Big Oil faces watershed moment amid growing climate change challenges

June 10, 2021
As investor pressure and court challenges over climate change grow, Big Oil is facing a watershed moment, according to Wood Mackenzie’s Vice Chair Ed Crooks. “The events of May 26, 2021, look like a defining moment for the oil and gas industry."

As investor pressure and court challenges over climate change grow, Big Oil is facing a watershed moment, according to Wood Mackenzie’s Vice Chair Ed Crooks.

“The events of May 26, 2021, look like a defining moment for the oil and gas industry. In the space of a few hours, three decisions crystallized trends that had been building for years at the large international oil companies, showing the pressure they are under to address climate change and the energy transition,” said Crooks.

In the US, 61% of the votes at Chevron’s annual meeting were cast in favor of a proposal that the company should “substantially reduce” the greenhouse gas emissions created by its products in the medium-term to long-term.

Shortly afterwards, shareholders at ExxonMobil elected three directors nominated by the hedge fund Engine #1, despite opposition from the company’s board.

Meanwhile in the Netherlands, environmental campaigners won a court battle against Royal Dutch Shell, which was ordered to cut its worldwide carbon emissions by 45% by 2030.

These events raise five key issues that are worth bearing in mind, said Crooks.

The nature of stakeholder pressure is fundamentally changing. “Shareholder resolutions and legal challenges at big oil companies relating to climate change are nothing new. The difference with the latest round of challenges is that they were successful.”

“The votes at Chevron and ExxonMobil reflected a significant increase in support for shareholder proposals and directors that were opposed by the companies’ boards. This change is largely being driven by institutional investors, which have become much more active on climate-related issues in recent years. These new stances are not about environmental activism but reflect their assessments of investment risk.”

“Similarly, the successful case against Shell reflects a new approach to litigation. The campaign group made their case on the basis of human rights law and succeeded where a shareholder resolution in 2018 had failed.”

The bar is being raised for decarbonization. “It is worth noting that all three companies already had targets in place for cutting carbon emissions, but shareholders and campaign groups judged these to be insufficient. For Shell, the 45% reduction in absolute emissions ordered by the court is considerably deeper than the 20% the company previously had in place. Chevron shareholders voted for the company to commit to substantial reductions in its Scope 3 emissions, created when its products are used. That is a clear signal that the bar is being raised for all publicly traded companies in terms of their decarbonization strategies.”

The impact will be felt throughout the industry. “At the moment, stakeholder pressure is mainly focused on Big Oil. For the independents, there is more likely to be a steady ratcheting up of pressure, rather than a step change. However, regulatory changes driven by social and political pressure will affect the whole industry. National oil companies do not generally face the same pressures from shareholders and governments, but still need to be commercially competitive. Carbon border adjustment mechanisms that tax imports according to their associated emissions—already under discussion in the EU, Canada, and the US—could leave state-owned oil and gas companies locked out of key markets if they fail to address decarbonization.”

Decarbonization creates higher risks for supply and prices. “In Wood Mackenzie’s base-case forecast, as much oil is needed overall in 2050 as is being produced in 2021. Uncertainty over the pace of decarbonization creates the possibility of unintended consequences for prices. If stakeholder pressure has the effect of constraining investment and restricting exploration and demand remains high, the result could be tight markets and rising prices over the medium-term.”

Addressing Scope 3 emissions is a huge challenge for the industry. “In the near-term, most oil and gas companies are focused on their Scope 1 and 2 emissions, created by their own operations and their purchases of energy. Significant reductions in Scope 3 emissions are likely to require fundamental structural changes to business models, with companies moving from Big Oil to Big Energy.”

“The alternative, cutting emissions while remaining focused on hydrocarbons, relies heavily on carbon capture, utilization, and storage (CCUS), for both producers and their customers. However, there are significant barriers: the costs for CCUS are still high relative to prevailing carbon prices in most parts of the world and reaching the necessary scale could take a long time,” said Crooks.