The jury might still be out on when the world will run out of oil, but the rising human and economic costs associated with climate change, air pollution and overall environmental decline are accelerating the world towards a low-carbon economy. In recognition of this reality, a half-dozen investors recently filed shareholder resolutions with 10 fossil fuel companies, including Exxon Mobil and Chevron, seeking an explanation of their strategies for competing in a low-carbon global market.
Southern Company, Hess, Anadarko, Devon, Kinder Morgan, Peabody Energy, FirstEnergy and CONSOL Energy also received resolutions.
The resolutions focus on potential carbon asset risk, or the possibility that these companies’ present and future fossil fuel-related assets will lose value as various market factors—such as energy efficiency, renewable energy, fuel economy, fuel switching, carbon pollution standards, efforts to curb air pollution and climate policy—increasingly reduce demand for fossil fuels and related infrastructure.
According to the shareholders, fossil fuel companies are not sufficiently disclosing these risks, even after a coalition of investors managing more than $3 trillion in collective assets sent letters last fall to 45 of the world’s largest fossil fuel companies urging them to report on this very same concern. Resolution filers include the Connecticut State Treasurer’s Office, the New York State Comptroller’s Office, Arjuna Capital, As You Sow, First Affirmative Financial Network and the Unitarian Universalist Association.
Fossil fuel companies ought to be concerned–equity valuation of some oil producers could drop by 40 to 60 percent under a low-carbon scenario, according to an HSBC report cited by the investors.
“Climate-related trends such as carbon-reducing regulations and clean energy growth are a real threat to fossil fuel companies’ future profitability, but most firms have relegated it to the ‘someday’ pile when it comes to corporate priorities,” said Mindy Lubber, president of the sustainability advocacy group, Ceres, and director of the Investor Network on Climate Risk—which helped to coordinate the filing of these resolutions.
The letters and resolutions are part of the Carbon Asset Risk Initiative, coordinated by Ceres and Carbon Tracker, with support from the Global Investor Coalition on Climate Change. Through this program, investors are addressing the growing concern that demand for fossil fuels will be less in a low-carbon future and that no more than one-third of proven reserves of fossil fuels can be consumed prior to 2050 if the world is to achieve its goal of limiting average global temperature increases to 2°C, as outlined by the International Energy Agency.
As part of this initiative, investors have asked fossil fuel companies to assess—under both a business-as-usual scenario and a low-carbon scenario—the viability of capital expenditure plans, the risk of stranded assets, physical risk to operations from climate change impacts and the effect of these risks on the workforce.
But when it comes to voting on shareholder resolutions filed with companies on climate change business risks, many investors continue to disregard climate change as a material concern, according to a 2013 Ceres study. The study is an analysis of proxy votes cast in 2012 by 43 of the largest U.S. mutual fund companies. Among more than 40 large U.S. mutual fund families that were included in this study, only eight have an average support of more than 50 percent for climate-related shareholder resolutions. Of these eight fund families, only three supported the vast majority (more than 80 percent) of these climate-related shareholder resolutions–DWS, AllianceBernstein and Oppenheimer.
On a more positive note, investors have been much more vocal about climate change in recent years, achieving notable victories during the 2013 shareholder proxy season, with a near-record 110 shareholder resolutions filed with 94 U.S. companies on corporate sustainability challenges such as climate change, supply chain issues and water-related risks.
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Based in San Francisco, Mike Hower is a writer, thinker and strategic communicator that revels in driving the conversation at the intersection of sustainability, social entrepreneurship, tech, politics and law. He has cultivated diverse experience working for the United States Congress in Washington, D.C., helping Silicon Valley startups with strategic communications and teaching in South America. Connect with him on LinkedIn or follow him on Twitter (@mikehower)