Over the past week, major energy companies across the globe reported their earnings for the third quarter of 2018. For many, the results exceeded expectations, with oil and gas producers announcing record profits and production increases. This came as a welcome surprise to many, but perhaps not to the many activists and public officials that have waged a conspicuous climate litigation campaign against these same companies. Many reporters were probably also left scratching their heads, as the narrative they have helped create about institutional risk from climate-related lawsuits appears to be based on nothing but rhetoric.
Take, Shell for example. The global energy producer has been lambasted by activists for years who have claimed the company knew about the impacts of climate change as far back as the 1980s and hid this information from the general public. They even briefly tried promoting the hashtag “#ShellKnew” on Twitter. Notably, they tried to link these accusations to the investment community, hoping to spur some sort of financial change, a natural complement to the broader fossil fuel divestment campaign. For example:
“If shareholder meetings were classic game shows, and investors were keeping score, fossil fuel companies would be coming up short.” (Union of Concerned Scientists)
“We believe these documents will be of significant value to journalists, researchers, lawyers, investors and shareholder activists. … Below are some of the most illuminating documents of the trove, revealing new insights into Shell’s perspective on climate science, climate policy, and corporate responsibility over the past three decades.” (DeSmog Blog)
ExxonMobil is another case study. Last month, when New York Attorney General (AG) Barbara Underwood filed her lawsuit against ExxonMobil, many in the media – and plenty of environmentalists – really wanted us to believe it was a major threat to the company’s financial future. Here’s a snapshot of what people may have seen shortly after the lawsuit was filed:
“New York State Attorney General Barbara Underwood recently filed what could be an enormously consequential securities fraud lawsuit against ExxonMobil, exposing in great detail the company’s long history of lying about issues related to climate change.” (Union of Concerned Scientists)
“The impact of the alleged fraud on the company’s value could be massive.” (EcoWatch)
“The basis for the lawsuit rests on the idea of “stranded assets,” and whether companies will be forced to leave oil, natural gas and coal in the ground because of tightening regulations around greenhouse gases. That notion has gained currency in some investing circles, and some analysts have grown concerned about whether fossil fuel companies will remain viable in the coming years given the potential for carbon-constraining climate policies.” (POLITICO)
“If successful, the suit could potentially cost Exxon Mobil, which employs thousands in the Houston area, billions of dollars, invite more lawsuits from investors and spur new investigations into other oil companies.” (Houston Chronicle)
“Contrary to Exxon’s attempts to spin this as a political witch hunt,” said Patrick Parenteau, an environmental law professor at Vermont Law School, “this is a very serious enforcement action alleging illegal conduct that reaches to the highest levels of the corporate structure.” (Washington Post) (emphasis added)
It could change everything! Or could it?
Fast forward to last Friday when ExxonMobil held its third-quarter 2018 earnings call. The company reported an impressive $6.2 billion profit increase from Q3 2017. The Wall Street Journal’s headline said it all: “Exxon, Chevron Profits Soar as Big Oil Returns to Dominance”
Indeed, during ExxonMobil’s earnings call, zero investors – not even one! – asked any questions or expressed even remote concern about the lawsuit filed the week before. You’d think if this lawsuit were an actual threat – and not just part of a transparent PR campaign by environmentalists – then there would have at least been passing mention of Underwood’s complaint, which alleges that the company defrauded the very same investors on the call about the risk climate change posed to ExxonMobil’s business.
Clearly, actual investors do not view the New York AG’s lawsuit as “a real risk to Exxon’s reputation,” nor do they think that the company’s “shareholders were concerned about the company’s management of the risk of future climate change regulations,” as the AG alleged.
As a helpful resource, EID prepared the following chart for the public to understand what investors actually care about:
The earnings call included a question and answer session with investors from top firms, none of whom brought up the New York AG’s lawsuit.
From the very beginning, many experts have argued that New York’s investigation – and now its lawsuit – was politically motivated and designed more to capture headlines than to prosecute any semblance of fraud. In that sense, the silence coming from Exxon’s actual investors on Friday spoke volumes.