Will Exxon Make Green By Going Green?

Exxon Mobil : the most profitable company in U.S. history and also one of the most loathed among climate change activists. But going green isn't just good for the environment – it could also be good for the oil giant’s bottom line. Chris Fox of Ceres – an organization that pushes companies on climate issues on behalf of institutional investors – and Paul Sankey, an oil analyst at Deutsche Bank, debated the issue on “Street Signs.”

According to Ceres, Exxon Mobil’s “climate score” lags Chevron , Royal Dutch Shell and BP . Fox says Exxon simply has not been as proactive in researching and developing renewable energy sources and diversifying its energy portfolio as it can – and should – be.

Other than Exxon’s low climate score, Fox points to its corporate governance and disclosure practices as being sub par on the issue. Michael J. Boskin, a member of Exxon’s board of directors who oversees climate strategy, has not agreed to meet with shareholders on the issue – even though they have requested it. Also, Fox says, the company has put nothing about the risk and business impact of climate change in its latest 10K.

Sankey says Exxon made a PR mistake by letting itself get pigeonholed as the “environmental enemy #1” for so long. He sees the automakers and "big agriculture" as larger contributors to the problem. Exxon is a very efficient company, Sankey says, and efficiency is the best way to be profitable – and to stay ahead of the curve on climate issues.

Investors might be making noise about Exxon’s slow response to climate critics, but they don’t seem too eager to sell the stock just yet. Fox says he thinks investors want to use their clout to encourage a better leadership position within the company.

Both men agree that being proactive about climate issues is good from not only a PR perspective but also a shareholder perspective. Fox says reducing emissions for Exxon is a profitable move and can be easily done. Making advances in technology will position a company for the future, he says. Just look to the automakers: Toyota and Honda are thriving (offering fuel economy cars for some time) while General Motors and Ford are struggling.