By Cathy Bussewitz
NEW YORK » Exxon Mobil’s shareholders have voted to replace at least two of the company’s 12 board members with directors who are seen as better suited to fight climate change, bolster Exxon’s finances and guide it through a transition to cleaner energy.
The results, which Exxon called preliminary, were announced by the company after its annual shareholder meeting Wednesday. Exxon said that because of the complexities of the voting process, inspectors might not be able to certify final voting results for “some period of time.”
It was unclear whether one additional board member was also unseated in the shareholder vote.
Regardless of the final tally, the outcome represents a setback for Exxon’s leadership. It coincides with growing pressure on publicly traded companies to more urgently revamp their businesses to address what critics see as a intensifying global crisis.
On Wednesday, a Dutch court ordered Royal Dutch Shell to cut its carbon emissions by a net 45% by 2030 compared with 2019 levels in a landmark case brought by climate activism groups. The court ruled that the energy giant had a duty to reduce emissions and that its current reduction plans were insufficient.
The dissident slate of Exxon directors was proposed by a hedge fund called Engine No. 1, which asserted that the company’s current board was ill-equipped to handle the transformations that are reshaping the energy sector.
The alternative directors put forward by the hedge fund were also backed by many of the nation’s most powerful institutional investors. The vote reflected a broader push among consumers, investors and government leaders to pivot away from fossil fuels and invest in a future in which energy needs are increasingly met with renewable sources.
While the votes were being tallied, Exxon paused the shareholder meeting to allow people more time to vote. Anne Simpson, a managing director at the California Public Employees’ Retirement System, known as CalPERS and one of the institutional investors that backed the alternative slate of directors, called that move “highly unusual.”
Nevertheless, it was a “day of reckoning” for Exxon and for investors, Simpson said.
On the hot-button issue of climate change, she said, “investors are moving from talk to action, and it’s also going to reverberate around board rooms internationally.”
In addition to CalPERS, which is America’s largest pension fund, other major institutional investors that joined the challenge to Exxon’s leadership included the New York State Common Retirement Fund and the California State Teachers’ Retirement System, known as Cal-STRS.