at investment bank Kepler Cheuvreux SA in Paris, said the company still hasn’t faced up to the risk that high-cost, carbon-intensive reserves such as the tar sands in western Canada could deter some investors who find it socially unacceptable.

“Exxon’s view of climate risk appears naively binary,” Lewis said in a blog post the day after Exxon issued its reserves-threat report. “The reality is much more nuanced.”

Emissions Target

The lone green resolution on the agenda for this year’s shareholders meeting calls on Exxon to adopt concrete goals for reducing emissions from the company’s operations and products. The proposal, sponsored by the Sisters of St. Dominic of Caldwell, New Jersey, is opposed by Exxon’s board.

Environmental resolutions brought before investors at last year’s annual meeting failed to garner enough votes to succeed.

A proposal calling on Exxon to disclose risks associated with shale drilling was supported by 30 percent of shareholders, unchanged from 2012. A separate item on greenhouse gases gathered 27 percent of the vote, also little changed from a year earlier.

In 1989, the Exxon Valdez spilled 11 million gallons of oil into Alaska’s Prince William Sound, devastating wildlife and local businesses. Victims of the spill sued Exxon and won a $5 billion punitive damage award in 1994 that was cut to $507.5 million in 2008 by a divided U.S. Supreme Court.

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