ExxonMobil’s (XOM) May 26 annual meeting has turned into a referendum on the global oil industry and climate change.
At issue is a key question for the industry and the global climate: How much of the oil that’s been discovered to date but not pumped so far will stay in the ground? Last week the International Energy Agency said the world needs to stop approving new oil and gas projects IMMEDIATELY in order to keep global warming to 1.5 degrees Celsius and avoid catastrophic climate change.
A campaign led by activist investor Engine No. 1 LLC wants to replace one-third of Exxon’s board to force the company to actively embrace a transition away from fossil fuels. Engine No. 1 calls the company’s current strategy “value destruction” for shareholders. And the campaign has signed up some impressive allies in the fight including Institutional Shareholder Services and Glass Lewis & Co., two leading shareholder advisory firms. ISS has gone so far as to write a rebuke of Exxon’s climate strategy, saying it had taken only “incremental steps to prepare for the inevitable.”
Adding weight to the campaign to replace one-third of Exxon’s board–and in consequence CEO Darren Woods–are financial projections that say the company can’t afford to follow its current course and continue to pay the third-largest dividend in the S&P 500. Exxon’s strategic vision to date is to project a profitable long-term future for fossil fuels and the company says there’s no point in investing in renewable energy. 2020 was a catastrophe for Exxon’s balance sheet, as debt climbed by 40% as the company borrowed to support its dividend of $3.48 a share (with a current yield of 5.91%.) The company says the pandemic year was an anomaly and that oil prices (and Exxon revenue are in the process of bouncing back.) But the financial numbers were worrying before the pandemic. In 2019, a pre-pandemic year, return on invested capital fell to 6.36%. ROIC had stood at 9.28% in 2018 and 9.12% in 2017.
ExxonMobil’s by-laws make the May 26 shareholder vote a high stakes showdown. A victory for any dissident candidate would force an incumbent to step down–only 12 of the 16 candidates will get a seat on the board. “I don’t see how Darren Woods remains as CEO if one of the dissidents, let alone all four, are elected,” Andrew Logan, director of oil and gas at Ceres, told Bloomberg. “It would be such a sign of fundamental dissatisfaction with the status quo that something would have to change. And that starts with the CEO.” Ceres is a coalition of environmentally active investors that manage $37 trillion.
The results of the vote are by no means certain. the stock has rallied 47.2% in 2021 to date as oil prices have recovered. And in an effort to show that it’s not blind to the challenge of climate change the company has also announced new emissions targets, started a low-carbon business, and supported policies that will help advance technologies such as carbon capture that promise to reduce carbon dioxide in the atmosphere while allowing the continued burning of fossil fuels.