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Shareholder activism reaches milestone as Exxon board vote nears end

A view of the Exxon Mobil refinery in Baytown, Texas.

Jessica Rinaldi | Reuters

The showdown pitting Exxon Mobil against a tiny activist fund to determine the oil giant’s board and future direction was too close to call early Wednesday, according to people familiar with the matter.

Exxon’s 12 directors are up for election on Wednesday in the first major boardroom contest where climate change is a central issue.

Exxon has long fought to keep climate activists at bay, negotiating with big holders to supply details of its emissions and publicly supporting carbon reduction. This year, it sharply boosted spending to present its case and added a director from an ESG activist fund.

BlackRock, Exxon’s second-largest shareholder, struck a blow to those efforts by supporting three nominees from activist fund Engine No. 1, which promotes sustainable investments.

The viability of Exxon’s climate strategy and past resistance to shareholder concerns lay behind BlackRock’s vote, people familiar with the decision said.

Preliminary vote results are expected by midday. Results will show if there is broad support among energy investors for a transition to cleaner fuels. Never before have climate concerns become so crucial to director contest at a major oil company, said proxy experts.

“The world around them is changing,” said Aeisha Mastagni, a portfolio manager at California State Teachers’ Retirement System, which backed the activists. The proxy fight has taken on “monumental” importance, she said.

Exxon can expect strong support from retirees and smaller investors that count on the company’s rich dividend. Proxy fights are notoriously difficult for challengers, said a hedge fund executive who is not involved in Exxon.

“We have one of the strongest boards in corporate America,” Chief Executive Darren Woods said in an interview last week. Its board understands the company’s complexity and supports a path toward the Paris Accord’s carbon reductions, he said.

Still, new directors may help as the industry evaluates the future of fossil fuels and Exxon. There will be no need for new oil and gas projects if investors want netzero carbon emissions by 2050, the group of oil-consuming nations said this month.

Wednesday’s vote “is a good example of activist stewardship to help the company get the board it needs for the energy transition,” said Robert Eccles, a professor at Said Business School at the University of Oxford.

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