Here’s What We’re Asking Major Fossil Fuel Corporations at This Year’s Annual Meetings

May 28, 2024 | 4:45 pm
corporate boardroom with microphonesharply_done/Getty Images
Kathy Mulvey
Accountability Campaign Director, Climate & Energy Program

At this year’s annual general meetings, major investor-owned fossil fuel corporations are facing fewer climate-related shareholder proposals than at any time since the adoption of the Paris climate agreement in 2015. But that doesn’t mean they’re under less pressure over their role in driving the climate crisis. As ExxonMobil retaliates against its own shareholders with an unprecedented lawsuit over a resolution requesting medium-term targets for reducing global warming emissions, institutional investors are upping the ante with calls to vote against members of the company’s board of directors.

And this spring’s corporate annual meetings are taking place against a backdrop of protests, new climate lawsuits (including a criminal complaint against the CEO and directors of TotalEnergies), a bicameral congressional investigation into Big Oil’s climate disinformation, and a call by congressional leaders for the U.S. Department of Justice to investigate the fossil fuel industry’s decades-long history of engaging in deceptive practices.

Here’s what’s happening—and what to expect as Big Oil’s annual meetings wrap up this week.

Shell evades questions and highlights “uncertainty”

On May 21, Shell held its hybrid annual meeting—disrupted by shareholders fed up with the corporation’s weak-and-getting-weaker climate action.

Attending virtually thanks to a proxy provided by the UK responsible investment organization ShareAction, I was able to ask our question:

Internal corporate documents made public through a bicameral Congressional investigation in the US demonstrate that days after President Trump was elected, a Shell media manager worked to “soften [methane reduction] language and still be true to ourselves” in an effort not to upset the Trump Administration, which sought to roll back methane standards. Meanwhile, the American Petroleum Institute (API)—in which Shell holds a leadership role—launched a voluntary methane program in 2017 that internal documents reveal was explicitly designed “to stave off future regulation.” Why, then, did Shell’s Gretchen Watkins call the final watered down Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) regulations “frustrating and disappointing” in 2020?

Unfortunately, Shell CEO Wael Sawan’s response failed to address the blatant inconsistency between Shell’s internal and external communications about methane regulations, or between the corporation’s stated support for methane regulations and its trade association’s creation of a voluntary initiative to block mandatory rules.

Throughout the meeting, Shell used “uncertainty” as an excuse for rolling back its climate targets, claiming that the corporation can’t stick with medium-term emissions reduction benchmarks because it doesn’t know what governments or customers will do. Such doublespeak is the latest evolution in the fossil fuel industry’s deception playbook. These corporations may no longer be disputing climate science—now they are creating doubt about climate policy even as they seek to water it down, directly and through trade associations such as API. Yet no such uncertainty prevents them from planning further expansion of their oil and gas business.

In the face of opposition by the board, about one-fifth of Shell’s shareholders nonetheless voted in favor of a resolution put forward by the climate advocacy organization Follow This, calling for the corporation to align its medium-term emissions reduction targets—including emissions from use of its oil and gas products—with the goals of the Paris agreement.

BP keeps climate-conscious shareholders out

BP faced no climate-related shareholder proposals this year. On April 25, the corporation held only an in-person annual meeting, with no webcast and very little news coverage—even as activists protested the corporation’s role in the climate crisis and fueling the war in Gaza.

A supporter of ShareAction had planned to ask a question on behalf of the Union of Concerned Scientists, but was wrongly denied entry into the meeting.

Here’s the question we wanted to ask BP:

In its annual report, BP disclosed that total emissions had increased over the past year as a result of increased oil and gas production, representing a setback to corporate climate goals. Climate attribution science has quantified BP’s historical responsibility for global emissions, and social science is building a base of evidence of past and ongoing climate disinformation and obstruction campaigns by the fossil fuel industry. In recent weeks, two more jurisdictions in the US brought lawsuits to hold BP and other major fossil fuel producers accountable for climate damages and deception. Also, a report by the NGO Carbon Tracker found that BP’s transition plan is not aligned with the Paris climate goals. How do you calculate BP’s potential liability for its past actions and future foreseeable and preventable harms associated with its business plans?

We are still waiting for an answer.

ExxonMobil and Chevron on the hot seat

This week, ExxonMobil and Chevron will hold their annual meetings. They’ve both been in the news recently for being represented at a meeting at which former President Trump reportedly requested $1 billion in oil and gas industry contributions to his campaign in exchange for promised deregulation and dismantling of climate measures, accelerated permitting, and preservation of tax breaks.

Chevron bankrolls front group

Chevron’s virtual annual meeting comes near the end of what our allies at Amazon Watch are calling #AntiChevronMonth, when people around the world take action to call out the corporation’s horrific track record driving climate change, pollution, environmental injustice, and human rights violations.

Attending on the proxy of a climate-conscious shareholder, my colleague Laura Peterson plans to ask one question of Chevron:

In the first six months of 2023, Chevron directed between $2.5 and $7.5 million to a group new to Chevron’s trade association disclosures—Californians for Energy Independence. The group characterizes itself as a coalition of 200,000 Californians, but research has shown it’s actually a classic “astroturf” group funded by fossil fuel companies and related organizations. The group is behind expensive media campaigns to defeat legislation that would protect communities from harmful emissions resulting from oil and gas extraction, and incorrectly blames high gas prices in California on state politics. A Chevron 2023 report says the company lobbies “ethically, constructively and in a nonpartisan manner.” How does financing a front group that spreads partisan disinformation align with that statement?

ExxonMobil adapts disinformation strategies

ExxonMobil’s virtual annual meeting comes amid an unprecedented lawsuit by the corporation against its own shareholders, with growing numbers of institutional investors saying they will vote against one or more board members to protest this bullying. It also marks the end of the Board tenure of climate scientist Dr. Susan Avery.

I’ve submitted two questions to ExxonMobil:

  1. ExxonMobil Chair and CEO Darren Woods has recently been dismissing evidence of the company’s climate deception as “what was said 30 years ago,” and insisting that “the world has moved on.” But when I asked one of my climate scientist colleagues to evaluate the corporation’s latest “Advancing Climate Solutions” reports, she found them misleading at best, dishonest at worst—and concluded that while ExxonMobil’s strategy may have changed, its output of disinformation continues. And this month, congressional leaders called on US Attorney General Merrick Garland to investigate ExxonMobil, other major oil and gas companies, and two of their trade associations for their decades-long climate disinformation campaign—including claims and actions since the adoption of the Paris Agreement in 2015. What legal and financial consequences should shareholders anticipate from the ever-growing mountain of evidence of ExxonMobil’s deceptive practices and other corporate misconduct?
  2. In its latest Climate Lobbying Report, ExxonMobil revealed that in 2022 it withdrew from the Independent Petroleum Association of America, which represents “independent” (i.e. smaller) oil and gas producers. The same report found 52 trade associations “aligned” with ExxonMobil’s climate policy positions, and three groups “partially aligned.” Yet many of the associations in which the corporation maintains membership are actively spreading climate disinformation and obstructing climate progress. For example, American Fuel and Petrochemical Manufacturers is running a massive ad campaign falsely claiming that the US Environmental Protection Agency has banned gasoline-powered cars. Why is ExxonMobil using a report requested by shareholders to justify its ongoing support for trade associations that promote climate disinformation, oppose climate action, and seek to delay the urgently needed transition to clean energy?

Based on my experience attending ExxonMobil corporate annual meetings on behalf of climate-conscious shareholders since 2016, I don’t expect a sudden rush of candor from Chair and CEO Darren Woods. Yet ExxonMobil’s efforts to censor climate-conscious shareholders—rather than transforming climate-destroying business model—are likely to provoke increased outrage from investors and affected communities.

The leaders of these corporations may think they can escape accountability by stonewalling, greenwashing, blocking shareholders from even discussing climate-related issues, and engaging in a concerted campaign to undermine Environmental, Social, and Governance (ESG) investing. They couldn’t be more wrong. These efforts to suppress shareholder input are exactly why investors are turning their attention to unseating oil and gas company board members.

As Danger Season 2024 brings extreme events like heat waves, heavy rainfall, wildfires, and poor air quality to millions of people across the United States, major oil and gas corporations should expect growing scrutiny from policymakers and public prosecutors over their role in driving the climate crisis—and rising votes of no confidence in corporate leadership the longer they continue to delay, deceive, and disinform.