Weather & Natural Disasters

SEC throws out investor vote pushing Exxon Mobil to reduce greenhouse gas emissions

Key Points
  • The Securities and Exchange Commission has allowed Exxon Mobil to block a shareholder proposal requiring the oil giant to set targets to substantially reduce its greenhouse gas emissions.
  • The proposal called for it to disclose greenhouse gas targets aligned with the 2015 Paris climate agreement effort to keep average global temperature increases to well below 2 degrees Celsius.
  • The investment community has increasingly pressured firms to take action on climate change as the U.S. government shies away from climate change regulation.
(File photo): Protesters outside the ExxonMobil annual shareholders meeting at the Morton H. Meyerson Symphony Center in Dallas, Texas.
Brian Harkin | Getty Images

The Securities and Exchange Commission has allowed Exxon Mobil to block a shareholder proposal requiring the oil giant to set targets to substantially reduce its greenhouse gas emissions.

The proposal called for the company to disclose greenhouse gas targets aligned with the 2015 Paris climate agreement effort to keep average global temperature increases to well below 2 degrees Celsius, a goal some experts contend is unattainable.

The shareholder community has increasingly pressured publicly traded firms to assess climate change risk as the U.S. government shies away from climate change regulation. President Donald Trump announced in June 2017 that the United States will withdraw from the Paris deal, though it cannot formally do so until November 2020.

Exxon had contended the resolution was misleading and would interfere with management responsibilities. The SEC said in its decision letter Tuesday that the requirement would "micromanage" the company and "impose specific methods for implementing complex policies in place of the ongoing judgments of management as overseen by its board of directors."

One group of investors who supported the resolution represented $9.5 trillion in assets under management.

This isn't the first time the SEC has used this argument. The agency approved a request in 2018 by EOG Resources, a company engaged in hydrocarbon exploration, to ditch a resolution that required the firm to disclose greenhouse gas targets. As in Exxon's case, the SEC claimed the proposal would micromanage the company.

For oil and gas giants, this type of shift in SEC policy on activist shareholder proposals would be a positive development.

Exxon did not immediately respond to CNBC's request for comment.

Church Commissioners for England and the New York state comptroller's office, which submitted the nonbinding proposal and other climate-change resolutions to Exxon, said they will continue to push the company on climate change.

"The SEC's ruling is a bump in the road, but as long-term investors determined to protect the value of our portfolio, we are not going away. We will continue to press Exxon, and others, on climate risk and consider all options available to us in our next steps," New York State Comptroller Thomas P. DiNapoli said in a statement.

A spokesperson for the Church Commissioners told CNBC that the decision was "disappointing and puzzling" and would enable Exxon to close down interaction with its shareholders on climate-related strategy.

"Exxon is continuing to misjudge the mood of investors on climate risk and the fact remains that at present the company is providing no assurance that it has a strategy consistent with the goals of the Paris Agreement. We are reviewing our options," the spokesperson said.