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Column: Exxon Mobil is suing its shareholders to silence them about global warming

Men sit at a table.
Exxon Mobil CEO Darren Woods, left, listens with other oil company executives as then-President Trump spoke in the White House in 2020.
(Evan Vucci / Associated Press)
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You wouldn’t think that Exxon Mobil has to worry much about being harried by a couple of shareholder groups owning a few thousand dollars worth of shares between them — not with its $529-billion market value and its stature as the world’s biggest oil company.

But then you might not have factored in the company’s stature as the world’s biggest corporate bully.

In February, Exxon Mobil sued the U.S. investment firm Arjuna Capital and Netherlands-based green shareholder firm Follow This to keep a shareholder resolution they sponsored from appearing on the agenda of its May 29 annual meeting. The resolution urged Exxon Mobil to work harder to reduce the greenhouse gas emissions of its products.

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Exxon has more resources than just about anybody; ‘overkill’ doesn’t begin to describe the imbalance of power.

— Shareholder advocate Nell Minow

The company’s legal threat worked: Days after the lawsuit was filed, the shareholder groups, weighing their relative strength against an oil behemoth, withdrew the proposal and pledged not to refile it in the future.

Yet even though the proposal no longer exists, the company is still pursuing the lawsuit, running up its own and its adversaries’ legal bills. Its goal isn’t hard to fathom.

“What purpose does this have other than sending a chill down the spines of other investors to keep them from speaking up and filing resolutions?” asks Illinois State Treasurer Michael W. Frerichs, who oversees public investment portfolios, including the state’s retirement and college savings funds, worth more than $35 billion.

In response to the lawsuit, Frerichs has urged Exxon Mobil shareholders to vote against the reelection to the board of Chairman and Chief Executive Darren W. Woods and lead independent director Joseph L. Hooley at the annual meeting.

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He’s not alone. The $496-billion California Public Employees’ Retirement System, or CalPERS, the nation’s largest public pension fund, is considering a vote against Woods, according to the fund’s chief operating investment officer, Michael Cohen.

“Exxon has gone well beyond any other company that we’re aware of in terms of suing shareholders for trying to bring forward a proposal,” Cohen told the Financial Times. “There doesn’t seem to be anything other than an agenda of sending a message of shutting down shareholders’ ability to speak their mind.”

California Treasurer Fiona Ma, a CalPERS board member, backs a vote against Woods. “As the largest public pension fund in the country, we have a responsibility to lead on issues that threaten to undermine shareowners,” she says.

The oil industry knew it was responsible for global warming, and lied about it for decades. California is right to look for ways to make them pay in court.

Sept. 20, 2023

The proxy advisory firm Glass Lewis & Co., which helps institutional investors decide how to vote on shareholder proposals and board elections, has counseled a vote against Hooley, citing Exxon Mobil’s “unusual and aggressive tactics” in fighting activist investors.

Exxon Mobil’s action against Arjuna and Follow This opens a new chapter in the long battle between corporate managements and shareholder gadflies.

Fossil fuel companies have been especially touchy about shareholder resolutions calling on them to take firmer action on global warming and to be more transparent about the effects their products have on climate.

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In part that may be the result of some significant victories by activist shareholders. In 2021, nearly 61% of Chevron shareholders voted for the company to “substantially” reduce its greenhouse gas emissions — a shockingly large majority for a shareholder vote on any issue. That same year, the activist hedge fund Engine No. 1 led a campaign that unseated three Exxon Mobil board members and replaced them with directors more sensitive to climate risk.

Exxon Mobil also subjected the San Diego County community of Imperial Beach to a campaign of legal harassment over the city’s participation in a lawsuit aimed at forcing the company and others in the oil industry to pay compensation for the cost of global warming, which stems from the burning of the companies’ products.

Even in that context, Exxon Mobil’s campaign against Arjuna and Follow This represents a high-water mark in corporate cynicism.

The lawsuit asserts that the investment funds’ proposed resolution violated standards set forth by the Securities and Exchange Commission governing the propriety of such resolutions — it was related to “the company’s ordinary business operations” and closely resembled resolutions on similar topics that had failed to exceed threshold votes at the company’s 2022 and 2023 annual meetings. Both standards allow a company to block a resolution from the meeting agenda, or proxy.

That may be so, but the conventional practice is for managements to seek approval from the SEC to exclude such resolutions through the issuance of what’s known as an agency “no action” letter.

BP and Shell made eye-catching promises to invest in renewable energy. If you’re shocked that they’re already backing off, you haven’t been paying attention.

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Exxon Mobil hasn’t taken that step. Instead, it filed its lawsuit in federal court in Forth Worth, where the case was certain to be heard by one of the only two judges in that courthouse, both conservatives appointed by Republican presidents — a crystalline example of partisan “judge shopping.” The case came before Trump appointee Mark T. Pittman, who has allowed it to proceed.

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The company hasn’t said why it followed that course. “The U.S. system for shareholder access is the best in the world,” company spokeswoman Elise Otten told me by email. “To make sure it stays that way, the rules must be enforced or the abuse by activists masquerading as shareholders will continue threatening the system.”

In practice, however, the SEC has been quite strict about requiring that shareholder proposals meet its standards. “There can only be one reason” for the lawsuit, says shareholder advocate Nell Minow — “it’s to crush the shareholder. Exxon has more resources than just about anybody; ‘overkill’ doesn’t begin to describe the imbalance of power.”

The company accused Arjuna and Follow This of aiming not “to improve ExxonMobil’s business performance or increase shareholder value,” but of pursuing the goal of “disrupting ExxonMobil’s investments and development of fossil fuel assets and causing ExxonMobil to change its business model, regardless of the benefits, costs, or the world’s needs.”

The company maintained that the shareholder groups aimed to “force ExxonMobil to change the nature of its ordinary business or to go out of business entirely.”

That’s flatly untrue. The resolution observed that the company’s “cost of capital may substantially increase if it fails to control transition risks by significantly reducing absolute emissions.”

That judgment is shared by many institutional investors and government regulators, and points to a path for preserving Exxon Mobil’s business prospects, not destroying them.

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In any case, what Exxon Mobil failed to note is that shareholder resolutions are always advisory — they can’t require management to do anything.

In its lawsuit, the company whined about the sheer burden of handling an increase in shareholder resolutions, especially those on fraught topics such as the environment and social issues. Using what it described as an SEC estimate that it costs corporations $150,000 to deal with every submitted resolution, its annual meeting statement calculated that it has spent $21 million to manage 140 submitted resolutions.

A couple of points about that. First, the SEC didn’t estimate that every resolution costs $150,000 to manage. The SEC actually cites a range of $20,000 to $150,000 each.

Second, a quick look at the company’s financial statements gives the lie to its claim that shareholder resolutions are some sort of cataclysmic burden. Its statistics applied to the entire 10-year period from 2014 through 2023, not just a single year.

The right wing is trying to turn environmental investing into a boogeyman, as it did with critical race theory.

July 1, 2022

Over that decade, Exxon Mobil reported total profits of $204.3 billion. In other words, processing those 140 proposals — using the SEC’s highest estimate to arrive at $21 million — cost Exxon Mobil one one-hundredth of a percent of its profits, at most, to deal with shareholder proposals.

And it’s not as if those proposals clog up the annual meeting proxy — for this year’s meeting, only four proposals will be submitted to shareholder votes. Management opposes all four, big surprise.

As for whether companies such as Exxon Mobil have better uses for their money, the proxy statement doesn’t make a great case for every expenditure.

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Last year, for instance, the company paid nearly $1.5 million in relocation expenses for its top executives, including about $500,000 for Woods, in connection with the move of its headquarters from the Dallas suburbs to the Houston suburbs, about a three-hour drive away. Over the last three years, Woods collected more than $81 million in compensation, so one can see why moving house would leave him strapped.

“As a shareholder, the one thing you ask for is to look at every expenditure in terms of its return on investment,” Minow told me. “It’s unfathomable that the return on investment of this lawsuit is in any way beneficial to the company.” She’s right: It’s certain that Exxon’s legal fees on this case already exceed the putative $150,000 expense it incurred dealing with the withdrawn proposal.

Exxon Mobil’s punitive lawsuit only hints at the lengths that the fossil fuel industry will go to preserve a business model facing an inexorable decline. The companies haven’t been shy about enlisting politicians to rid them of their turbulent shareholders (to paraphrase the medieval King Henry II).

In February, Sen. Bill Hagerty (R-Tenn.) introduced a measure dubbed the “Rejecting Extremist Shareholder Proposals that Inhibit and Thwart Enterprise for Businesses Act, or “RESPITE.” The act would overturn an SEC rule stating that resolutions dealing with “significant social policy issues” can’t be excluded from the annual proxy under the traditional “ordinary business” limitation.

Don’t expect them to be shy about demanding more latitude from a reelected President Trump. The Washington Post reported last week that Trump pledged to roll back Biden administration environmental policies if the oil executives meeting with him at Mar-a-Lago would raise $1 billion for his campaign. An Exxon Mobil executive was present, the Post reported.

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