Investors concerned about environmental issues hope big fund managers, such as Vanguard Group Inc. and BlackRock Inc., will continue to push oil and gas companies to make plans for a carbon-constrained future, even after a decision by SEC staff that has dampened the momentum of such shareholder motions.
Sixteen oil and gas companies face a total of 33 resolutions, almost half of which concern environmental or climate change issues, when annual meetings begin later in April, according to data compiled from shareholder advocates and S&P Global Market Intelligence.
Of those, 10 climate-change-related measures are expected to show up on shareholder proxies this spring, according to Laura Devenney, a carbon asset risk associate with Ceres, a nonprofit group that organizes and coordinates shareholder activism. Seven resolutions have already been withdrawn after negotiations with the target companies, according to Ceres' database.
The November 2017 SEC bulletin said the agency would take no action against companies that toss proxies because they either deal with the "day to day business" of a firm or, in contrast, have little direct connection to the business.
The opinion has already resulted in new 2018 proxy proposals at Exxon Mobil Corp. and EOG Resources Inc. being thrown out as being too close to "micromanaging" by shareholders.
Similar resolutions in 2017 drew votes from the big index funds, and a recent study indicated that those funds will swing even more votes against oil and gas managers who do not acknowledge a low-carbon future. While the climate change proposals differ slightly, most ask oil and gas companies to either analyze of the impact of operating in a world where carbon emissions are reduced to keep global temperatures from rising by 2 degrees C or report on plans to reduce methane emissions.
Arjuna Capital LLC investment manager Natasha Lamb called the SEC's Exxon decision "disturbing, a threat to shareholders' rights" that worries managers of funds oriented toward environmental, social and governance goals.
Exxon's most recent climate change report, issued only after 62% of Exxon shareholders overruled the board at the 2017 annual meeting, disappointed Lamb, but she said April 3 that she was not surprised. "Exxon left the risks out of its risk report," Lamb said. "This company is not going to change."
While Exxon did not return a call for comment, the industry's top trade group, the American Petroleum Institute, said its companies make every effort to work with shareholders. "Oil and natural gas companies regularly conduct outreach, engagement and respond to their shareholders," spokesman Reid Porter said in a statement April 3. "On climate change specifically, companies place considerable resources and priority in innovations to produce and deliver energy safely and with a smaller and smaller environmental footprint. In fact, the development, transportation and use of U.S. natural gas is the main driver of a steady drop in U.S. greenhouse gas emissions to near 25-year lows today."
Arjuna and the As You Sow Foundation pushed again this year for Exxon to detail at this year's shareholder meeting how it would change its asset mix in a world emitting less and less carbon dioxide. The SEC quashed that proposal, saying those questions were answered in the February climate report, in which Exxon said the world would keep using hydrocarbons for the foreseeable future and Exxon stood little risk of having assets stranded by reduced demand from a lower-carbon economy.
In contrast, the SEC on March 28 denied Chevron Corp.'s request that an almost identical proposal, also sponsored by Arjuna and As You Sow, be removed from its annual ballot. Chevron's reasoning differed from Exxon's: Chevron said disclosing how it might change its asset mix to counter carbon emission restrictions could hurt its chances in ongoing court cases.
Unless the SEC steps in, shareholders in oil and gas companies including independent producers Devon Energy Corp. and Chesapeake Energy Corp. and pipeline giant Kinder Morgan Inc. are all proposing their companies report on plans for business in a world where carbon is limited.
"About oil and gas companies, I have my greatest skepticism," Tom Sanzillo, director of finance for the Institute for Energy Economics and Financial Analysis and a former manager of New York state's $150 billion pension fund, said in an interview. Sanzillo said the world economy is in a fundamental shift away from fossil fuels and advises investors to drop oil and gas companies from their portfolios as poor performers, having trailed the benchmark S&P 500 for most of the past five years. "[Oil and gas companies] used to lead the world economy. Now they are last. An effective fiduciary would drop fossil fuels from their index."
Moreover, Sanzillo said, the SEC is helping pave the way by ruling out fundamental business questions as micromanagement. "The SEC proxy rules are designed to squeeze the meaning out of shareholder rights," he said. "Simple question for shareholders: What remedial strategies are the companies now taking that allows them to conclude that more drilling is the answer to company financial problems when they just destroyed some $200 billion plus of share value by increasing drilling? This would probably be ruled out of order."
"Shareholder dialogue with companies only works if there is a real potential for change," he said.