The little Engine that could

ExxonMobil loses a proxy fight with green investors


“THE STONE AGE did not end for lack of stone, and the oil age will end long before the world runs out of petroleum.”That battle cry animates critics of Big Oil, who dream of phasing out hydrocarbons in favour of cleaner fuels and technologies. Their bête noire is ExxonMobil, long the richest and mightiest of Western oil supermajors—and the most unrepentant in its defence of crude. Lee Raymond, a formidable former boss of the Texan titan, once told your correspondent to get out of his Office after being challenged over his flagrant denial of climate science.

「石器时代的终结不是因为石头不够了,石油时代的终结也远不用等到世界上石油耗尽的那一天。」这句口号鼓舞着石油巨头的批评者,他们梦想着逐步淘汰碳氢化合物,转而采用更清洁的燃料和技术。埃克森美孚(ExxonMobil)是他们的眼中钉。长期以来,这家公司在西方石油巨头中最有钱有势,同时也最执迷不悟地为原油辩护。笔者曾采访过这家得克萨斯巨头凶悍的前老板李・雷蒙德(Lee Raymond),在质疑他对气候科学的公然否定后,被他赶出了办公室。

Darren Woods, who currently does Mr Raymond’s old job, does not deny that climate change is real. And he must now contend with the biggest rebuke to the firm’s management in living memory. At his company’s shareholder meeting on May 26 th a coalition of activist investors led by Engine No.1, a small hedge fund, managed to put at least two green-tinged directors on the board to promote a lower-carbon strategy of the sort espoused by European supermajors such as BP, Royal Dutch Shell and Total. As The Economist went to press the fate of a third activist nominee had yet to be determined.

达伦・伍兹(Darren Woods)如今坐在雷蒙德昔日的位置上,他并不否认气候变化确实存在。而他现在必须应对这家公司的管理层所遭遇的抨击——人们记忆中最严重的一次。在 5 月 26 日的公司股东大会上,由小型对冲基金「1 号引擎」(Engine No.1)领导的维权投资者联盟成功让至少两名倾向于环保的人士进入董事会,以推行 BP、荷兰皇家壳牌(Royal Dutch Shell)和道达尔(Total)等欧洲石油巨头都在支持的低碳战略。在本刊付印之际,他们提名的第三个人是否当选尚未揭晓。

Engine No.1 didn’t quite get its way: it had put forward four candidates. But as David Larcker of Stanford’s Graduate School of Business observes, it is“extremely rare”for a company the size of ExxonMobil to elect even one dissident director, let alone two or three. Even one dissenting voice can make a big difference, says Charles Elson, a corporate-governance expert at the University of Delaware who has served as a courteous rebel on various boards. The result is thus an unprecedented attack on ExxonMobil’s carbon-addiction, which is greater than any other supermajor’s (see chart 1).

1 号引擎也不算大获全胜:它推举了四名候选人。但正如斯坦福大学商学院的戴维・拉克尔(David Larcker)所说,像埃克森美孚这样规模的公司能选出一名持异议的董事都「极其罕见」,更别说两名或三名了。特拉华大学的公司治理专家查尔斯・埃尔森(Charles Elson)也担任过多家公司的董事,总是在董事会上礼貌地提出反对意见。他说,即便只有一个人反对,也会产生重大影响。结果就是埃克森美孚比其他所有石油巨头都更严重的「碳瘾」遭到了前所未有的打击(见图表 1)。

The campaign succeeded thanks to the backing of powerful allies. CalPERS and CalSTRS, pension funds representing, respectively, California’s public employees and its teachers, have between them over $700 bn in assets under management. Two giant funds representing New York’s state and city employees, with another $300 bn or so in assets, joined them in supporting Engine No.1’s effort. Together they hold Less than 1% of ExxonMobil’s shares. But as large asset managers, their actions sent a strong signal to the broader market.

这次行动能成功有赖强大盟友的支持。分别代表加州公职人员和教师的加州公务员退休基金(CalPERS)和加州教师退休基金(CalSTRS)管理的资产共计超过 7000 亿美元。分别代表纽约州和纽约市雇员的另外两家大型基金管理着大约 3000 亿美元的总资产。它们都加入了支持 1 号引擎的行列。尽管这四家基金持有的埃克森美孚股份加起来不到 1%,但作为大型资产管理公司,它们的行动向更广泛的市场发出了一个强烈的信号。

The market received it. Institutional Shareholder Services (ISS) and Glass Lewis, a proxy-advisory duopoly which counsels investors on such matters, recommended the election of three and two of Engine No.1’s directors, respectively. In a report published on May 14 th ISS declared that the hedge fund“made a compelling case that additional board change is needed to provide shareholders with sufficient confidence”in ExxonMobil’s prospects. The majority of shareholders agreed, almost certainly including some big asset managers.

市场收到了信号。为投资者提供持股公司投票建议的股东投票顾问双寡头——机构股东服务公司(Institutional Shareholder Services,简称 ISS)和 Glass Lewis——分别建议选出三名和两名由 1 号引擎提名的候选人。ISS 在 5 月 14 日发布的一份报告中宣称,1 号引擎「提出了令人信服的理由,认为董事会需要更进一步重组,好让股东有足够的信心」相信埃克森美孚的前景。对此大多数股东都表示赞成,几乎可以肯定其中包括一些大型资产管理公司。

The vote itself was as odd as the result. ExxonMobil’s management refused to announce the results, which should already have been tabulated, at the scheduled hour, instead declaring a recess“to ensure all of our shareholders have the opportunity to express their views”。This unusual move fuelled rumours that the firm was trying to persuade large institutional investors to reverse votes cast for the dissident directors, especially those with the greenest profiles. If true, that would be a departure from ExxonMobil’s habitually strong corporate governance.


Whatever actually went on during the unscheduled break, the result was still a bombshell. When the meeting resumed, the firm announced that two of Engine No.1 candidates, Gregory Goff and Kaisa Hietala, had been elected. It said it needed more time to determine whether a third, Alexander Karsner, would join them.

无论在这段计划外休会期间到底发生了什么,结果仍然令人震惊。当会议重新开始时,埃克森美孚宣布,1 号引擎提名的两位候选人格雷戈里・戈夫(Gregory Goff)和凯萨・希塔拉(Kaisa Hietala)已经当选。它表示还需要更多时间来决定第三位候选人亚历山大・卡斯纳(Alexander Karsner)是否会进入董事会。

ExxonMobil’s proxy defeat is the latest sign that outside pressure for the oil business to embrace the transition to a low-carbon future is mounting. On May 18 th the International Energy Agency (IEA), an international forecaster not known for alarmism, warned that investments in all new fossil-fuel projects must stop now if the global energy sector is to achieve carbon neutrality by 2050. President Joe Biden wants America’s power sector to stop adding greenhouse gases to the atmosphere 15 years earlier than that.

埃克森美孚在代理权上的失利是一个最新的迹象,显示要求石油业向低碳未来转型的外部压力正在加大。5 月 18 日,并不惯于危言耸听的国际预测机构国际能源署(IEA)警告称,如果全球能源行业要在 2050 年前实现碳中和,那么现在就必须停止对化石燃料项目的所有新投资。美国总统拜登希望美国电力行业能提前在 2035 年就停止向大气排放温室气体。

So far it has been Europe’s oil giants that were pushed harder to go greener—by activists, consumers, regulators, investors and courts. Last year BP vowed to slash the carbon intensity of the products it sells by 50% in the next 30 years. Last month Shell won shareholder approval for its plan to create a carbon-neutral business by mid-century, including emissions from the fuel burned by end-users. Though ambitious by industry standards, this was not enough for a judge in the Netherlands, who on May 26 th ordered the Anglo-Dutch giant to cut emissions between 2019 and 2030 by 45%, in keeping with global climate accords; Shell is expected to appeal.

迄今为止,欧洲石油巨头受到的压力更大——维权人士、消费者、监管机构、投资者和法院都逼迫它们加大环保力度。去年,BP 誓言在未来 30 年内将所销售产品的碳强度削减 50%。壳牌计划在本世纪中叶实现碳中和——这将把终端用户使用其燃料产生的排放也计算在内,该计划在 5 月获股东通过。虽然从行业标准来看这一目标已经够雄心勃勃了,但在荷兰的一个法官看来还不够,他在 5 月 26 日责令这家英荷巨头到 2030 年将碳排放降至较 2019 年减少 45%,以符合全球气候协议。预期壳牌将会上诉。

Now carbon-bashing is spreading beyond tree-hugging Europe. Earlier this year activist badgering had already prompted ExxonMobil to unveil plans for a new“low carbon solutions”division, which will develop technologies to capture carbon and store it underground. It has also pledged to cut the carbon intensity of its own exploration and production operations by 15-20% by 2025. The same day as the ExxonMobil vote, shareholders of Chevron, its American rival similarly bullish on oil, voted for a proposal to reduce emissions from the end use of its products.

现在,打击排放的行动正从拥抱树木的欧洲向其他地方蔓延。在维权人士锲而不舍的推动下,今年早些时候埃克森美孚宣布了成立「低碳解决方案」新部门的计划,将开发碳捕集和地下封存技术。它还承诺到 2025 年把自己勘探和生产经营的碳强度降低 15% 至 20%。就在埃克森美孚投票的当天,它的美国竞争对手、同样力挺石油的雪佛龙(Chevron)的股东投票支持了一项提案,要求减少其产品在最终使用时产生的碳排放。

ExxonMobil’s new directors will now push for more aggressive emissions cuts. Engine No.1 points to the firm’s plans to spend merely $3 bn or so in total over the next five years on its low-carbon effort, compared with around $20 bn a year on dirtier traditional investments. Unlike Shell, the company has promised only to reduce emissions from its own operations, not the vastly greater ones produced when its products are used by consumers.

埃克森美孚的新任董事们接下来将推动更大幅度的减排。1 号引擎指出,埃克森美孚在未来五年对低碳业务的总计划支出只有 30 亿美元左右,而它每年在重污染的传统投资上的支出大约在 200 亿美元。与壳牌不同的是,埃克森美孚只承诺减少自身运营带来的排放,而不包括消费者使用其产品时产生的排放——这一部分要大得多。

The big reason such arguments no longer fall on deaf ears is ExxonMobil’s once mighty reputation for being tightly run has slipped. Indiscipline has replaced historically prudent capital spending. The firm has torched billions in shareholder value in the past few years. The most eye-popping chart in Engine No.1’s 80-page manifesto shows its return on capital languishing at or well below its weighted-average cost of capital since 2015 (see chart 2).

这样的反对声音不再被置若罔闻的一个重要原因是,埃克森美孚原本管理严格的盛名已经不再。过去在资本支出上的审慎已被无纪律取代。过去几年里,埃克森美孚已经烧掉了数十亿美元的股东价值。在 1 号引擎 80 页的声明中,一张最令人瞠目的图表显示,自 2015 年以来,埃克森美孚的资本回报率只是勉强跟上或远低于其加权平均资本成本(见图表 2)。

Whereas Chevron spent Less than $70 bn on capital expenditure in total over the past five years, ExxonMobil splurged nearly $100 bn, even as oil prices swooned. Its net debt has nearly doubled since 2015 to over $60 bn. A mistimed and overpriced acquisition of XTO Energy, a gas firm, led it in November to write off $17 bn-20 bn—and S&P Global, a rating agency, to entitle a scathing analysis of the incident“How not to do M&A”。“Board refreshment is necessary due to the long-term financial underperformance at ExxonMobil,”says Anne Simpson of CalPERS.

雪佛龙过去五年的资本支出总额不到 700 亿美元,而埃克森美孚在油价低迷的情况下还挥霍了近 1000 亿美元。自 2015 年以来,它的净债务几乎翻了一番,达到 600 多亿美元。对天然气公司 XTO Energy 不合时宜且价格过高的收购让埃克森美孚在去年 11 月做了 170 亿至 200 亿美元的减计。评级机构标普全球(S&P Global)就此事做了一番犀利的分析,题为《如此并购要不得》(How not to do M&A)。「鉴于埃克森美孚的财务业绩表现长期不佳,重组董事会很有必要。」CalPERS 的安妮・辛普森(Anne Simpson)表示。

Last summer, as ExxonMobil’s share price headed to a two-decade low and the company was knocked out of the Dow Jones Industrial Average after nearly a century in the blue-chip index, Ms Simpson’s argument would have sounded incontrovertible. To many it remains compelling. But deep down many investors may still worry that the green shift will destroy shareholder value. Thanks to dearer oil ExxonMobil has clawed back $110 bn in market capitalisation since October, handily besting the European giants whose promised wind and solar projects are years away from profitability and could meanwhile eat into their dividends.

去年夏天,埃克森美孚的股价跌至 20 年来的低点,公司也在入选道琼斯工业平均指数成分股近一个世纪后被剔除出这一蓝筹股指数,辛普森发表的观点在那时听起来应该无可争议。对许多人来说它现在也仍然令人信服。但在内心深处,许多投资者可能仍然担心向绿色能源的转型将损害股东价值。油价回升后,埃克森美孚自去年 10 月以来已经挽回了 1100 亿美元的市值,轻松击败了欧洲各大石油巨头,后者承诺的风能和太阳能项目要盈利还要等待多年,同时可能损耗它们的股息。

Crude prices are, of course, cyclical by nature. They will fall again at some point, in contrast to the carbon dioxide relentlessly accumulating in the air as more oil is burned. Mainstream investors now view climate risk as“a core component of long-term value”,notes Timothy Youmans of EOS, which offers stewardship services to owners of $1.5 trn in assets and supports Engine No.1. Last week’s shareholder battle is proof of that. Mr Woods and his successors should brace for more such fights.

当然,原油价格本身具有周期性,到了某个时刻又会再次下跌。与之形成对照的是,随着更多石油被燃烧,二氧化碳则是源源不断地在大气中累积。主流投资者现在将气候风险视为「长期价值的核心组成部分」,EOS 的蒂莫西・尤曼斯(Timothy Youmans)指出。同样支持 1 号引擎的 EOS 目前为总共 1.5 万亿美元资产的所有者们提供管理服务。埃克森美孚的股东之争证明了尤曼斯的观点。伍兹和他的继任者应该准备好迎接更多这样的争斗

Published since September 1843 to take part in “a severe contest between intelligence, which presses forward, and an unworthy, timid ignorance obstructing our progress.”


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