The Energy 202: ExxonMobil declines to set long-term climate goal, bucking oil

with Paulina Firozi

ExxonMobil dismissed the idea of setting a date by which it will sharply reduce its contributions to climate change — bucking a recent trend among major oil companies.

Darren Woods, the company’s chairman and chief executive, told investors Wednesday that it is up to consumers and the governments they elect to set target dates cutting greenhouse gas emissions — not a single corporation such as his.

“As an individual company, we can’t drive that but we can certainly participate in it,” Woods said during the company’s annual shareholders’ meeting, held virtually because of the coronavirus pandemic.

Woods emphasized that Exxon, which during the 1990s and much of the 2000s denied the idea of man-made climate change, today takes the issue seriously. 

Exxon has set a series of short-term goals, promising to cut methane emissions by 15 percent and reduce the burning of excess gas at wells by  by 20 percent between 2016 and 2020.

And in a break with President Trump, Exxon backs the 2015 Paris climate agreement, which seeks to limit global warming to 2 degrees Celsius this century. The company also supports federal regulation of methane emissions at a time when the Trump administration is rolling back rules put in place under President Barack Obama to stop the leaking of that potent greenhouse gas from oil operations.

But unlike other oil majors, Exxon has declined to set a long-term deadline for reaching various emissions targets.

Nearly all Western major oil and gas firms are under pressure — from politicians, activists and even their investors — to do more to slow down the buildup of heat-trapping pollution in the atmosphere. Several European oil companies earlier this year set mid-century targets for reducing emissions.

“Exxon is looking more and more isolated in its refusal to even engage with the idea” of a long-term emissions-reduction target, said Andrew Logan, series director of the oil and gas program at Ceres, a nonprofit group of environmentalists and investors.

BP, for one, said that by 2050 it will slash greenhouse gas emissions from much of its own operations to net zero and cut the carbon content of its products by 50 percent. Royal Dutch Shell aims to reduce the carbon intensity of the fuel it sells by 65 percent by that year.

And Total, a French oil multinational, went even further by promising to cut emissions from both its own drilling and refining operations, and from the burning of its gasoline and other products in Europe by the middle of the century.

The companies are still fuzzy on many of the details of their plans, which will likely depend on the development of a cheap way of capturing carbon dioxide from the air.

The oil companies generally face more political pressure in Europe to cut carbon emissions than those in the United States.

Even so, some American companies are setting their own mid-century goals. During its stockholder meeting Wednesday, for example, Atlanta-based Southern Co., a gas and electric utility, announced a new aim of achieving net-zero carbon emissions by 2050.

And investors at Chevron, the second-biggest U.S. oil company, compelled the board in a vote Wednesday at its own shareholders meeting to issue a report on the company’s climate lobbying — a win for activist shareholders who have long clamored for more transparency from the company. 

Other shareholder proposals calling for greater accountability and transparency from both Chevron and Exxon failed yesterday to get a majority of support

“Exxon and Chevron continue to give lip service to the goals of the Paris agreement, while failing to clarify for investors if or how they will reduce their emissions in alignment with the Paris agreement,” said Danielle Fugere, president of As You Sow, a nonprofit involved in shareholder advocacy.

Like Exxon, Chevron has not set a date by which it will cut emissions, but it has tied executive and employee pay to reducing methane and excess gas burning by 2023.

Exxon is under more pressure than ever from investors to address climate change.

One of Exxon’s biggest shareholders, the money manager BlackRock, cast votes during the investors’ meeting in favor of splitting the CEO and chairman roles and against the reelection of members of the board of directors because of how the company manages the risks of climate change.

Pointing out the lack of new greenhouse gas targets, the investment management company wrote in a bulletin that Exxon does not have a proper “sense of urgency” when it comes to climate change. BlackRock officials, however, did note that Exxon recently told them it is “developing future targets” for greenhouse gas emissions.

During the virtual stockholders’ meeting, Woods said Exxon does not plan to invest in solar and wind power, arguing the company has no “unique advantage” in developing those renewable sources of energy.

A “breakthrough” technology, such as one capturing carbon dioxide from the air, “would allow us to then start to set some targets,” Woods added.

Power plays

California is suing the Trump administration again. 

It is leading nearly two dozen other states and numerous cities in filing a lawsuit against the administration over its move to ease fuel efficiency standards for vehicles. 

The lawsuit states the “new rule from the Environmental Protection Agency and Transportation Department, dubbed the Safer Affordable Fuel Efficient (SAFE) Vehicle rule, is unlawful and rests on an error-ridden analysis concocted to justify the administration’s desired outcome,” the Los Angeles Times reports. In a statement, California Attorney General Xavier Becerra (D) — whose office said the lawsuit is the state’s 82nd filed against the administration — called the SAFE rule a “a job-killer and public health hazard.”

“The outcome is likely to be decided by the Supreme Court and could have serious consequences for California and the 13 other states that have embraced tougher car pollution standards than those set by the federal government,” the LA Times adds. 

Rep. Raúl Grijalva (D-Ariz.) wants the White House to reject a proposal to delay oil and gas lease payments. 

In a letter to the acting director of the Office of Management and Budget, the House Natural Resources Committee chairman referred to a potential final rule, “ONRR Reporting and Royalty Payment Delay Related to Coronavirus Disease 2019 (COVID-19),” sent to the White House for review. 

“Finalizing this rule as described would financially benefit oil and gas companies at public expense and create a ridiculous double standard for economic relief,” Grijalva writes. “While the administration is doing little to support clean energy companies struggling through the pandemic, DOI is already approving dozens, if not hundreds, of requests by oil and gas companies to reduce the royalty rates they must pay.” 

In the letter, Grijalva also said the administration is “refusing to release information on this topic to the Committee.” Chris Mentasti, a spokesman for the Interior Department’s Office of Natural Resources Revenue, told The Energy 202 the office “does not comment on draft rules prior to their publication.” 

YouTube has removed Michael Moore’s documentary on clean energy over a copyright infringement claim. 

The documentary produced by the liberal filmmaker, “Planet of the Humans,” surprised many with its criticism of renewable energy and the environmental movement, and has been lambasted by climate activists. But “YouTube’s decision to remove the film on Monday was unrelated to this criticism,” E&E News reports. “Rather, it came in response to a copyright infringement claim submitted by British environmental photographer Toby Smith.” 

Director Jeff Gibbs denied violating copyright law and called it an “attempt to take down our film and prevent the public from seeing it is a blatant act of censorship.” 

Oil check

The pandemic has altered oil and gas compabies in Louisiana, where it’s key to the state’s economy. 

Trade groups argue the oil and gas industry faces an existential threat. “In a state dominated — economically, politically, culturally — by the oil and gas industry, unemployment has jumped to 14.5 percent,” the New York Times magazine reports.

“Louisianans worried about air and water pollution, wetlands loss, rising sea levels and the future habitability of the southern third of the state have long expressed extreme concern that the industry will survive, at least in its current form,” per the report. 

But to shift away from oil and gas and toward a new energy economy soon — including with solar power and wind farms — it “would require a revolution in Louisiana politics or the intervention of a higher power.” 

In other news

General Electric is selling off its lightbulb business. 

The company has been looking to get out of the business of making lightbulbs or years. With the latest announcement, General Electric has shed its last direct link to consumers, the Wall Street Journal reports.

“Terms of the deal weren’t disclosed, but the transaction valued the unit at around $250 million, according to a person familiar with the matter,” per the report. “ … The conglomerate once made refrigerators and microwaves as well as bulbs but has exited those consumer businesses as part of a yearslong restructuring. It has shifted its focus to making heavy equipment, like power turbines, aircraft engines and hospital machines.” 

Google searches for “hornet spray,” “hornet traps” and “insecticide” have surged since the “murder hornet” arrived in the United States.

Now the response to the arrival of the Asian giant hornet “has been so frenzied it’s prompted something of a backlash,” writes Christopher Ingraham, “with entomologists warning that panic over a rare and geographically isolated invasive hornet will lead to the indiscriminate killing of beneficial bees, wasps and hornets nationwide.” 

“There are 3,141 counties in the United States, but only one, in northwest Washington state, has a documented sighting,” he added.

The second named tropical system of the year made landfall less than two hours after it was named. 

Tropical Storm Bertha formed early Wednesday just off the coast of Charleston, S.C.

“The storm made landfall east of Charleston at about 09:30 a.m. Eastern time, with maximum sustained winds of 50 mph. The storm was downgraded to a tropical depression as it lumbered inland, about 50 miles north-northwest of Charleston as of 2 p.m. Eastern,” Matthew Cappucci and Andrew Freedman report. “ … Tropical Storm Bertha is bringing a plume of record high atmospheric moisture, known as precipitable water, surging north, with onshore flow triggering the incessant downpours. During the next few days, the system, which by then will no longer be a tropical storm, will bring scattered downpours all the way into the Northeast.”

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