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這家135年歷史的石油公司,敗在何處?

這家135年歷史的石油公司,敗在何處?

Katherine Dunn 2021年06月21日
成為今年《財富》美國500強里虧損最嚴重的公司。

海上工廠。埃克森美孚在新加坡新造的Liza Unity海上石油船(右)將在圭亞那沿海作業。圖片來源:COURTESY OF EXXON MOBIL

論起說廢話,埃克森美孚的首席執行官伍德倫其實比不上美國職業籃球聯賽的傳奇人物邁克爾?喬丹,還有曾經入選達拉斯牛仔隊全明星陣容的迪昂?“巔峰時刻”?桑德斯。

但在公開場合,這位沉默寡言的石油巨頭高管聲音確實比較單調,

輕微拖長的得州口音聽起來略帶綿軟,用詞相當考究,讓人能夠感覺到事先精心準備的溫文爾雅。4月下旬,伍德倫宣布埃克森美孚一季度財報,還是一如既往的風格。然而除了典型大企業套話,他的言辭還透露出明顯的勝利意味,甚至有一種挑戰的感覺。

伍德倫在與華爾街分析師的網絡直播電話中指出,過去一年公司經歷了種種動蕩,先是新冠疫情引發一波又一波封鎖,還有原油消費量暴跌,然而能源巨頭對世界的看法并未改變。他還表示,2021年前三個月,埃克森美孚的利潤為27億美元,主要因為石油天然氣價格反彈,也證明公司戰略是正確的。

“我們都知道經濟會復蘇,人口和生活水平將繼續增長,最終推動對石油產品的需求,行業也會復蘇。”伍德倫說。他還指出,過去幾年公司在重組和再投資方面的努力取得了成效。“現在公司實力更強,前景也更好。”

言下之意是:對公司不滿,忍著吧。

不管對伍德倫還是公司來說,本季度亮眼的業績都是一場迫切需要的勝利。在過去一年里,曾經強大的埃克森美孚遭受了一系列羞辱。油價暴跌拖累埃克森美孚在2020年的收入比前一年下降了約830億美元,今年的《財富》美國500強中排名從第3位跌至第10位,也是有史以來最低排名。

更糟糕的是,在20多年沒有出現虧損的情況下,2020年虧損創下了224億美元紀錄,也變成《財富》美國500強里虧損最嚴重的公司。

去年8月,連續92年入選道瓊斯工業平均指數30強的埃克森美孚被軟件巨頭賽富時取代。雪上加霜的是,埃克森美孚的長期競爭對手雪佛龍(今年《財富》美國500強排名第27位,下跌12位)成功保住了在道瓊斯指數里的位置。

這一對比肯定讓埃克森美孚如芒在背。

到2021年4月,短短一年多時間內穆迪和標準普爾全球都第二次下調埃克森美孚的債務評級。造成這種情況的具體原因是什么?應對氣候變化的壓力加大,加上埃克森美孚債務水平達到歷史上最高,這也是積極投資提升石油天然氣產量的副產品。過去五年,該公司的凈債務資本比率從16.5%上升到27.8%,僅去年一年的債務總額就增加了近210億美元。

種種不利情況為埃克森美孚的批評者提供了寬敞的場地,簡直比石油鉆井平臺還大。多年來,批評者一直指責公司財富縮水。看看市場表現就知道。

長期以來在投資者看來,埃克森美孚可能是石油巨頭當中最自律的一家,公司現金十分充裕,經濟低迷時期仍然可以進行投資,經濟繁榮時期則擅長變現。不管喜不喜歡,埃克森美孚確實是值得信賴的石油股。

但在過去五年里,公司的股價下跌了32%,雪佛龍的股價上漲了6%,標準普爾500指數飆升了102%。同期,埃克森美孚也落后于競爭對手英國石油(下跌16%)和殼牌(下跌21%)。

今年1月,《華爾街日報》曾經報道埃克森美孚和雪佛龍有意就合并初步商討,公司未來發展方向也引發了更多疑問。(埃克森美孚拒絕對該篇報道置評。)

眼下是能源從化石燃料向可持續能源轉型的新時代,然而埃克森美孚仍然認為在未來幾十年內,石油天然氣依舊是經濟發展的中心,這一根深蒂固的世界觀問題不小,甚至可能造成巨大風險,也是各種混亂的源頭。

英國石油、殼牌和法國的道達爾等同行均已經承諾到2050年實現碳排放凈零,還表示將加快對風能和太陽能的投資,埃克森美孚在投資核心油氣以外的業務卻相當滯后。

重建信任。今年3月,埃克森美孚辦公室,伍德倫與一名員工聊天。伍德倫剛接任首席執行官時與員工溝通遇到過一些問題。圖片來源:COURTESY OF EXXON MOBIL

在一家新成立名叫Engine No.1的投資公司領導下,激進投資者紛紛意識到埃克森美孚的弱點,以質疑公司在替代能源方面缺乏行動為名發起代理權爭奪戰。激進投資者希望找四名新董事重新組建董事會,認為新人能夠推動埃克森美孚踏上姍姍來遲的發展之路。

對此,伍德倫特別宣布了一系列改革舉措,還啟動新業務將低碳技術商業化,引發眾多持懷疑態度的觀察者高度關注,但觀察者認為種種舉措都是權宜之計,而且會造成分心。

埃克森美孚內部的問題也在醞釀之中。公司計劃裁員15%,涉及約1.4萬員工,其中也包括承包商,受此影響,公司的士氣較為低落。

根據對埃克森美孚現任和前任各級各部門員工的采訪,很多人認為伍德倫擔任首席執行官的四年里引起了分歧。一些人批評他缺乏前任的狂傲不羈和聲勢,另一些人則批評他并不是富有遠見的變革推動者。

伍德倫堅稱,公司的戰略并不依賴油價上漲。但他似乎篤定埃克森美孚困難時期的經典策略會成功,即不斷前進等待油價回升。從10月底的37美元飆升至5月底的68美元,原油價格越高,策略成功的幾率就越大。

如今公司面臨的變革壓力比135年歷史上任何時候都要緊迫,更大的問題是:公司是否真正希望變革?

*****

伍德倫聽起來輕松而自信。

4月初與《財富》雜志的電話采訪時,他正在反思過去一年的動蕩。他說,盡管可能會很痛苦,但對公司來說,2020年是“關鍵的一年”,“不僅因為疫情、經濟以及對產品的需求,也因為幾項因素結合在一起。”他解釋說,自己和領導團隊剛在2019年秋季制定了重組計劃。新冠疫情的沖擊推動全公司更快的行動。“疫情確實加快了行動節奏,也讓全公司深刻了解了緊迫性。”

2017年1月1日,伍德倫接替雷克斯?蒂勒森擔任董事長兼首席執行官時,埃克森美孚似乎并不需要重大改革。事實上,伍德倫執掌的第一個全年,公司利潤高達197億美元,“平均資本回報率”達9%,比之前一年增長一倍以上,這也是公司向來最鐘愛的指標。

但蒂勒森離任前往特朗普政府擔任國務卿之前幾年里,公司債務急劇上升。很快公司內外都發現,蒂勒森給伍德倫留下了一堆爛攤子。

蒂勒森的失誤之一是,2010年在頁巖氣熱潮如火如荼之時收購了得克薩斯州的頁巖公司XTO,還出了350億美元的高價。

為了刺激增長,伍德倫采用了埃克森美孚典型的做法,押寶大型項目,一旦油價上漲就會獲得豐厚利潤。根據他的重組計劃,公司2025年前每年運營支出將增加300億至350億美元,重點放在“五大”特別有希望的大型油氣項目上,從得克薩斯的二疊紀盆地到圭亞那再到莫桑比克,與此同時拋售其他資產。

伍德倫預計,到2025年日產量將躍升至相當于200萬桶石油水平,收益可以翻一番。

然后疫情打亂了伍德倫的算盤。國際能源署的數據顯示,2020年全球石油需求較2019年下降了880萬桶/天,價格降幅更大。(2020年4月交易中,每桶石油的成本甚至短時間降到每桶負38美元。)

伍德倫立即削減了30%的資本支出,并表示到2023年成本將減少60億美元。然而,埃克森美孚的股息成本并未受影響。

英國石油和殼牌在經歷巨額虧損后,2020年都減少了股息,埃克森美孚卻不一樣,即便舉債也要保持穩定派息。

據現任和前任員工透露,帶領公司應對種種挑戰的過程中,伍德倫也在努力爭取埃克森美孚員工認同。他在首席執行官職位上兩位前輩都很難效仿。

李?雷蒙德風格出了名的強硬,1999年曾經主導從J?D?洛克菲勒旗下的標準石油公司分拆出的埃克森和美孚合并,而且一直領導到2005年。

蒂勒森也是耀眼而有魅力的領袖。相比之下,伍德倫更為保守。他在得州農工大學攻讀工程專業后,職業生涯全在埃克森美孚,是公司保守、命令控制型文化的產物,晉升時被認為言辭犀利且直率。但他的領導風格并未激勵多少員工,還讓很多人感覺不舒服。

舉個例子,現任和前任員工指出,伍德倫在擔任首席執行官大約一年后曾經召開全員會議,結果卻非常糟。

伍德倫即席發表講話,為競爭激烈且極不受歡迎的員工排名制度辯護稱,此舉能夠確保精英領導。

一位當時在場的員工表示,他還回憶起有一次解雇一名哭泣的女員工,一年后,那名女員工回來感謝他給自己機會尋找新崗位。該次會議給人留下的印象是伍德倫聽不出別人的言外之意,而且很傲慢。

一位前高級經理說,公司內部認為該起事件堪稱“車禍”,而且消息在公司里迅速傳開。當回答有關全員會議的問題時,埃克森美孚的發言人提供了一份聲明稱:“伍德倫繼續與員工定期接觸交談,參與全員會議,聽取員工反饋,領導公司時將加以考慮。”

*****

ENGINE NO. 1迅速向全世界表明了來意。

12月7日,新成立的激進投資公司在公開市場部署了2.5億美元的資金,以埃克森美孚為目標發起了第一次行動。該基金在一份聲明中宣布了開場白:“在石油天然氣歷史上,沒有哪家公司的影響力可以超過埃克森美孚。”

不過“很明顯,整個行業和世界都在發生變化,埃克森美孚也必須改變。”

該公司的總部位于舊金山,由對沖基金資深人士克里斯?詹姆斯創立,他是Partner fund Management和Andor Capital Management的聯合創始人。

在針對埃克森美孚的行動中,這家公司爭取到美國最大幾家養老基金的支持。還聲稱,埃克森美孚的董事會成員中沒有人深入了解能源行業,所以無法領導綠色轉型。

于是ENGINE NO. 1挑選了四位資歷合適的候選人加入董事會。其中一位是美國石油天然氣公司Andeavor的前首席執行官;還有一位曾經領導一家芬蘭的能源公司向可再生燃料轉型。

有人可能認為,由于埃克森美孚長期以來在氣候變化問題上態度頑固,與Engine No. 1的斗爭是迄今為止最艱巨的挑戰。

前首席執行官雷蒙德曾經多次質疑氣候變化。在蒂勒森的領導下,埃克森美孚公開承認氣候變化確實存在。

Union of Concerned Scientists卻在一份報告中聲稱,公司私下繼續資助有問題的科研項目,目的是混淆氣候變化相關的研究。

埃克森美孚則表示,報告“故意誤報”了公司在氣候變化問題上的立場,指責公司所屬的貿易組織“否認氣候變化”也毫無道理。

不信任的環境。2019年8月,環保分子在紐約最高法院外面集會。紐約總檢察長起訴埃克森,指控其在氣候變化帶來的財務風險方面誤導投資者,但埃克森最終勝訴。圖片來源:DREW ANGERER—GETTY IMAGES

哥倫比亞大學薩賓氣候變化法律中心的創始人邁克爾?杰拉德表示,埃克森美孚的過往記錄造成的長期陰影既有聲譽方面,也有法律層面。

目前埃克森美孚正在面臨地方和州政府20起與氣候變化有關的訴訟。杰拉德說,埃克森美孚“無疑”成為美國氣候變化相關訴訟最多的被告。到目前為止,還沒有訴訟成功的案例。

2019年,埃克森美孚在紐約總檢察長提起的訴訟中獲勝,該案指稱埃克森美孚輕視氣候變化風險。

伍德倫本人也表現得要更開放更透明應對氣候變化。他經常談到2015年的《巴黎協議》,在投資者陳述中也用了很長篇幅來闡述,有時甚至長期批評者聽著都煩躁。

Union of Concerned Scientists下屬氣候能源項目的負責任運動的主任凱西?穆爾維稱,有一次在埃克森美孚的年會上,開頭20分鐘伍德倫都在談環境問題。

“如果你是剛從外太空來地球的外星人,一落地就去開這場會。”穆爾維說,“真會以為這家公司非常重視解決氣候變化。”

但批評人士表示,埃克森美孚在氣候變化問題上言辭越發友好溫柔,實際行動卻并非如此。

舉個例子,看看公司如何聲稱減排符合《巴黎協定》。埃克森美孚的目標是到2025年將上游排放削減15%至20%,甲烷排放削減40%至50%,僅涵蓋公司自行經營項目的排放。(在10-K報告中,該公司稱約13%的油井并未經營。)

而且減排僅涉及埃克森美孚自身的排放量或項目使用的能源,即所謂的經營性排放量或“1級”和“2級”。英國石油和殼牌則已經將3級目標囊括在內,盡可能涵蓋與石油天然氣相關排放,包括汽車和飛機使用化石燃料動力產生的排放量。

埃克森美孚表示,之所以報告范圍限制在1級和2級排放量,是因為受公司直接控制,如何報告也很清楚,公司認為3級排放量數據不太一致,可能引發誤導。

伍德倫一直對競爭對手的遠大目標不屑一顧。在2020年3月與投資者進行的一次電話會議上,他表示同行提出的目標更像“選美比賽”,還指出將石油天然氣資產出售給“效率較低的運營商只會讓問題更糟”。

在伍德倫看來,要更“全面”地解決問題。

當回答有關埃克森美孚應對氣候變化方法的問題時,一位發言人指出,自2000年以來,公司在低排放技術方面的投資超過100億美元,他還說:“我們努力應對氣候變化的風險,盡力尋找解決方案。”

但一位前員工不無遺憾地表示,埃克森美孚內部的真實態度是,不管消費者喜不喜歡公司,還是需要公司的產品。

“我們根本不打扮豬,也不會給豬抹口紅。我們只會說:‘人人都喜歡培根,那就閉嘴吧。’”

當然,即便埃克森美孚的歐洲競爭對手都采取更環保的政策,產生的影響也不夠重大。

5月下旬,總部位于巴黎的國際能源署發布了一份意義重大的報告稱,為在2050年前將排放量降至凈零,從現在起不應該對油氣田進行新投資,而各大油氣公司均未就此做出承諾。

*****

至于油氣巨頭應該如何對付氣候變化,埃克森美孚的結論完全不同。

2月1日,伍德倫宣布推出一項名叫“低碳解決方案”的新業務,將埃克森美孚一直在開發的技術商業化。首先從碳捕獲和儲存(CCS)開始,即捕獲并阻止燃燒提取化石燃料產生的二氧化碳進入大氣層。

伍德倫表示,從2021年到2025年,埃克森美孚將在低碳解決方案上投資30億美元。

Engine No. 1聲稱,公司迫于投資者的壓力才改變氣候變化方面的言論。伍德倫稱,只是時機合適而已。

他說,風能和太陽能“雖然很重要”,但并不是“完整的解決方案”,多年來該公司一直努力提升CCS技術。他表示,目標不僅是幫自家公司抵消排放量,還要建立新業務,畢竟各企業紛紛做出凈零排放承諾,都要想辦法抵消排放量。當然,政治風向也發生了轉變。

“我認為,拜登政府的改革以及重視減排都為加快技術推進提供了助力,也為我們開展技術和碳捕獲方面工作并轉變為全面的業務奠定了基礎。”伍德倫說。

但到目前為止,除了已經宣布的內容,新成立的合資公司并未宣布新項目。

專家和分析人士還表示,如果沒有新激勵措施,首先就是自2009年以來,埃克森美孚一直公開支持的征收碳排放稅,目前在美國啟動大型CCS項目并不劃算。

埃克森美孚并未反對。談到利用CCS項目盈利時,

“美國還沒有推動此類項目的激勵架構。”蓋伊?鮑威爾表示,他從2018年就開始在埃克森美孚內部領導CCS項目,目前正在協助領導低碳解決方案。“但我們確實看到了潛在的政治意愿,即建立正確的激勵機制、監管和法律結構以實現目標。”鮑威爾說,公司正在與決策者接洽,其他項目也在進行中。

盡管埃克森美孚自稱在捕獲CCS方面全球領先,但批評人士認為,這項技術也有難題:該公司的方法側重于“提高石油采收率”,即向地下注入二氧化碳以排出更多石油,并不僅是為了減少碳排放進行長期封存。

鮑威爾指出,美國目前的大部分CCS工作都是為了石油開采,石油天然氣行業已經使用數十年的技術與長期封存相比需要“不同的技術和操作”。但他認為,最終結果都一樣。

“只是過程不同,最終結果都是將二氧化碳安全留在地面上。”鮑威爾說。

一些行業分析師公開質疑新業務的價值。“這不僅是概念,比起資本轉移更是發展方向調整。”跟蹤埃克森美孚的花旗董事總經理阿拉斯泰爾?賽姆表示。

“我認為此舉主要為了游說。”

*****

在Engine No. 1與埃克森美孚代理權之爭公開以來的幾個月里,基金與能源巨頭攤牌的賭注逐漸提高。

自年初以來,埃克森美孚董事會已經增加三名新成員,其中包括馬來西亞國家能源公司前首席執行官,也是激進投資者杰弗里?烏本,他是總部位于舊金山的對沖基金ValueAct Capital的創始人。

但Engine No. 1支持者越來越多。美國三大養老基金均已經公開支持,包括加州雇員退休基金、加州教師退休基金和紐約州共同退休基金,還有管理資產超過1萬億美元的英國資產管理公司法通。包括機構股東服務公司和Glass Lewis在內四家主要代理咨詢公司支持Engine No. 1更換部分董事會成員。

Glass Lewis在報告中稱:“雖然埃克森美孚聲稱戰略有所發展,在石油巨頭中也保住了歷來的領導地位,但我們認為,該公司競爭地位和財務回報均受到影響,其宣稱能夠徹底解決業績下滑的策略基本上作用不大。”

在投票的前一天晚上,激進投資者一方再下一城,路透社報道稱全球最大的資產管理公司貝萊德已經投票支持Engine No. 1四位候選人中的三位。

最終投票成功與否將取決于其他機構巨頭先鋒和道富銀行支持哪一方。

伍德倫陳述觀點時一直咄咄逼人。在一季度財報電話會議上回應分析師的問題時,他堅定支持埃克森美孚現任董事會的專業性,還表示公司與股東打交道的方式已經改變。

“我們收到反饋就會回應。”他說。

Engine No. 1則表示,埃克森美孚已經錯失就如何應對長期氣候變化展開認真辯論的機會。

在發起代理權爭斗之前,“埃克森美孚驕傲的回應空無一物。”Engine No. 1的積極行動負責人查理?彭納說,他也領導了埃克森美孚代理權之爭。“發現可能保不住董事會席位后,他們沒有積極辯論,而是穿上另一隊制服然后全力逃避。”

他們的制服就是能源轉型。

即便埃克森美孚沒有撤換董事會成員,本次動蕩會不會迫使埃克森美孚真正變革?業內觀察人士對此意見不一。

有人說,本次事件是在警告,世界不斷變化,埃克森美孚也不能獨善其身。

其他人說,石油巨頭很可能會恢復正常經營,尤其是如果石油天然氣價格繼續上漲,埃克森美孚的股價也會走高。截至5月下旬,自年初以來的埃克森美孚股價已經上漲41%。

當問起伍德倫埃克森美孚員工對公司未來有何疑問時,他相當謹慎。

“內部的問題與外部的問題比較一致。”他說,“由于社會需求也渴望低碳密集型能源,如何隨著時間推移實現這種需求?對公司有何影響?如何穩妥執掌公司,順利渡過轉型?”

他的語調一如既往地沉穩:“我們的工作是滿足社會不斷變化的需求。歷來都是這么做的。”

別催他,等等看。(財富中文網)

譯者:馮豐

審校:夏林

論起說廢話,埃克森美孚的首席執行官伍德倫其實比不上美國職業籃球聯賽的傳奇人物邁克爾?喬丹,還有曾經入選達拉斯牛仔隊全明星陣容的迪昂?“巔峰時刻”?桑德斯。

至少在公開場合,這位沉默寡言的石油巨頭高管聲音有些單調,輕微拖長的得州口音聽起來略帶綿軟,用詞相當考究,讓人能夠感覺到事先精心準備的溫文爾雅。4月下旬,伍德倫宣布埃克森美孚一季度財報,還是一如既往的風格。然而除了典型大企業套話,他的言辭還透露出明顯的勝利意味,甚至有一種挑戰的感覺。

伍德倫在與華爾街分析師的網絡直播電話中指出,過去一年公司經歷了種種動蕩,先是新冠疫情引發一波又一波封鎖,還有原油消費量暴跌,然而能源巨頭對世界的看法并未改變。他還表示,2021年前三個月,埃克森美孚的利潤為27億美元,主要因為石油天然氣價格反彈,也證明公司戰略是正確的。

“我們都知道經濟會復蘇,人口和生活水平將繼續增長,最終推動對石油產品的需求,行業也會復蘇。”伍德倫說。他還指出,過去幾年公司在重組和再投資方面的努力取得了成效。“現在公司實力更強,前景也更好。”

言下之意是:對公司不滿,忍著吧。

不管對伍德倫還是公司來說,本季度亮眼的業績都是一場迫切需要的勝利。在過去一年里,曾經強大的埃克森美孚遭受了一系列羞辱。油價暴跌拖累埃克森美孚在2020年的收入比前一年下降了約830億美元,今年的《財富》美國500強中排名從第3位跌至第10位,也是有史以來最低排名。

更糟糕的是,在20多年沒有出現虧損的情況下,2020年虧損創下了224億美元紀錄,也變成《財富》美國500強里虧損最嚴重的公司。

去年8月,連續92年入選道瓊斯工業平均指數30強的埃克森美孚被軟件巨頭賽富時取代。雪上加霜的是,埃克森美孚的長期競爭對手雪佛龍(今年《財富》美國500強排名第27位,下跌12位)成功保住了在道瓊斯指數里的位置。

這一對比肯定讓埃克森美孚如芒在背。

到2021年4月,短短一年多時間內穆迪和標準普爾全球都第二次下調埃克森美孚的債務評級。造成這種情況的具體原因是什么?應對氣候變化的壓力加大,加上埃克森美孚債務水平達到歷史上最高,這也是積極投資提升石油天然氣產量的副產品。過去五年,該公司的凈債務資本比率從16.5%上升到27.8%,僅去年一年的債務總額就增加了近210億美元。

種種不利情況為埃克森美孚的批評者提供了寬敞的場地,簡直比石油鉆井平臺還大。多年來,批評者一直指責公司財富縮水。看看市場表現就知道。

長期以來在投資者看來,埃克森美孚可能是石油巨頭當中最自律的一家,公司現金十分充裕,經濟低迷時期仍然可以進行投資,經濟繁榮時期則擅長變現。不管喜不喜歡,埃克森美孚確實是值得信賴的石油股。

但在過去五年里,公司的股價下跌了32%,雪佛龍的股價上漲了6%,標準普爾500指數飆升了102%。同期,埃克森美孚也落后于競爭對手英國石油(下跌16%)和殼牌(下跌21%)。

今年1月,《華爾街日報》曾經報道埃克森美孚和雪佛龍有意就合并初步商討,公司未來發展方向也引發了更多疑問。(埃克森美孚拒絕對該篇報道置評。)

眼下是能源從化石燃料向可持續能源轉型的新時代,然而埃克森美孚仍然認為在未來幾十年內,石油天然氣依舊是經濟發展的中心,這一根深蒂固的世界觀問題不小,甚至可能造成巨大風險,也是各種混亂的源頭。

英國石油、殼牌和法國的道達爾等同行均已經承諾到2050年實現碳排放凈零,還表示將加快對風能和太陽能的投資,埃克森美孚在投資核心油氣以外的業務卻相當滯后。

在一家新成立名叫Engine No.1的投資公司領導下,激進投資者紛紛意識到埃克森美孚的弱點,以質疑公司在替代能源方面缺乏行動為名發起代理權爭奪戰。激進投資者希望找四名新董事重新組建董事會,認為新人能夠推動埃克森美孚踏上姍姍來遲的發展之路。

對此,伍德倫特別宣布了一系列改革舉措,還啟動新業務將低碳技術商業化,引發眾多持懷疑態度的觀察者高度關注,但觀察者認為種種舉措都是權宜之計,而且會造成分心。

埃克森美孚內部的問題也在醞釀之中。公司計劃裁員15%,涉及約1.4萬員工,其中也包括承包商,受此影響,公司的士氣較為低落。

根據對埃克森美孚現任和前任各級各部門員工的采訪,很多人認為伍德倫擔任首席執行官的四年里引起了分歧。一些人批評他缺乏前任的狂傲不羈和聲勢,另一些人則批評他并不是富有遠見的變革推動者。

伍德倫堅稱,公司的戰略并不依賴油價上漲。但他似乎篤定埃克森美孚困難時期的經典策略會成功,即不斷前進等待油價回升。從10月底的37美元飆升至5月底的68美元,原油價格越高,策略成功的幾率就越大。

如今公司面臨的變革壓力比135年歷史上任何時候都要緊迫,更大的問題是:公司是否真正希望變革?

*****

伍德倫聽起來輕松而自信。

4月初與《財富》雜志的電話采訪時,他正在反思過去一年的動蕩。他說,盡管可能會很痛苦,但對公司來說,2020年是“關鍵的一年”,“不僅因為疫情、經濟以及對產品的需求,也因為幾項因素結合在一起。”他解釋說,自己和領導團隊剛在2019年秋季制定了重組計劃。新冠疫情的沖擊推動全公司更快的行動。“疫情確實加快了行動節奏,也讓全公司深刻了解了緊迫性。”

2017年1月1日,伍德倫接替雷克斯?蒂勒森擔任董事長兼首席執行官時,埃克森美孚似乎并不需要重大改革。事實上,伍德倫執掌的第一個全年,公司利潤高達197億美元,“平均資本回報率”達9%,比之前一年增長一倍以上,這也是公司向來最鐘愛的指標。

但蒂勒森離任前往特朗普政府擔任國務卿之前幾年里,公司債務急劇上升。很快公司內外都發現,蒂勒森給伍德倫留下了一堆爛攤子。

蒂勒森的失誤之一是,2010年在頁巖氣熱潮如火如荼之時收購了得克薩斯州的頁巖公司XTO,還出了350億美元的高價。

為了刺激增長,伍德倫采用了埃克森美孚典型的做法,押寶大型項目,一旦油價上漲就會獲得豐厚利潤。根據他的重組計劃,公司2025年前每年運營支出將增加300億至350億美元,重點放在“五大”特別有希望的大型油氣項目上,從得克薩斯的二疊紀盆地到圭亞那再到莫桑比克,與此同時拋售其他資產。

伍德倫預計,到2025年日產量將躍升至相當于200萬桶石油水平,收益可以翻一番。

然后疫情打亂了伍德倫的算盤。國際能源署的數據顯示,2020年全球石油需求較2019年下降了880萬桶/天,價格降幅更大。(2020年4月交易中,每桶石油的成本甚至短時間降到每桶負38美元。)

伍德倫立即削減了30%的資本支出,并表示到2023年成本將減少60億美元。然而,埃克森美孚的股息成本并未受影響。

英國石油和殼牌在經歷巨額虧損后,2020年都減少了股息,埃克森美孚卻不一樣,即便舉債也要保持穩定派息。

據現任和前任員工透露,帶領公司應對種種挑戰的過程中,伍德倫也在努力爭取埃克森美孚員工認同。他在首席執行官職位上兩位前輩都很難效仿。

李?雷蒙德風格出了名的強硬,1999年曾經主導從J?D?洛克菲勒旗下的標準石油公司分拆出的埃克森和美孚合并,而且一直領導到2005年。

蒂勒森也是耀眼而有魅力的領袖。相比之下,伍德倫更為保守。他在得州農工大學攻讀工程專業后,職業生涯全在埃克森美孚,是公司保守、命令控制型文化的產物,晉升時被認為言辭犀利且直率。但他的領導風格并未激勵多少員工,還讓很多人感覺不舒服。

舉個例子,現任和前任員工指出,伍德倫在擔任首席執行官大約一年后曾經召開全員會議,結果卻非常糟。

伍德倫即席發表講話,為競爭激烈且極不受歡迎的員工排名制度辯護稱,此舉能夠確保精英領導。

一位當時在場的員工表示,他還回憶起有一次解雇一名哭泣的女員工,一年后,那名女員工回來感謝他給自己機會尋找新崗位。該次會議給人留下的印象是伍德倫聽不出別人的言外之意,而且很傲慢。

一位前高級經理說,公司內部認為該起事件堪稱“車禍”,而且消息在公司里迅速傳開。當回答有關全員會議的問題時,埃克森美孚的發言人提供了一份聲明稱:“伍德倫繼續與員工定期接觸交談,參與全員會議,聽取員工反饋,領導公司時將加以考慮。”

*****

ENGINE NO. 1迅速向全世界表明了來意。

12月7日,新成立的激進投資公司在公開市場部署了2.5億美元的資金,以埃克森美孚為目標發起了第一次行動。該基金在一份聲明中宣布了開場白:“在石油天然氣歷史上,沒有哪家公司的影響力可以超過埃克森美孚。”

不過“很明顯,整個行業和世界都在發生變化,埃克森美孚也必須改變。”

該公司的總部位于舊金山,由對沖基金資深人士克里斯?詹姆斯創立,他是Partner fund Management和Andor Capital Management的聯合創始人。

在針對埃克森美孚的行動中,這家公司爭取到美國最大幾家養老基金的支持。還聲稱,埃克森美孚的董事會成員中沒有人深入了解能源行業,所以無法領導綠色轉型。

于是ENGINE NO. 1挑選了四位資歷合適的候選人加入董事會。其中一位是美國石油天然氣公司Andeavor的前首席執行官;還有一位曾經領導一家芬蘭的能源公司向可再生燃料轉型。

有人可能認為,由于埃克森美孚長期以來在氣候變化問題上態度頑固,與Engine No. 1的斗爭是迄今為止最艱巨的挑戰。

前首席執行官雷蒙德曾經多次質疑氣候變化。在蒂勒森的領導下,埃克森美孚公開承認氣候變化確實存在。

Union of Concerned Scientists卻在一份報告中聲稱,公司私下繼續資助有問題的科研項目,目的是混淆氣候變化相關的研究。

埃克森美孚則表示,報告“故意誤報”了公司在氣候變化問題上的立場,指責公司所屬的貿易組織“否認氣候變化”也毫無道理。

哥倫比亞大學薩賓氣候變化法律中心的創始人邁克爾?杰拉德表示,埃克森美孚的過往記錄造成的長期陰影既有聲譽方面,也有法律層面。

目前埃克森美孚正在面臨地方和州政府20起與氣候變化有關的訴訟。杰拉德說,埃克森美孚“無疑”成為美國氣候變化相關訴訟最多的被告。到目前為止,還沒有訴訟成功的案例。

2019年,埃克森美孚在紐約總檢察長提起的訴訟中獲勝,該案指稱埃克森美孚輕視氣候變化風險。

伍德倫本人也表現得要更開放更透明應對氣候變化。他經常談到2015年的《巴黎協議》,在投資者陳述中也用了很長篇幅來闡述,有時甚至長期批評者聽著都煩躁。

Union of Concerned Scientists下屬氣候能源項目的負責任運動的主任凱西?穆爾維稱,有一次在埃克森美孚的年會上,開頭20分鐘伍德倫都在談環境問題。

“如果你是剛從外太空來地球的外星人,一落地就去開這場會。”穆爾維說,“真會以為這家公司非常重視解決氣候變化。”

但批評人士表示,埃克森美孚在氣候變化問題上言辭越發友好溫柔,實際行動卻并非如此。

舉個例子,看看公司如何聲稱減排符合《巴黎協定》。埃克森美孚的目標是到2025年將上游排放削減15%至20%,甲烷排放削減40%至50%,僅涵蓋公司自行經營項目的排放。(在10-K報告中,該公司稱約13%的油井并未經營。)

而且減排僅涉及埃克森美孚自身的排放量或項目使用的能源,即所謂的經營性排放量或“1級”和“2級”。英國石油和殼牌則已經將3級目標囊括在內,盡可能涵蓋與石油天然氣相關排放,包括汽車和飛機使用化石燃料動力產生的排放量。

埃克森美孚表示,之所以報告范圍限制在1級和2級排放量,是因為受公司直接控制,如何報告也很清楚,公司認為3級排放量數據不太一致,可能引發誤導。

伍德倫一直對競爭對手的遠大目標不屑一顧。在2020年3月與投資者進行的一次電話會議上,他表示同行提出的目標更像“選美比賽”,還指出將石油天然氣資產出售給“效率較低的運營商只會讓問題更糟”。

在伍德倫看來,要更“全面”地解決問題。

當回答有關埃克森美孚應對氣候變化方法的問題時,一位發言人指出,自2000年以來,公司在低排放技術方面的投資超過100億美元,他還說:“我們努力應對氣候變化的風險,盡力尋找解決方案。”

但一位前員工不無遺憾地表示,埃克森美孚內部的真實態度是,不管消費者喜不喜歡公司,還是需要公司的產品。

“我們根本不打扮豬,也不會給豬抹口紅。我們只會說:‘人人都喜歡培根,那就閉嘴吧。’”

當然,即便埃克森美孚的歐洲競爭對手都采取更環保的政策,產生的影響也不夠重大。

5月下旬,總部位于巴黎的國際能源署發布了一份意義重大的報告稱,為在2050年前將排放量降至凈零,從現在起不應該對油氣田進行新投資,而各大油氣公司均未就此做出承諾。

*****

至于油氣巨頭應該如何對付氣候變化,埃克森美孚的結論完全不同。

2月1日,伍德倫宣布推出一項名叫“低碳解決方案”的新業務,將埃克森美孚一直在開發的技術商業化。首先從碳捕獲和儲存開始,即捕獲并阻止燃燒提取化石燃料產生的二氧化碳進入大氣層。

伍德倫表示,從2021年到2025年,埃克森美孚將在低碳解決方案上投資30億美元。

Engine No. 1聲稱,公司迫于投資者的壓力才改變氣候變化方面的言論。伍德倫稱,只是時機合適而已。

他說,風能和太陽能“雖然很重要”,但并不是“完整的解決方案”,多年來該公司一直努力提升CCS技術。他表示,目標不僅是幫自家公司抵消排放量,還要建立新業務,畢竟各企業紛紛做出凈零排放承諾,都要想辦法抵消排放量。當然,政治風向也發生了轉變。

“我認為,拜登政府的改革以及重視減排都為加快技術推進提供了助力,也為我們開展技術和碳捕獲方面工作并轉變為全面的業務奠定了基礎。”伍德倫說。

但到目前為止,除了已經宣布的內容,新成立的合資公司并未宣布新項目。

專家和分析人士還表示,如果沒有新激勵措施,首先就是自2009年以來,埃克森美孚一直公開支持的征收碳排放稅,目前在美國啟動大型CCS項目并不劃算。

埃克森美孚并未反對。談到利用CCS項目盈利時,

“美國還沒有推動此類項目的激勵架構。”蓋伊?鮑威爾表示,他從2018年就開始在埃克森美孚內部領導CCS項目,目前正在協助領導低碳解決方案。“但我們確實看到了潛在的政治意愿,即建立正確的激勵機制、監管和法律結構以實現目標。”鮑威爾說,公司正在與決策者接洽,其他項目也在進行中。

盡管埃克森美孚自稱在捕獲CCS方面全球領先,但批評人士認為,這項技術也有難題:該公司的方法側重于“提高石油采收率”,即向地下注入二氧化碳以排出更多石油,并不僅是為了減少碳排放進行長期封存。

鮑威爾指出,美國目前的大部分CCS工作都是為了石油開采,石油天然氣行業已經使用數十年的技術與長期封存相比需要“不同的技術和操作”。但他認為,最終結果都一樣。

“只是過程不同,最終結果都是將二氧化碳安全留在地面上。”鮑威爾說。

一些行業分析師公開質疑新業務的價值。“這不僅是概念,比起資本轉移更是發展方向調整。”跟蹤埃克森美孚的花旗董事總經理阿拉斯泰爾?賽姆表示。

“我認為此舉主要為了游說。”

*****

在Engine No. 1與埃克森美孚代理權之爭公開以來的幾個月里,基金與能源巨頭攤牌的賭注逐漸提高。

自年初以來,埃克森美孚董事會已經增加三名新成員,其中包括馬來西亞國家能源公司前首席執行官,也是激進投資者杰弗里?烏本,他是總部位于舊金山的對沖基金ValueAct Capital的創始人。

但Engine No. 1支持者越來越多。美國三大養老基金均已經公開支持,包括加州雇員退休基金、加州教師退休基金和紐約州共同退休基金,還有管理資產超過1萬億美元的英國資產管理公司法通。包括機構股東服務公司和Glass Lewis在內四家主要代理咨詢公司支持Engine No. 1更換部分董事會成員。

Glass Lewis在報告中稱:“雖然埃克森美孚聲稱戰略有所發展,在石油巨頭中也保住了歷來的領導地位,但我們認為,該公司競爭地位和財務回報均受到影響,其宣稱能夠徹底解決業績下滑的策略基本上作用不大。”

在投票的前一天晚上,激進投資者一方再下一城,路透社報道稱全球最大的資產管理公司貝萊德已經投票支持Engine No. 1四位候選人中的三位。

最終投票成功與否將取決于其他機構巨頭先鋒和道富銀行支持哪一方。

伍德倫陳述觀點時一直咄咄逼人。在一季度財報電話會議上回應分析師的問題時,他堅定支持埃克森美孚現任董事會的專業性,還表示公司與股東打交道的方式已經改變。

“我們收到反饋就會回應。”他說。

Engine No. 1則表示,埃克森美孚已經錯失就如何應對長期氣候變化展開認真辯論的機會。

在發起代理權爭斗之前,“埃克森美孚驕傲的回應空無一物。”Engine No. 1的積極行動負責人查理?彭納說,他也領導了埃克森美孚代理權之爭。“發現可能保不住董事會席位后,他們沒有積極辯論,而是穿上另一隊制服然后全力逃避。”

他們的制服就是能源轉型。

即便埃克森美孚沒有撤換董事會成員,本次動蕩會不會迫使埃克森美孚真正變革?業內觀察人士對此意見不一。

有人說,本次事件是在警告,世界不斷變化,埃克森美孚也不能獨善其身。

其他人說,石油巨頭很可能會恢復正常經營,尤其是如果石油天然氣價格繼續上漲,埃克森美孚的股價也會走高。截至5月下旬,自年初以來的埃克森美孚股價已經上漲41%。

當問起伍德倫埃克森美孚員工對公司未來有何疑問時,他相當謹慎。

“內部的問題與外部的問題比較一致。”他說,“由于社會需求也渴望低碳密集型能源,如何隨著時間推移實現這種需求?對公司有何影響?如何穩妥執掌公司,順利渡過轉型?”

他的語調一如既往地沉穩:“我們的工作是滿足社會不斷變化的需求。歷來都是這么做的。”

別催他,等等看。(財富中文網)

譯者:馮豐

審校:夏林

WHEN IT COMES to trash-talking, Exxon Mobil CEO Darren Woods isn’t exactly on par with, say, NBA legend Michael Jordan or former Dallas Cowboys All-Pro Deion “Prime Time” Sanders. At least in public, the buttoned-up Big Oil executive typically speaks in a near-monotone drone, softened slightly by his light Texas drawl, and chooses his words so carefully as to suggest a curated blandness. That understated presentation style was on display once again in late April when Woods announced the oil and gas giant’s first-quarter earnings. And yet, behind the Exxon-speak, there was an unmistakable note of triumph, perhaps even a hint of defiance.

On the webcast call with Wall Street analysts, Woods pointed out that a year of tumult—a pandemic, the resulting waves of lockdowns, and tumbling crude consumption—had done nothing to change the energy giant’s perspective on the world. And he offered that Exxon’s $2. 7 billion profit in the first three months of 2021, helped by rebounding oil and gas prices, was proof that the company’s strategy was right. “We knew economies would recover, populations and living standards would continue to grow—ultimately driving demand for our products and industry recovery.” Woods said. Meanwhile, he noted, the efforts by the company over the past few years to restructure and reinvest had paid off: “We are a stronger company with an improving outlook.”

Translation: Take that, haters.

The strong quarter was a much-needed win both for Woods and his company after a year in which once-mighty Exxon has suffered a series of painful indignities. Collapsing oil prices caused Exxon’s revenues to sink by some $83 billion in 2020 compared with the year before and sent the energy titan tumbling in this year’s Fortune 500, from No. 3 down to No. 10—Exxon’s lowest-ever spot in the rankings. Worse still, after more than two decades without a negative quarter, the company took a record $22. 4 billion loss in 2020. That made it the biggest money-loser in the Fortune 500 by a wide margin. In August, Exxon was removed from the Dow Jones industrial average after 92 consecutive years as a member of the 30-company index, and replaced by software giant Salesforce. Adding further insult to injury, Exxon’s longtime rival Chevron (No. 27 on this year’s Fortune 500, down 12 spots) kept its place in the Dow. That had to sting.

By April 2021, both Moody’s and S&P Global had downgraded Exxon’s debt for a second time in just over a year. The reason? Increased pressure to address climate change combined with the highest debt levels in Exxon’s history—a by-product of aggressive investments intended to boost the company’s oil and gas production. The company’s net debt-to-capital ratio has risen from 16. 5% to 27. 8% in the past five years, and its total debt load increased by nearly $21 billion last year alone.

The setbacks have given an oil-rig-size opening to Exxon’s critics, who argue that the company’s fortunes have been on the wane for years. Look no further than its market performance. Exxon has long enjoyed a reputation among investors as perhaps Big Oil’s most disciplined operator—so cash-rich that it could invest during downturns and capitalize in booms. Love it or hate it, Exxon was the oil stock you could count on. But over the past five years, its shares have fallen 32% while Chevron’s have risen 6% and the S&P 500 has soared 102%. Exxon also lags rivals BP (down 16%) and Shell(down 21%) over the same period.

The news, reported by the Wall Street Journal in January, that Exxon and Chevron had held preliminary merger discussions raised even more questions about the future direction of the company. (Exxon declined to comment on the report.)

Underpinning all the tumult is a suspicion that Exxon's long-established world view—of oil and gas being at the center of economic growth for decades to come—has become financially shaky, even deeply risky, in a new age of energy transition away from fossil fuels and toward more sustainable sources. While peers like BP, Shell, and France's Total have made commitments to reach net-zero carbon emissions by 2050 and have said they will accelerate investments in wind and solar, Exxon has dragged its feet on investing in anything outside its core oil and gas business.

Sensing weakness, activist investors—led by a newly created investment firm called Engine No. 1—have launched a proxy battle challenging Exxon over its lack of action on an alternative energy strategy. They are seeking to remake the company's board with a slate of four new directors who, they argue, can help guide Exxon's long-overdue evolution. In response, Woods has announced a series of overhaul initiatives-in particular, the launch of a new business to commercialize Exxon's low-carbon technology-that have been received with raised eyebrows by a wide range of skeptical observers, who view the moves as half measures and distractions. As Fortune went to press, the two sides were gearing up for a showdown at Exxon's annual meeting in late May.

Problems are brewing for Woods inside Exxon, too. Morale has been hurt by the company's plan to lay off 15% of its workforce, cutting some 14, 000 jobs, including contractors.

And four years into his tenure as CEO, Woods has become a divisive figure for many at the company, according to interviews with current and former Exxon employees from all levels and departments. He is criticized by some as lacking the blustery defiance and swagger of his predecessors in the corner office, and by others as not being more of a visionary change agent.

Woods insists that the company's strategy doesn't rely on higher oil prices. But he appears to be banking on the success of a classic Exxon tactic in times of trouble: push ahead and wait for the cost of a barrel to rise. The higher that crude goes-the price surged from $37 at the end of October to $68 as of late May-the better the odds that the strategy succeeds. And at a moment when the company arguably is under more pressure to change than at any point in its 135-year history, the bigger question is this: Does it even want to?

*****

WOODS SOUNDS RELAXED and confident. In a phone conversation with Fortune in early April, he is reflecting on the turbulence of the past year. Painful as it might have been, 2020 was “a pivotal year" for Exxon, he says, “not only because of what happened with the pandemic and the economy and the demand for the products that we produce, but it was also a time when I think several things came together. "The CEO and his leadership team had just completed a reorganization plan in the fall of 2019, he explains. And the fallout from COVID-19 pushed the entire organization to move faster. “The pandemic really accelerated the effort there and gave the organization a better understanding of the urgency.”

Exxon didn’t appear to be in need of a major overhaul when Woods succeeded Rex Tillerson as chairman and CEO on Jan. 1, 2017. Indeed, in Woods’ first full year at the helm, the company earned a hefty $19. 7 billion profit, and its “return on average capital employed”—a metric traditionally beloved by the company- was 9 %, or more than double that of the previous year. But its debt had risen sharply in the years before Tillerson's departure to serve a stint as secretary of state in the Trump administration. And it soon became clear, inside and outside the company, that Tillerson had left Woods with a mess to clean up. Among Tillerson's missteps: overpaying in the $35 billion acquisition or the Texas shale company XTO in 2010. when the shale boom was in full swing.

To jump-start growth, Woods adopted a quintessentially Exxon approach: He decided to bet on big projects that would pay off handsomely when oil prices rose. His reorganization plan called for the company to bump up operational spending by 30 billion to $35 billion every year through 2025, focusing on a "big five" of particularly promising, largescale oil and gas projects - from the Permian Basin in Texas to Guyana to Mozambique-- while selling off other assets. Woods projected that plan would result in a jump to s million equivalent barrels of oil per day, and double earnings, by 2025.

Then COVID-19 changed the math. Global oil demand in 2020 dropped a historic 8. 8 million barrels per day from 2019, according to the International Energy Agency, and prices fell even more dramatically. (The cost of a barrel even dropped briefly in trading to negative $38 per barrel in April 2020.)

Woods immediately slashed capital spending by 30% and said costs would be reduced by 6 billion through 2023. Exxon's dividend, however, was one cost that remained untouched. Unlike BP and Shell, which both reduced their dividends for 2020 in the wake of large losses, Exxon kept its payout steady-even borrowing to keep it fully funded.

And as he was leading the company through these challenges, Woods was struggling to find his footing with Exxon's workforce, according to current and former employees. His two forerunners in the CEO job were a tough act to follow as front men. Lee Raymond-who in 1999 orchestrated the merger of Exxon and Mobil, reuniting two off spring of J. D. Rockefeller's Standard Oil, and led the combined company until 2005--was famously hard-charging. And Tillerson was a brash and charismatic leader in his own right. Woods, by contrast, is more publicly reserved. An Exxon lifer who studied engineering at Texas A&M, he is a product of the company's conservative, command-and-control culture and was regarded as sharp and straight talking when he landed the job. But his leadership style has failed to inspire some employees and rubbed others the wrong way.

As an example, current and former employees point to a disastrous town hall meeting about a year into Woods' tenure as CEO. Speaking off-the-cuff, Woods defended the company's rigidly competitive, deeply unpopular employee ranking system as meritocratic. He also related a story about firing a crying female employee, only for her to come back and thank him a year later for giving her the chance to pursue new opportunities, according to employees who saw the town hall. The meeting's overall effect was to give an impression of Woods as tone deaf and arrogant. Internally, the appearance was regarded as a "car crash,” says one former senior manager, and word spread rapidly within the company. In response to questions about the town hall, an Exxon spokesperson provided this statement: “Darren continues to engage and talk with employees on a regular basis, takes part in town halls, and listens to employee feedback and considers it as he leads the company.”

*****

ENGINE NO. 1 did not waste any time announcing itself to the world. On Dec. 7, the newly formed activist investment firm, with a bankroll of $250 million deployed in public markets, launched its very first campaign, with Exxon as the target. As an opening salvo, the fund said in a statement that “no company in the history of oil and gas had been more influential.”

but that “it is clear, however, that the industry and the world it operates in are changing and that Exxon Mobil must change as well.”

The San Francisco–based firm was founded by Chris James, a hedge fund veteran and cofounder of Partner Fund Management and Andor Capital Management. It’s backed in the Exxon campaign by some of the largest pension funds in the U. S. , and it asserts that Exxon’s board of directors does not include members with sufficient knowledge of the energy industry to lead a green transition. They have picked four candidates to join the board who, they say, have the right credentials. One candidate is the former CEO of Andeavor, the U. S. oil and gas company; another led the transformation of a Finnish energy company’s shift toward renewable fuel.

One might view the Engine No. 1 campaign as the most formidable challenge yet to Exxon’s long history of recalcitrance on climate change. Former CEO Raymond questioned the validity of climate change on multiple occasions. Under Tillerson, Exxon publicly acknowledged that climate change was real. But the Union of Concerned Scientists alleged in a report that, behind the scenes, the company was continuing to fund flawed research to muddy the science on the changing climate. Exxon says the report “deliberately misstates” its position on climate change, and that it “inaccurately” accuses trade organizations to which Exxon belongs of “so- called climate denial.”

The long shadow of Exxon’s record is reputational but also legal: The company is currently facing 20 lawsuits from local and state governments that are related to climate change, says Michael Gerrard, founder of Columbia University’s Sabin Center for Climate Change Law. Gerrard says that makes Exxon “far and away” the top corporate defendant for climate change–related lawsuits in the U. S. So far, no such suits have been successful; in 2019, Exxon won a case brought by the New York attorney general, which alleged that the company had downplayed the risks it faces from climate change.

Woods himself has expressed a more open, transparent approach to addressing climate change. He has spoken frequently about the 2015 Paris Agreement, and devoted such long sections of investor presentations to the topic that even longtime critics have sometimes found it jarring. At one Exxon annual meeting, Woods spoke about the environment for the first 20 minutes, says Kathy Mulvey, the accountability campaign director in the climate and energy program at the Union of Concerned Scientists. “If you were an alien dropped from outer space into that meeting,” says Mulvey, “you would have thought this was a company focused on solving climate change.”

But critics say that the kinder, gentler rhetoric on climate change isn’t matched by Exxon’s actions. Consider, for instance, the company’s claims that its emissions cuts are in line with the Paris Agreement. Exxon’s targets—to slash upstream emissions intensity by 15% to 20%, and methane intensity by 40% to 50%, by 2025—cover emissions only on projects that Exxon operates itself. (In 10-K filings, the company reported that about 13% of its wells are non-operated.) And they extend only as far as Exxon’s own emissions or energy used on those projects, known as operating emissions or “Scope 1” and “Scope 2.” BP and Shell have included targets for Scope 3, which covers the largest portion of emissions tied to oil and gas—those that come from burning the fossil fuels to power cars and airplanes. Exxon says it limits reporting to Scope 1 and Scope 2 emissions because they are under the company’s direct control, and it’s clear how to report them, whereas Exxon argues Scope 3 emissions data is less consistent and can be misleading.

Woods has been dismissive of the more ambitious targets of his rivals. In a March 2020 call with investors, he referred to such targets by peers as a “beauty competition,” remarking that selling off oil and gas assets to a “less effective operator” has “actually made the problem worse.” Instead, Woods talks about solving the problem more “holistically.” In response to questions about the company’s approach to climate change, an Exxon spokesperson said that the company had invested more than $10 billion since 2000 in lower-emissions technology, and added: “We are committed to doing our part to address the risks of climate change and being part of the solution.”

But one former employee says ruefully that the true attitude inside Exxon is that consumers need its products, whether they like the company or not: “We don’t dress up our pig at all. We don’t even put lipstick on the pig. We just say, ‘Everyone likes bacon, so shut up.’”

Of course, even the more climate- friendly policies of Exxon’s European rivals may not be going far enough to make a meaningful difference. In a landmark report released in late May, the Paris-based International Energy Agency said that in order to have any hope of cutting emissions to net zero by 2050, no new investments must be made in oil and gas fields at all from now on—a pledge that none of the major oil and gas companies have made.

*****

WHEN IT COMES TO the question of what, exactly, an oil and gas giant should do about climate change, Exxon has come to a different conclusion. On Feb. 1, Woods announced the launch of a new business, Low Carbon Solutions, to commercialize technologies that Exxon has been developing. It will start, first and foremost, with carbon capture and storage, or CCS—a process in which carbon dioxide from burning or extracting fossil fuels is trapped and prevented from reaching the atmosphere. Woods said Exxon would invest $3 billion in Low Carbon Solutions from 2021 through 2025.

Engine No. 1 claims the company has changed its rhetoric on climate change in response to investor pressure. But Woods says the timing was simply right. Wind and solar power “while important” aren’t a “complete solution,” he says, and the company has been working on CCS technology for years. The aim is not just to offset their own emissions but to build out a new business: Given the explosion of net-zero commitments by companies, those same companies are going to need a way to offset their emissions, he says. There has also been, of course, a shift in the political winds.

“I think the Biden administration change, and the emphasis that they’re putting on that, put an accelerant in that process, and so really provided the underpinnings for us to take that work that we’ve been doing on technology and carbon capture and change that into a full-blown business.” says Woods.

But so far the new venture hasn’t announced any projects beyond what it had already made public. Experts and analysts also say that without new incentives, first and foremost a carbon tax—an option that Exxon Mobil has publicly backed since 2009—it is not currently economical to launch large CCS projects in the U. S.

Exxon doesn’t disagree. When it comes to making CCS projects profit- able, “I would say that the U. S. is not there in terms of incentive structure to make something like this happen.” says Guy Powell, who has led Exxon’s CCS ventures internally since 2018 and is now helping to lead Low Carbon Solutions. “But we do see potentially the political will to put in the right incentives, regulatory and legal structures in place, to make that happen.” The company is engaging with policymakers, Powell said, and has other projects in the works.

While Exxon asserts that it is the world’s leader in capturing CCS, critics argue that the expertise comes with a catch: The company’s approach is focused on “enhanced oil recovery,” a method that injects CO2 into the ground in order to push more oil out, rather than solely long-term sequestration for the explicit purpose of reducing carbon emissions.

Powell says that, indeed, most of the current CCS efforts in the U. S. are for the purpose of oil extraction, and that the technique, used by the oil and gas industry for decades, requires “different applications of technology and operations” than long-term sequestration. But he argues that the end result is the same. “It is a different process, but the net result is that the CO2 stays securely in the ground,” says Powell.

Some industry analysts are openly skeptical about the value of the new venture. “It’s more than a concept, but it’s a direction rather than a big capital shift,” says Alastair Syme, a managing director at Citi who follows Exxon. “I would interpret that as part of the lobbying effort.”

*****

IN THE MONTHS since Engine No. 1 went public with its proxy battle against Exxon, the stakes of the showdown between the fund and the energy giant have steadily been raised. In what appears to be a direct response to Engine No. 1’s proposed slate of new directors, Exxon has added three new members to its board since the start of the year, including the former CEO of the Malaysian state energy company as well as activist investor Jeffrey Ubben, the founder of the San Francisco–based hedge fund ValueAct Capital.

But Engine No. 1’s campaign continues to gain supporters. It has been backed publicly by three of the largest pension funds in the U. S. —Calpers, Calstrs, and the New York State Common Retirement Fund—as well as Legal & General, a U. K. asset manager with more than $1 trillion in assets. Four major proxy advisers, including Institutional Shareholder Services and Glass Lewis, the two largest voting advisories in the U. S. , have offered Engine No. 1 support for at least some of its proposed board members. Said Glass Lewis in its report: “While Exxon claims to have evolved its strategy and maintained its historical leadership position among oil majors, our review finds the company’s competitive position and financial returns have eroded, and its stated strategy to address the underlying reasons for this diminished performance is generally insufficient.”

The night before the vote, the campaign won another coup when Reuters reported that BlackRock, the world’s largest asset manager, had voted for three of Engine No. 1’s four candidates. The success of the vote would hinge on the support of other institutional giants Vanguard and State Street.

Woods has been aggressive in making his case. Responding to a question from an analyst in the first-quarter earnings call, the CEO staunchly defended the expertise of Exxon’s current board, and said the company has changed how it engages with shareholders. “I think we are responding to the feedback that we get.” he said.

Engine No. 1 says that Exxon has missed an opportunity to have a serious debate over what should be done about climate change in the long term. Before the campaign, “Exxon’s proud answer was nothing.” says Charlie Penner, head of active engagement at Engine No. 1 and the leader of the Exxon proxy battle. “But once there was a risk of losing board seats, rather than having that debate, they just threw on the other team’s uniform”—that is, an energy-transition uniform—“and tried to avoid it.”

Will the campaign force real change at Exxon, even if it doesn’t unseat any board members? Industry observers are divided. Some say it has served as a warning shot that the world is changing, and Exxon is not immune. Others say it’s likely that the oil giant will get back to business as usual—especially if oil and gas prices continue to rise, driving up the value of Exxon’s shares in the process. As of late May, Exxon’s stock was up 41% since the start of the year.

When asked what questions Exxon employees ask him about the future of the company, Woods is circumspect. “The questions internally are very consistent with the external questions.” he says, “which is, you know, given the demand and the desire for less carbon intensive energy sources, how does that demand realize itself with time? And what’s the impact on the company? And how do we think about managing through that transition?” He continues in a reassuring tone: “Our job here is to meet the evolving demands of society. And that’s what we have historically done.” Just don’t rush him.

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