Greens target ExxonMobil in fight against emissions

by Danielle Knight

Washington, 20 May 2001 (IPS) - With the outlook bleak for the global treaty on climate change, environmentalists are training their fire on the only major oil company openly sceptical of the science behind global warming: ExxonMobil.

Through boycotts and resolutions to be voted on at the company’s Annual shareholders meeting later this month, activists are hoping to pressure ExxonMobil to curb emissions.

Environmental groups say the Texas-based company has isolated itself from the rest of the oil industry by refusing to acknowledge the consensus among mainstream climate scientists, that the burning of fossil fuels causes climate change.

“Investors ought to be concerned that ExxonMobil has positioned itself as the most important global environmental target on what many people see as the most important global environmental issue,” says Peter Altman of Campaign ExxonMobil, a US-based coalition of religious and environmental organisations.

ExxonMobil argues that it is concerned about global warming but is against an international agreement that requires industrialised nations to lower their greenhouse gas emissions to 5% below 1990 levels by 2012.

“We are concerned about the climate change issue, but like many others, we do not support the Kyoto Protocol because we believe that it is seriously flawed and would potentially do more harm than good,” the company says in a written statement.

The political outlook for regulating greenhouse gas emissions dimmed last month when President George W. Bush pulled the United States - the world’s largest emitter of greenhouse gases - out of the Kyoto accord.

As a result, hopes for cuts in emissions now seem to lie with individual oil, coal, gas, and automobile companies.

Most of the world’s largest oil companies acknowledge that global warming is real and that action should be taken to curb greenhouse gases and move toward renewable energy sources, including wind and solar power.

Shell has created a $500 million renewable energy company. British Petroleum Amoco is now the world’s largest producer of solar energy systems.

In an effort to change ExxonMobil’s stance on global warming and boost its investments in renewable energy sources, activists at Campaign ExxonMobil are coordinating two resolutions that shareholders will vote on at their annual general meeting on 30 May.

At last year’s meeting, some 8% of shareholders voted in support of the first resolution, which asked the company to consider non-financial factors, including social and environmental concerns, in determining compensation for top executives.

About 6% of shareholders voted for the second resolution, which would require the company to develop a policy to promote renewable energy. The US Securities and Exchange Commission only requires a 3% vote for proposals to be brought back a second year.

Since there is no threshold to pass these resolutions because they are non-binding, Altman explains that the purpose of introducing the proposals is to raise awareness and send a “clear message” to management.

The resolutions are gaining popularity, activists say. Last week, the California Public Employee Retirement System and the New York City Employee Retirement System, two of the nation’s largest public pension funds, announced they would support both resolutions.

Each pension fund holds less than a 1% stake in ExxonMobil. Nevertheless, say activists, their support is significant because they rank among the company’s 30 largest shareholders.

“It is clear that investors are beginning to understand that ExxonMobil’s head- in-the-sand approach on global warming is not in their best interest,” says Patricia A. Daly of the Dominican Sisters of New Jersey, a religious group that is part of Campaign ExxonMobil.

Last week, British environmental groups including Greenpeace UK and Friends of the Earth UK, called on the British public to avoid petrol stations owned by ExxonMobil subsidiary Esso.

The groups say they will continue calling for a boycott until the company pledges its support for the Kyoto accord.

With the help of free publicity from celebrities including pop star Annie Lennox and the Body Shop, a popular chain of organic cosmetics shops, environmentalists hope the boycott will impact ExxonMobil’s bottom-line and force the company to shift gears.

“Esso [is] the world’s number one global warming villain,” says Stephen Tindale, executive director of Greenpeace UK.

ExxonMobil, however, says the boycott is counter-productive and will end up hurting local employees.

Sofi Foale, a spokesperson with Esso in Britain, says she can’t say if the boycott has had any financial impact on the company.

“As a matter of policy we do not reveal any of our sales data,” Foale says.

In ExxonMobil’s written response to the boycott, the company points out that it supports climate change research at several major scientific institutions in order to help “improve understanding of the subject so that we can more accurately assess its likely impact and determine appropriate action.”

Critics, however, say the company is funding only the minority of scientists who are sceptical of global warming.

In 1998, ExxonMobil gave $10,000 to the US-based Science and Environmental Policy Project run by S. Fred Singer, a widely quoted global warming sceptic.  The company also gave some $65,000 to the Atlas Economic Research Foundation, which praises Singer on its website and shares building space with his group.

ExxonMobil has also sponsored the Centre for the Study of Carbon Dioxide and Global Change, the Pacific Research Institute for Public Policy, and the Cato Institute’s Environmental and Natural Resources program, all of which are dismissed by environmentalists as being staffed by global warming sceptics. – SUNS4900

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