Exxon: Destroying Planet Necessary to Relieve Global Poverty
Michael Brune | October 21, 2014
The fossil-fuel divestment movement has been on a roll lately to the tune of $50 billion, but one of its biggest successes happened last month: The world’s most profitable oil company squirmed. ExxonMobil’s vice president of public and government affairs published a critique of divestment that concluded by saying that destroying our planet’s climate by recklessly extracting and burning fossil fuel reserves is necessary to relieve global poverty.
This sudden concern is interesting from a company that holds the record for the highest corporate profits ever posted in the U.S. and whose CEO made more than $100,000 a day in 2012 (including Sundays). ExxonMobil hasn’t earned those kinds of profits by worrying overmuch about the poor of the world. As the Sierra Student Coalition‘s Anastasia Schemkes put it: “This is the oil industry saying ‘please don’t be mean to me’ after bullying vulnerable communities around the globe for decades.”
The real message of ExxonMobil’s blog post was unintentional. The fossil fuel divestment movement, which started on college campuses but has since spread to foundation boardrooms and beyond, is achieving its principal goal, which is to raise awareness of how morally indefensible the actions of companies like ExxonMobil really are. I’m not just talking about its core business of extracting as much oil as it can, wherever it can, while it can. This is a company that pretends to care about climate disruption (with lots of talk about “mitigation,” which is code for “do whatever it takes to keep burning fossil fuels”), while simultaneously funding the climate-denial industry and lavishing its largesse on obstructionist legislators.
How can we begin to get companies like this to change? It’s tough to beat such a Goliath through financial pressure alone. Even the most wildly successful divestment campaign is unlikely to dent this mega-corporation’s profits in the near term. But let’s not forget that even the hugest corporation is made up of real people. And real people start to get uncomfortable when it’s clear that not only is what they are doing terribly wrong—but that other people are taking note.
That’s when they start to get defensive—and we can see that divestment really is making a difference.
The oil giant seeks to counter the campaign that urges investors to dump stock in petroleum and coal companies.
By Ben Geman, October 13, 2014
Exxon Mobil is wielding its public relations might against the fossil-fuel divestment movement, signaling that climate-change activists have struck a nerve at the world’s biggest publicly traded oil and gas company.
Exxon Mobil’s blog, titled “Perspectives,” posted a lengthy attack Friday about the divestment movement, which urges universities, churches, pension funds, and other big institutional investors to dump their shares of oil and coal companies as part of the fight against global warming.
But the blog post calls the movement “out of step with reality,” saying it’s at odds with the need for poor nations to gain better access to energy, as well as the need for fossil fuels to meet global energy demand for decades to come.
So far, the climate advocates’ progress at getting a growing number of institutions to shed holdings in fossil fuel companies remains pretty small compared with the scale of the industry they’re battling.
Consider that the roughly 1,700 oil-and-gas and coal companies listed on stock exchanges are worth nearly $5 trillion, notes the research company Bloomberg New Energy Finance.
But the divestment movement has been growing– just last week the University of Glasgow became the first European university to announce divestment plans. And the movement also has a number of high-profile adherents, including Archbishop Desmond Tutu, the South African Nobel Prize-winning anti-apartheid leader. (The fossil fuel divestment movement takes its cues from the 1970s and 1980s movement urging divestment from apartheid South Africa.)
Another supporter is Christiana Figueres, the United Nations official shepherding international negotiations aimed at reaching a new global climate pact in late 2015.
But Exxon calls divestment a misplaced solution to climate change.
“Divestment represents a diversion from the real search for technological solutions to managing climate risks that energy companies like ours are pursuing,” writes Ken Cohen, Exxon’s VP for public and government affairs.
Cohen’s post argues that the movement ignores the scale of global energy demand for power, transportation, and other needs, as well as “the inability of current renewable technologies to meet it.”
“Almost every place on the planet where there is grinding poverty, there is also energy poverty. Wherever there is subsistence living, it is usually because there is little or no access to modern, reliable forms of energy,” Cohen writes.
Divestment advocates will find plenty of material to argue about in Exxon’s post. In one case, Exxon cites estimates that renewable energy’s share of the total global mix will be about 15 percent in 2040.
But the activists pushing for divestment, such as Bill McKibben’s 350.org, advocate for more aggressive policies that promote low-carbon energy, and analysts say that would change the global mix a lot more and a lot faster.
While the International Energy Agency has forecast that without policy changes, renewables will meet about 15 percent of total energy needs in 2035, IEA and other agencies have also modeled various other scenarios in which low-carbon energy takes a far larger share.
For instance, in late September, IEA released a “roadmap” of policies explaining how solar power alone could become the world’s biggest source of electricity by 2050 or even earlier.
Divestment advocates have already criticized Exxon’s post.
“This is the oil industry saying ‘please don’t be mean to me’ after bullying vulnerable communities around the globe for decades,” said Anastasia Schemkes, a campaign representative with the Sierra Student Coalition.
Reverend Fletcher Harper, executive director of the pro-divestment group GreenFaith, took issue with Exxon’s assertions that the divestment movement is out of touch. “Divestment advocates have been clear from the start that the divestment campaign is about calling into question the industry’s ‘social license’ to operate. In this regard, divestment is a highly appropriate debate, and highly reality-based,” he said in an email.
Harper also said that advocates agree with the imperative of bringing energy to nations where access is now lacking. “I believe that these energy needs must be met, to the greatest degree possible, with clean, renewable energy. The [Exxon] blog post does not reckon with the fact that coal, oil, and gas combustion are responsible for a large number of deaths annually worldwide,” Harper said.
It’s not the first time Exxon has tussled with divestment advocates.
In response to shareholder activists, Exxon released a report in late March that rebuts advocates’ claims that its fossil fuel reserves are at risk of becoming “stranded assets” in a carbon-constrained world.