Investors achieved noteworthy victories during this year’s shareholder proxy season, with a near record 110 shareholder resolutions filed with 94 U.S. companies on hydraulic fracturing, flaring, fossil fuel reserve risks and other climate – and sustainability – related risks and opportunities.
The majority of resolutions filed within the energy sector focused on strategies to reduce sector-wide greenhouse gas emissions at no net economic cost, and in some cases, economic gain.
Investors withdrew more than 40 resolutions after the companies made positive commitments to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, gas flaring and adverse impacts from hydraulic fracturing. Other shareholder successes included strong votes – as high as 38 percent – on resolutions asking oil and gas companies to set methane emission reduction goals. First-time resolutions regarding fossil fuel reserve risks – also known as carbon bubble resolutions – received up to 22 percent support.
Filers of the resolutions include some of the nation’s largest public pension funds, such as the California State Teachers Retirement System (CalSTRS) and the New York State and New York City Comptrollers’ Offices; socially responsible investors such as Green Century Capital Management and Trillium Asset Management; and religious, labor and other institutional investors, who collectively manage more than $500 billion in assets. For a complete set of the resolutions tracked by Ceres, including information on the 29 lead filers,
“The strength of this year’s proxy season shows unwavering investor concern about how companies, especially energy companies, are managing the profound climate-related risks of fossil fuel production, including traditional and unconventional oil and gas extraction,” said Mindy Lubber, president of Ceres, which helps coordinates the shareholder resolutions. “Investors saw especially important progress in tackling flaring, hydraulic fracturing and methane emission impacts, all key contributors to climate change.”
HIGHLIGHTS OF THE 2013 SEASON INCLUDE:
Continental Resources, the largest oil producer in North Dakota’s Bakken region, agreed to reduce or eliminate flaring at its well sites to “as close to zero percent flaring as possible.” The goal was announced in the Oklahoma company’s annual 10-K filing following a shareholder resolution filed by Mercy Investment Services, Inc. The agreement followed investor letters sent last year to the industry’s 21 largest shale oil producers asking them to curb natural gas flaring – a byproduct of tight oil production - which is proliferating nationally as more wells are being drilled.
“While our concerns over the environmental impacts of unconventional oil and gas development remain, we see Continental’s increasing disclosure and goal-setting as a clear step in the right direction,” said Pat Zerega, director of shareholder advocacy at Mercy Investment Services, in a statement after Mercy withdrew its resolution in February. “Continental’s strong goal shows that there is agreement between the domestic oil industry, investors and advocates that allowing billions of cubic feet of natural gas to go up in flames is not good for business.”
Hydraulic Fracturing/Water Impacts
Resolutions were withdrawn with EOG Resources, Ultra Petroleum and Cabot Oil & Gas, after the companies agreed to increase their public disclosure on risk exposure and mitigation steps they are taking to reduce the environmental impacts from hydraulic fracturing. The fracturing technology has dramatically boosted U.S. oil and gas production in recent years while also prompting widespread concern about water supply and water contamination risks. The companies are all based in Houston.
EOG Resources has improved its disclosure on greenhouse gas emissions, as well as steps the company is taking to reduce toxic chemicals in its hydraulic fracturing. Ultra Petroleum published its first report this year on steps it is taking to mitigate hydraulic fracturing impacts. The company is also reporting on its website that it has stopped using freshwater in its operations by re-using 100 percent of the water that returns to the surface after a well is done being ‘fracked’. The New York State Comptroller filed the resolution with Cabot; Green Century was the lead filer of proposals with EOG Resources and Ultra Petroleum.
“These commitments demonstrate growing shareholder and company concern about the environmental risks associated with hydraulic fracturing,” said Leslie Samuelrich, senior vice president at Green Century Capital Management. “Companies are responding to the growing calls for transparency and accountability. Without qualitative reporting, shareholders cannot be assured that a company is taking real steps to minimize these risks and protect shareholder value.”
Several other oil and gas companies were not responsive to shareholder proposals on fracking impacts, and those resolutions received strong investor support when they were voted on at corporate annual meetings, including Exxon (30 percent), Chevron (31 percent) and Pioneer Natural Resources (32 percent).
Fossil Fuel Asset Risks
First-ever resolutions focused on fossil fuel reserve valuation risks were filed with two of the nation’s five largest coal companies, CONSOL Energy in Pennsylvania and Alpha Natural Resources in Virginia. The proposals asked that the companies describe how their extensive coal reserves stood to be impacted – or potentially stranded – due to impending carbon regulations, and what potential impacts these scenarios may have on future value of coal and gas reserves. The resolutions, filed by As You Sow and the Unitarian Universalist Association, received 22 percent and 18 percent investor support, respectively.
2013 analyses by the Carbon Tracker Institute and the International Energy Agency found that if government regulations were imposed to limit global warming to 2 degrees Celsius, roughly two-thirds of proven fossil fuel reserves would need to remain underground. These reserves, which account for as much as 50 to 80 percent of the market value of coal, oil, and gas companies, would therefore be at risk of becoming “stranded,” thus exposing companies and investors to significant financial risks.
Fugitive Methane Emissions
The International Energy Agency has concluded that methane emissions have a 100-year Global Warming Potential (GWP) – 25 times that of carbon dioxide. In order to mitigate this, Trillium Asset Management filed shareholder resolutions with three natural gas producers, including Spectra Energy, ONEOK, and Range Resources, requesting a report on how the companies are measuring, mitigating, and disclosing methane emissions. The resolutions received strong votes, 35 percent, 38 percent and 21 percent, respectively, indicating broad shareholder support.
"These very high shareholder votes send a clear message to management at Spectra Energy, Range Resources and Oneok that its investors expect the companies to move quickly to stop methane emissions," said Trillium Asset Management, LLC Vice President Natasha Lamb. "With the President's Climate Action Plan and the International Energy Agency emphasizing the need to dramatically reduce methane emissions, now is the time for the companies to get ahead of the regulatory risk and implement strong programs that leads to operational efficiencies and stop the release of damaging greenhouse gases."
Energy Efficiency and Renewable Energy
The New York State Comptroller’s Office, which oversees the New York Common Retirement Fund, withdrew a resolution with DTE Energy after the Michigan-based company committed to expand its public disclosure and programs on energy efficiency and renewable energy offerings. DTE Energy committed to improve its disclosure on the costs and benefits and the greenhouse reductions associated with energy efficiency and renewable energy. The company also committed to disclose positions it takes related to development of the state's energy plan this year.