What is really driving ExxonMobil’s clean energy commitments?


ExxonMobil’s prime executives went into the corporate’s yearly shareholder’s assembly in May 2021 assured it was set to win a proxy combat with activist traders over its method to local weather change.

Then the votes began rolling in and it quickly grew to become clear that Exxon had a full-blown revolt on its palms.

Engine No 1’s marketing campaign tapped right into a deep properly of discontent amongst bigger traders at Exxon — the company embodiment of the age of oil, that lengthy denied and forged doubt on man-made local weather change, and strode the worldwide stage with extra wealth and energy than many countries.

The firm was caught up to now, the marketing campaign argued, failing to place itself for a coming shift to clean energy and hooked on massive spending on oil and gasoline tasks that not made monetary sense.

“This was a complete failure in running the business,” says Chris James, founding father of Engine No 1.

But two years on from the landmark shareholder rebellion, James says he sees indicators that the proxy combat set Exxon on a brand new trajectory, pointing to quite a lot of modifications he says had been pushed by the marketing campaign.

Exxon has promised to inject billions of {dollars} into a brand new enterprise line targeted on what it calls low-carbon applied sciences comparable to carbon seize and hydrogen. The firm has additionally introduced outsiders into key senior roles, together with main the energy transition effort, which many see as an enormous cultural change at an organization that traditionally promoted these steeped within the Exxon worldview into its higher ranks.

“Setting up a low-carbon solutions business, I would chalk that up as a definitive win for what we were talking about,” says James, whose marketing campaign gained three seats on Exxon’s board. “This was a company that was kicking and screaming going into the energy transition and then started talking about it after the campaign.”

But has Exxon modified? The firm says it is pouring money into lower-emission applied sciences to help the local weather combat. But critics observe it is solely about 10 per cent of general spending over 5 years, and that the corporate stays basically wedded to a way forward for ever extra demand for fossil fuels — a future all critical local weather fashions say would unleash large environmental injury.

Some say this shift is much less a couple of newfound perception in the necessity to transition to cleaner energy and extra about benefiting from the Biden administration’s flagship local weather legislation, the Inflation Reduction Act, which incorporates beneficiant subsidies for a spread of inexperienced applied sciences.

Activists in New York protest against fossil fuels
Activists in New York protest towards fossil fuels. Many argue that Exxon’s give attention to hydrogen and carbon seize is an try to increase the fossil gas period © Eduardo MunozAlvarez/VIEW/Corbis/Getty Images

The query of Exxon’s dedication to alter has taken on new dimensions within the energy disaster that adopted Vladimir Putin’s invasion of Ukraine. This crystallised competing visions of how the world will energy itself sooner or later: the oil business’s view of continued reliance on its core merchandise; or an alternate one which breaks freed from the fossil fuels which have given company titans comparable to Exxon — and autocrats like Putin — unbelievable riches and energy.

“This is not the Exxon of even five years ago, they’ve read the tea leaves and they understand they need to project a different image,” says Andrew Logan, a senior director at Ceres, which co-ordinates investor motion on local weather change and backed the Engine No 1 marketing campaign.

“What is still unclear is whether this is just an exercise in messaging and PR or whether there’s real commitment to a new strategy.”

A brand new narrative

Last month, Exxon’s chief government, Darren Woods, fleshed out the corporate’s new energy transition technique in essentially the most element but, telling traders that efforts to chop emissions had been creating markets price trillions of {dollars} that the agency wished to faucet into.

“The world’s climate challenge is immense and the opportunity it creates is equally immense,” says Woods.

Dan Ammann, whom Exxon employed from General Motors’ self-driving automobile unit to run its low carbon efforts, says that the enterprise might someday develop to be “larger than ExxonMobil’s base business is today as the world approaches net zero”.

Line chart of Long-term outlook (mn barrels per day) showing Exxon is bullish on long-term oil demand, in contrast to IEA road map for net zero

The sudden bullishness on applied sciences that might revenue from the energy transition marks a profound shift in messaging from Exxon. For many years, the corporate downplayed the specter of clean energy to its enterprise, lobbied towards authorities efforts to cut back emissions and actively got down to forged doubt on the science of local weather change, even because it personal scientists had been coming to related conclusions because the broader scientific neighborhood, inside paperwork launched lately present.

Woods has denied that Exxon unfold disinformation in regards to the local weather and mentioned in 2021 that the corporate has “long acknowledged the reality and risks of climate change.”

Unlike European oil main rivals comparable to BP, Shell and TotalEnergies, Exxon is not ploughing money into massive wind and photo voltaic tasks or attempting to crack into the battery enterprise. Woods in 2020 dismissed these corporations’ local weather targets as a “beauty competition”.

In Exxon’s view the energy transition will contain a variety of electrification for issues comparable to energy era and cars. But it argues there might be massive swaths of the financial system like heavy business and long-range transportation that might be tough and expensive to affect and can should be decarbonised by trapping emissions or deploying hydrogen created from gasoline or swapping at the moment’s fossil fuels for biofuels.

Exxon is betting on these applied sciences — biofuels, carbon seize and storage, and low-emission hydrogen — which it says are extra intently aligned with its experience and deep expertise within the oil and gasoline enterprise.

“The world needs to establish a new industry, a carbon-reduction industry with new value chains and products, and we need it sooner rather than later. These needs play to our strengths,” says Woods.

Yet the technique has many critics. Although the International Energy Agency and the UN say these applied sciences will play a key function in serving to the world get to web zero, carbon seize and storage has by no means been efficiently constructed at a big scale and the tasks which have been arrange have typically trapped far fewer emissions than marketed. While hydrogen is a typical enter for heavy business, hardly any of it is produced cleanly at the moment, and biofuels stays a largely area of interest product.

A researcher looking at algae in a test tube
ExxonMobil’s decades-long initiative to make biofuels from algae was dropped this yr, suggesting the corporate’s publicised improvements don’t all the time dwell as much as the hype © Noriyuki Aida/Bloomberg

Climate activists and analysts say Exxon is targeted on hydrogen and carbon seize and storage as a result of it sees them as a method to lengthen the fossil gas period and fend off electrification efforts in markets key to future oil and gasoline demand.

Prior, extravagantly publicised investments in energy improvements haven’t lived as much as Exxon’s hype. Logan of Ceres factors to the corporate’s decade-plus lengthy push to make biofuels from algae, which the corporate for years publicly touted as its flagship local weather initiative, together with in a number of high-profile Super Bowl commercials that attempted to color Exxon as low-carbon chief.

But the expertise in the end by no means went anyplace and Exxon quietly dropped its algae programme this yr. “The onus is on Exxon to prove that it can actually innovate in an economically sustainable way in those areas, and that this isn’t just marketing, which seems like [it] has been the case in the past,” says Logan. “It’s a huge cloud that hangs over the plans around hydrogen and carbon capture and for biofuels.”

Exxon’s Ammann acknowledges that the discuss round carbon seize and hydrogen has outpaced the fact.

“One of the things that’s been interesting to me coming into this space, is there have been lots of press releases and lots of talk, frankly, but there have been very few real definitive project agreements,” he says.

But he factors to a string of offers Exxon has introduced in current months for brand spanking new hydrogen and carbon seize tasks as proof the enterprise is “moving off PowerPoint and into the real world”.

The firm has dedicated to constructing a brand new hydrogen manufacturing facility in a significant refining and petrochemical hub outdoors Houston, Texas. It might be a so-called “blue” hydrogen facility, a novel enterprise during which it makes use of carbon-intensive pure gasoline to provide the hydrogen however captures and shops the plant’s CO₂ emissions.

Last month, it signed a take care of UK-based chemical substances firm Linde, during which Exxon says it should transport 2.2mn tonnes a yr of CO₂ from a brand new Linde hydrogen facility on the US Gulf Coast and completely retailer it underground.

Those preliminary tasks might begin producing money by 2025, Amman says.

IRA incentives

It is an open query whether or not any of those investments would have been greenlit with out the subsidies for carbon seize and storage and hydrogen within the Inflation Reduction Act. The tasks place the corporate as probably among the many IRA’s greatest winners.

ExxonMobil and others within the business lobbied Joe Manchin, a Democratic senator from West Virginia, who performed a key function in shaping the IRA, to get the incentives for oil and gasoline corporations’ favoured inexperienced applied sciences into the legislation alongside subsidies for wind, photo voltaic and battery tasks.

Joe Manchin, the Democratic senator from West Virginia
Joe Manchin, a senator for West Virginia, had a key function in shaping the Inflation Reduction Act. ExxonMobil lobbied the Democrat to strive to make sure the act incentivised its favoured inexperienced applied sciences © Anna Moneymaker/Getty Images

The invoice features a subsidy of $85 a tonne of CO₂ for tasks that seize and completely retailer the emissions, and as much as $3 a kilogramme of clean hydrogen produced, which analysts say makes an enormous variety of tasks that beforehand lacked a viable enterprise mannequin instantly probably very worthwhile.

Jeff Ubben, the activist investor and member of Exxon’s board of administrators, mentioned at an occasion not too long ago that the IRA might result in the corporate’s low-carbon spending “number going up — up a lot”.

He mentioned that almost all Exxon shareholders wouldn’t help spending on low-profit clean energy tasks, however that the IRA’s tax incentives had probably put returns “into double digits” the place the corporate might “start to defend the spend”.

“It’s difficult if you’re the CEO — or want to be the CEO — to lead the decarbonisation of energy across the existing infrastructure and then do it at a subpar return. Your investors may fire you,” says Ubben.

Still pumping

While Exxon says it desires to develop into new low-carbon companies, it is not retreating from oil and gasoline. Rather, it plans to bolt the low-carbon enterprise on to a rising oil and gasoline enterprise.

The firm plans to develop its oil and gasoline manufacturing by 3 per cent a yr via 2027, setting it other than its European rivals that say they’re holding output regular or letting it decline. Exxon is quickly increasing output within the large Permian Basin shale oilfields in west Texas and New Mexico, and analysts say the corporate, flush with money, may very well be on the hunt for an enormous deal within the shale patch or elsewhere.

It is additionally ploughing billions of {dollars} into a large deepwater oil venture off the coast of Guyana in Latin America, among the many largest discoveries the business has seen in many years.

A flare burning excess gas  in the Permian Basin in Texas
A flare burning extra gasoline within the Permian Basin in Texas. Shale tasks have a shorter lifecycle than some developments, which means investments can extra rapidly reply to demand alerts © Angus Mordant/Reuters

Exxon’s guess on oil and gasoline has paid off over the previous 18 months as surging oil and pure gasoline costs after Putin’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine made the corporate extra worthwhile than ever.

It racked up almost $56bn in income final yr and its shares have soared to new document highs, far outpacing European oil main rivals Shell and BP that had been emphasising their transition out of fossil fuels. Both these corporations now say they’re slowing their shift away from oil and gasoline, a transfer that has been broadly welcomed amongst traders.

Exxon argues it will possibly proceed to develop its oil and gasoline enterprise and stay aligned with world efforts to cut back emissions as specified by the Paris Agreement by cleansing up and offsetting emissions from its personal operations.

But Neil Quach, an analyst at Carbon Tracker, a climate-focused think-tank, says the corporate’s technique is not Paris-aligned as a result of it ignores the emissions that come from folks burning the oil, gasoline and fuels that it produces, or so-called scope 3 emissions. These account for greater than 80 per cent of complete emissions associated to Exxon — about 540mn tonnes of CO₂ a yr, almost as a lot as the overall CO₂ emissions of Canada.

The firm’s investments in fossil fuels may make monetary sense within the brief time period, however Quach says these expensive new oil and gasoline developments are “at risk of being stranded in a fast-transitioning world”. He says, nonetheless, that deliberate investments within the Permian are preferable to different developments as a result of shale tasks have a shorter lifecycle, which means funding may be dialled up and down extra rapidly in response to demand alerts.

Exxon has additionally been topic to shifting political winds on fossil fuels. Joe Biden, who campaigned on a inexperienced transition, has modified course after final yr’s war-driven surge in gas costs and pressed Exxon to carry output, at the least within the close to time period.

The Biden administration has change into extra targeted on energy safety and affordability of provides along with slashing emissions. That has clearly performed to Exxon and different oil producers’ favour. It has opened political area for brand spanking new fossil gas improvement — Biden not too long ago accepted a significant Alaska oil venture and has resumed auctioning drilling proper within the US Gulf of Mexico — and introduced some traders again to the oil and gasoline sector.

Even so, many traders need to hold the corporate’s local weather technique within the highlight. Legal & General Investment Management, the UK’s largest asset supervisor and a prime 20 shareholder in Exxon, has put ahead a brand new local weather decision for the upcoming May 31 annual shareholder assembly.

It would require the corporate to make new disclosures of the monetary threat if a fast drop in fossil gas demand forces closures to its downstream gas manufacturing amenities.

The proxy combat “changed the narrative”, says Dror Elkayam, an analyst at LGIM, however Exxon’s inexperienced energy spending ranges remained “quite low compared to its European peers”.

“Whether the company is really increasing the level of ambition on climate change, we’ll have to wait and see.”

Additional reporting by Myles McCormick

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