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Climate Change

ExxonMobil’s New Board Members Are Good News, But Aren’t Climate Activists

Outcomes from ExxonMobil will be slightly better because of this, and as they are one of the largest greenhouse gas producers in the world, that’s definitely positive. A much better action for BlackRock would have been to very publicly divest their 6.7% ownership position of ExxonMobil entirely.

Headlines across the world are blaring this week about ExxonMobil being forced to accept two ‘climate activists’ on its Board of Directors, over the opposition of their CEO. But let’s take a closer look.

Yes, 2 new Board members of the 4 put forward by activist hedge fund Engine No. 1 were approved.

“We welcome the new directors, Gregory Goff and Kaisa Hietala, to the board and look forward to working with them constructively and collectively on behalf of all shareholders,” Woods said at the end of Exxon’s shareholder meeting.

But climate activists? Let’s look at them more closely, because people who are just ‘climate activists’ don’t end up on multi-billion dollar global corporate boards. Let’s start with Gregory Goff, from his Board of Directors page for Enbridge.

“Mr. Goff was Executive Vice Chairman of Marathon Petroleum Corporation from October 2018 until his retirement in December 2019. Mr. Goff was President and Chief Executive Officer of Andeavor (an integrated downstream energy company) from 2010 to 2018 and Chairman from December 2014 to 2018. Prior thereto, Mr. Goff held a number of senior leadership positions with ConocoPhillips Corporation (an oil and gas exploration and production company). Mr. Goff holds a BS (Bachelor of Science) and an MBA (Master of Business Administration) from the University of Utah.”

Yeah, so EVP of a major petroleum firm. President and CEO of a downstream energy company. Leadership in ConocoPhillips. Director on the Board of Enbridge, a major O&G pipeline company. Hardly just a ‘climate activist’.

In fact, if you search for his name and climate on Google, you find exactly one match, about a speech he made in 2016. Let’s look at what he said, shall we?

Goff said the abundant, affordable reliable energy is good, and that the benefits of America’s free-market economy should be recognized. He said the energy regulatory framework must be fair and reasonable. Globally, Goff noted that 1.4 billion people live without electricity. He said eight in 10 people in sub-Saharan Africa heat their homes and cook their food using open fires:

“People everywhere have an inherent right, regardless of where they live, to better their lives for themselves and their children.”

Goff on the development of energy regulation by government:

“In a complex society such as ours there’s a need for appropriate regulation, and the regulations must be based on the principles of transparency, fairness and accountability. … First, agencies should get scientific advice from independent scientists not being given money by those agencies. This is called avoidance of conflict of interest. Data called upon for calculation of expected benefits of regulations should be made available to the general public. This is called transparency. Data developed with taxpayers’ dollars and used to develop regulations should also be made available to the general public. This is called basic fairness. Regulations of enormous and significant economic impact should be subject to reviews and approval by Congress. This is called accountability.”

If you think that sounds like a ‘climate activist’, I’d suggest you change your meds. Those are the words of fossil fuel industry insiders arguing for the continuance of fossil fuels.

How about Kaisa Hietala? This profile is from the Reenergize Exxon site that Engine No. 1 maintains.

“Former Executive Vice President of Renewable Products at Neste

    • Proven strategic transformation ability as a leader in the renewable fuel sector
    • ~20 years of strategic and operational experience in the downstream oil industry
    • As Executive Vice President, Renewable Products at Neste, the segment’s revenues grew 1.6x and operating profits increased 4x, and the company’s transformation was named by Harvard Business Review as one of the “Top 20 Business Transformations of the Last Decade” in 2019.

Ms. Hietala is an experienced leader in strategic transformation in the energy sector who began her career in upstream oil and gas exploration and crude oil trading. Ms. Hietala served as the EVP of Renewable Products at Neste, a petroleum refining and marketing company, for five years ending in 2019.”

Yup, Hietala is another long timer in the oil and gas industry. For those unfamiliar with Neste, it’s not iced tea. Neste Oyj is an oil refining and marketing company located in Espoo, Finland.

What sources of materials does Neste use for its renewable diesel, a core product?

“Vegetable oils in Neste’s raw material portfolio:

    • palm oil
    • rapeseed oil
    • soybean oil
    • jatropha oil (limited use in a project use)
    • camelina oil (limited use in a project)”

Ooops. Palm oil? Let’s ask the Union of Concerned Scientists of the USA about palm oil, shall we?

“… because current palm oil production methods often cause the destruction of carbon-rich tropical forests and peatlands, it is a major contributor to global warming”

So… ‘climate activists’? That’s what the headlines are screaming, but that’s not what these two seasoned, senior executives from the oil and gas industry are.

What they aren’t are ExxonMobil’s preferred candidates, and they are committed to lowering carbon emissions in the oil and gas sector more rapidly than the Exxon CEO would prefer. And they were supported in this by none other than BlackRock, the single biggest investment fund in the world, with about $9 trillion under management.

These aren’t people who are going to radically transform Exxon, they are people who activist investors put forward to give ExxonMobil a kick in the pants to transform less sluggishly. It’s not like they are Bill McKibben, Greta Thunberg, or Michael Mann.

This news is somewhat good for the climate and ESG investing. Outcomes from ExxonMobil will be slightly better because of this, and as they are one of the largest greenhouse gas producers in the world, that’s definitely positive. A much better action for BlackRock would have been to very publicly divest their 6.7% ownership position of ExxonMobil entirely. That would have a been a very strong signal about ESG alignment, not making a primary driver of climate change change slightly less glacially.

It’s bigger news for activist investors, in my opinion. Spunky little Engine No. 1, a $250 million dollar hedge fund, took on a $250 billion dollar global giant and won.


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Written By

is Chief Strategist with TFIE Strategy Inc, co-founder of distnc technologies, and Strategic Advisor and Board Observer for Agora Energy Technologies. He works with startups, existing businesses and investors to identify opportunities for significant bottom line growth and cost takeout in our rapidly transforming world. His published analyses of low-carbon technology and policy have been seen in Forbes, Quartz and the Leonardo di Caprio Foundation site. His work is regularly included in textbooks. Third-party articles on his analyses and interviews have been published in dozens of news sites globally and have reached #1 on Reddit Science. He's available for consulting and speaking engagements, and Board positions.

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