Exxon shareholders pass measure that may put climate expert on board

 Oil company Exxon may soon be getting a climate activist on its board, after voters approved a new measure to allow outsiders be recommended for a seat.
Oil company Exxon may soon be getting a climate activist on its board, after voters approved a new measure to allow outsiders be recommended for a seat.PHOTO: AFP

DALLAS/SAN RAMON, California (Reuters) - Voters at Exxon Mobil Corp's annual meeting on Wednesday (May 25) approved a measure to let minority shareholders nominate outsiders for seats on the board, meaning a climate activist could eventually become a director at the world's largest publicly traded oil company.

The so-called proxy access measure was the first Exxon shareholder proposal since 2006 to be approved, and it was the only one of 11 proposals related to climate change to pass at meetings held on Wednesday by Exxon and fellow US major Chevron Corp.

This year's meetings were arguably the tensest ever, coming on the heels of the Paris accord to curb fossil fuel emissions and as New York's attorney general investigates allegations from environmentalists that Exxon misled the public about climate change risks.

Exxon has denied this and complained of being unfairly targeted.

More than 60 per cent of Exxon shareholders backed proxy access, which was narrowly defeated last year. Exxon's board had opposed the proposal, saying it risked increasing the influence of "special interest groups."

New York City Comptroller Scott Stringer, who sponsored the proxy access proposal, urged the board to enact it. "If this company is to properly address fundamental long-term risks like climate change, its board of directors must be diverse, independent, and accountable," he said in a joint statement signed with the California Public Employees'Retirement System.

Stringer later called Exxon shareholders' approval of the measure a "watershed moment."

Exxon Chief Executive Officer Rex Tillerson said the board would weigh the matter in July. Proxy access proposals were approved last year at more than a dozen oil companies, including Chevron.

The raft of proposals up for vote at Exxon and Chevron more than doubled from last year.

Still, while some gained traction from previous years, nearly all the measures failed, including ones that would have forced the companies to detail how they will plan for the future after 195 governments agreed in December to limit the rise in global temperatures to 2 deg C, or to stop investing in new oil and gas deposits by paying out more dividends to shareholders.

PROTESTERS

Chevron CEO John Watson said he was not opposed to the Paris accord, but is against efforts to put a price on carbon emissions.

"Carbon pricing means raising prices on everything," he told reporters after the meeting. "What are you prepared to live without?"

While BP Plc, Statoil ASA and other European oil companies have begun releasing myriad data points on how their businesses will respond to climate change, Chevron and Exxon have lagged them, critics say.

Two dozen protesters holding signs that said "keep the oil in the ground" lined the entrance to Chevron's corporate headquarters in San Ramon, California.

In Dallas, a group of protesters, estimated at around 70 by one organiser, representing groups like 350.org and the Sierra Club, gathered in front of a church across the street from the meeting.

"Exxon's feeling the heat from all sides," said Anna Kalinsky, the granddaughter of a former Exxon climate scientist, citing investigations into the company from several state prosecutors.

They held signs reading "keep it in the ground" and "Exxon lied, the planet fried."

Deborah Nixon, an organiser with the local Dallas Sierra Club, said some members who held Exxon shares and would be attending the meeting.

In a legal filing this week to shoot down a subpoena from the US Virgin Islands demanding documents on the company's deliberations about climate change, Exxon's lawyers said that since 2006 the company has been saying that "the risk to society and ecosystems from rising greenhouse gas emissions could prove to be significant."

The lawyers also called inquiries by state prosecutors a"fishing expedition" that were stifling free speech and trying to create public policy instead of enforce laws.