Big Oil Investors Give Cold Shoulder to Climate Changes

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Oil companies are under pressure from regulators and investor groups.

Oil companies are under pressure from regulators and investor groups.

Photographer: Daniel Acker/Bloomberg

Investor resolutions urging corporate leaders to be more environmentally friendly in how they run their businesses are being rolled out at a record pace this year for the energy industry.

Just don’t expect them to pass.

Proposals meant to nudge Exxon Mobil Corp. and Chevron Corp. into nominating directors with environmental expertise, setting greenhouse gas targets, and compiling reports on minimizing fracking risks are among seven such resolutions being voted on Wednesday when the two biggest U.S. oil companies hold their shareholder meetings.

Institutional investors who control the biggest blocks of stock believe the proposals aren’t needed because the companies already are motivated to minimize damage, said Vincent Piazza, a Bloomberg Intelligence analyst. Supporters as diverse as the Sisters of St. Francis of Philadelphia and the As You Sow Foundation say that just having them on the ballot can spur important dialog that can advance their movement.

“Success doesn’t mean you have to get 50 percent of the vote,” said Timothy Smith, a senior vice president at Boston-based Walden Asset Management who supports the proposals. “The goal is to start a dialog, and that moves things forward.”

Exxon and Chevron’s combined market value of more than half-a-trillion dollars eclipses the economies of about 90 percent of the world’s nations. Exxon’s gathering in Dallas will include three environmentally focused proposals; Chevron’s meeting in San Ramon, California, will feature four. All are opposed by the companies’ management.

Declining Support

Smith, who helps oversee $3 billion in investments, said support for the resolution urging Exxon to set goals for cutting greenhouse gases probably will decline from the 20 percent it garnered last year. He attributed this to an about-face by Institutional Shareholder Services, an investor advisory service that supported the proposal last year, but this year has urged a “no” vote after saying Exxon already discloses sufficient emissions data.

“I have to laugh when these guys say they want to put a guy on the board or change the way they run their business,” said John C. Kornitzer, who manages more than $1.3 billion, including Exxon and Chevron shares, as chief executive officer of Kornitzer Capital Management Inc. “Compiling a report isn’t going to prevent an industrial accident.”

Redundant Effort

In communications sent directly to shareholders and filed with the Securities and Exchange Commission, Exxon and Chevron both encouraged “no” votes. They said the proposals would be redundant to existing corporate practices, that the sought-after data is already disclosed in other formats, and that the measures would hinder managers and directors in overseeing the business.

Richard Keil, an Exxon spokesman, and Chevron’s Kurt Glaubitz declined to comment and referred a reporter’s questions to the proxy filings.

Companies are increasingly willing to negotiate, said Gregory Elders, the Bloomberg Intelligence analyst who pointed to the record pace of these proposals. One-fourth of all resolutions have been withdrawn as management agreed to address concerns, he said in an interview.

In 2014, Exxon convinced activists to pull resolutions seeking reports on assets threatened by carbon caps and risks associated with fracking. In exchange, the Irving, Texas-based company publicly released data on both themes.

“You’ve got to give the company credit; they are willing to talk to investors about these concerns,” said Walden Assets’ Smith.

Improving Disclosure

“The industry has done a lot to improve disclosure, to improve how it fracks and completes wells, and that’s not taken into account in these resolutions,” added Piazza, Bloomberg Intelligence’s senior analyst for U.S. oil and gas.

Kornitzer, who co-manages the Buffalo Flexible Income Fund from Shawnee Mission, Kansas, is voting against all seven of the proposals this week. Executive teams at the biggest oil companies have too much at stake to operate recklessly, he said.

“These CEOs all have skin in the game and it isn’t $500,000 worth of stock awards at risk if they mess up, it’s millions and millions,” Kornitzer said.

Even as green resolutions face almost certain defeat, energy investors have been more willing to embrace New York City Comptroller Scott Stringer’s efforts to make it easier for climate-change activists to get on corporate boards. Stringer’s proposal would open annual meeting ballots to director candidates nominated by shareholders.

The proposal, which is separate from the resolutions to add an environmental expert to the board, is on the ballots of 20 oil and gas companies this year. Shareholders at Occidental Petroleum Corp., ConocoPhillips and 10 other companies have approved the proposal, while three rejected it.

Exxon and Chevron holders will vote on it this week; both companies are urging ’no’ votes.

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