Shareholder activism and fossil fuel corporations

2019-06-06

in Economics, Law, Politics, The environment

One argument routinely used against divestment from fossil fuels is that, as investors, institutions like universities and pension funds might be able to discourage the most wasteful and damaging new fossil fuel investments and encourage fossil fuel corporations to use their resources and expertise to advance decarbonization.

In the U of T divestment brief we explained our doubts about this justification. Nonetheless, it remains an approach that some are trying:

Bruce Duguid of Hermes Investment Management, who worked with bp on behalf of Climate Action 100+, says that disclosure will help investors understand if the billions which bp continues to spend on oil and gas creates too much risk. bp will describe how big new capital projects stack up against the Paris goal of keeping warming “well below” 2°C relative to preindustrial times. Equinor, Norway’s state behemoth, agreed to something similar in April. As with Shell, bp’s resolution does not require it to cut oil and gas output. Greenpeace, a combative ngo, blocked entrances to bp’s headquarters in London ahead of its annual meeting on May 21st.

For the time being, though, Shell, bp and ExxonMobil remain members of the American Petroleum Institute, which has sought to ease rules on emissions of methane, a potent greenhouse gas. They also maintain links with the Western States Petroleum Association, which last year fought a carbon tax in Washington state. bp spent over $13m directly to help defeat a ballot initiative in favour of the levy.

Others are beginning to question the value of shareholder engagement. The Church of England has said it will divest by 2023 if no advances are made. “Investors’ patience is not limitless,” says Mr Logan. “It’s going to be measured in years, not decades.”

There are many reasons to doubt how meaningful shareholder activism can be, and to ask whether it’s a “shadow solution” that creates the impression that action on climate change will happen, while really justifying the continuation of the status quo. These firms have an enormous financial interest in keeping the fossil fuel reserves they own usable, which in turn means blocking climate change action. Furthermore, neither executives nor shareholders can be expected to meaningfully support a transition to decarbonization which would make these firms irrelevant.

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