Shareholders force ExxonMobil to consider climate

May 29, 2008
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, DALLAS, May 29 – Oil giant ExxonMobil tried Wednesday to placate ecology-minded shareholders by promoting energy efficiency while insisting that oil and gas remain the answer to near-term global energy demand.

Outlining his environmental strategy for the first time, ExxonMobil chairman and chief executive Rex Tillerson said the company was focused on "safely and reliably meeting the growing energy demand while working to reduce our impact on the environment."

"It is important to note that the way to deliver meaningful environmental improvements in the short-term is to improve the efficiency by which we use traditional fuels," Tillerson told shareholders gathered at the annual meeting in Dallas, Texas.

"We do recognize that somewhere out there in the future, beyond the middle of this century, the world will begin to move to something beyond fossil fuels," he said.

Tillerson came under fire this year from shareholders who proposed that the board appoint an independent chairman who can guide Exxon to invest in forms of energy other than oil and gas.

Despite public support from the descendents of Exxon founder John D. Rockefeller, the proposal got just 39.5 percent of the vote, about as well as it did last year.

Shareholders also pressed for greater accountability in terms of executive pay, political contributions, nomination of directors and environmental impacts.

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They also asked ExxonMobil to set goals to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and to develop more alternative energy solutions, during a contentious four-hour meeting.

All 17 resolutions were voted down, but several garnered the support of more than a third of investors.

Tillerson said his environmental strategy is focused on improving the efficiency of Exxon\’s own massive operations and to develop products to help customers use oil and gas more efficiently.

He highlighted the company\’s investment in reducing flares during refining; limiting oil spills to just a teaspoon per million barrels transported; and working with automakers to develop more fuel-efficient vehicles through use of hybrid batteries, lighter materials, better engine oil and improved tires.

His remarks were a departure from last year\’s meeting when he essentially told shareholders they should look to competitor Royal Dutch Shell if they wanted to invest in alternative energy.

But he stopped short of making any promises to invest in alternative fuels.

"The world is going to have to use oil and natural gas, whether people like it or not, that\’s a fact," Tillerson said during a press conference after the meeting.

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"You can run and you can hide, but that\’s what you\’re going to be using 25 years from now."

Tillerson cautioned that while the use of alternative energy sources such as wind, solar and biomass power is expected to grow dramatically, it will nonetheless only account for about two percent of global energy demand by 2030.

That didn\’t soothe all the shareholders at the meeting. While some of those who supported the reform proposals said they were pleased with Tillerson\’s change in tone, others worry that Exxon doesn\’t have the proper vision to continue its record profit in the future.

"The Rockefeller family believes now is precisely the time for ExxonMobil, with its strong financial performance, to take the long-term steps to increase shareholder value," family spokesman Peter O\’Neill told the meeting.

"All of ExxonMobil\’s acknowledged strengths are no guarantee that it will remain flexible and visionary in light of the changing energy realities that lie ahead."

Several investors expressed frustration with the activist shareholders.

"These poseur shareholders view Exxon as a means to advance their anti-people, anti-business, and anti-Exxon social and political agenda," said Steven Milloy, portfolio manager of the Free Enterprise Action Fund.

"For those shareholders who don\’t like the oil and gas business, get out," he said.

"The rest of us will be quite happy to purchase your shares and enjoy the profits of true social responsibility."

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