ECONOMY

Activists Crashed Exxon’s Board, but Forcing Change Will Be Hard

“If you want to be a public company in a carbon-intensive industry you are going to have to convince investors that you still have a viable business in a low-carbon future,” said Mark Viviano, a managing partner at Kimmeridge, an energy-focused private equity firm.

Exxon management says it realizes it must prepare for a lower-carbon future, and has supported the goals of the Paris climate agreement. But the company gave up on solar energy decades ago, and today its efforts to remake itself for an energy transition rely on some moonshot ideas that may not work out.

It is a global leader in capturing carbon from industry and storing it below ground, and in recent weeks it has proposed an enormous $100 billion carbon capture and storage project along the Houston Ship Channel that could be a model for the world. But for the plan to be economically viable, the federal government would have to impose a carbon tax or another kind of price on carbon, a tough sell in Washington these days.

Exxon has also worked for years to make advanced biofuels from algae, a project that other companies have abandoned. And it continues to bet heavily on exploration for oil and gas at a time when demand for such products may be peaking.

Shareholders voted to retain Darren Woods as chief executive and chairman, a move that a Morgan Stanley research report viewed as an endorsement of his strategy to spend less on capital projects, reduce costs and continue to pay a generous dividend.

“I’m not sure Exxon is going to change how they are going to deal with the energy transition,” said Mark Boling, a former executive vice president at Southwestern Energy, a Texas oil and gas company. “I think they have made a decision on how they are going to go and a few new board members are not going to make a difference.”

Engine No. 1 managers are not saying much about their plans.

“We’ve redefined what’s possible,” Chris James, founder of Engine No. 1, said in an interview after the vote. “Our overall goal is really greater transparency, which brings accountability, transparency on the impacts of what the business does as well as accountability on how to manage those impacts.”

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