Over the past two weeks, activist hedge fund investor Engine No. 1 scored a victory for the climate change movement by wresting three board seats at ExxonMobil with the support of the “Big Three” institutional investment firms BlackRock, Vanguard, and State Street. But the episode also marks a failure in ExxonMobil’s “corporate diplomacy” because of its inability to convincingly demonstrate that it is committed to mitigating climate risks and protecting its long-term business value, according to Wharton management professor Witold Henisz.
Engine No. 1 has only a 0.02% stake in ExxonMobil, but the climate risk issues it pushed for were sufficient to get the three big investment firms on its side. In explaining its stance, BlackRock stated that the energy major needs “to further assess the company’s strategy and board expertise against the possibility that demand for fossil fuels may decline rapidly in the coming decades.” BlackRock CEO Larry Fink had reiterated his company’s commitment to combating climate change in his 2021 annual letter to CEOs; in his 2020 letter to CEOs, he had said that “climate risk is investment risk.”
An activist investor is likely to pick up a third seat on the board of Exxon Mobil Corp., giving it additional leverage to press the oil giant to address investor discontent about diminished profits and its fossil-fuel focused strategy amid concerns about climate change.
Exxon said Wednesday that an updated vote count showed shareholders backed a third nominee of Engine No. 1, an upstart hedge fund that had already won two board seats at Exxon’s annual shareholder meeting last week. The final vote hasn’t been certified, Exxon said, and could take days or weeks to be finalized, according to people familiar with the matter.
Engine No. 1, which owns a tiny fraction of Exxon’s stock, had sought four seats on the board and argued the Texas oil giant should commit to carbon neutrality, effectively bringing its emissions to zero—both from the company and its products—by 2050, as some peers have. If the preliminary voting results hold, it will control a quarter of Exxon’s 12-person board.
Shareholders representing nearly 56% of shares that were eligible to vote supported a proposal calling for Exxon to disclose more about direct and indirect lobbying spending and policies, while about 64% voted for Exxon to release a report on how its lobbying aligns with Paris climate accords.
Sticking around and backing dissident board candidates worked. Instead of divesting from Exxon Mobil, the US’s biggest oil company, the nation’s three largest public pension funds pursued a successful strategy of advocating for change, and they just helped elect a pair of outside directors. Expect more of this tack against fossil fuel outfits.
Running counter to the trend of pension programs dumping fossil fuel stocks, these giant retirement systems—the California Public Employees’ Retirement System (CalPERS), the California State Teachers’ Retirement System (CalSTRS), and the New York State Common Retirement Fund—believe that, in most cases, working from within is the better way to promote change.
They were key players in electing the two outside directors (a third is still up in the air as proxy ballots are counted), along with huge asset managers BlackRock and Vanguard, plus other pension entities such as the Church of England’s program.