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Illustration: Shoshana Gordon/Axios

A rat-tat-tat burst of events Wednesday could mark a turning point in pressure against Big Oil to act more aggressively on global warming.

Catch up fast: In a span of hours, ExxonMobil shareholders voted to add at least two new board members nominated by activist investors (a third nominee's vote is outstanding).

  • Chevron shareholders backed a resolution urging emissions cuts from use of its products in the economy, called Scope 3.
  • Royal Dutch Shell was ordered by a Dutch court to slash emissions well beyond current plans.

Why it matters: The investor votes, especially after Exxon's intense fight against the activist slate, make crystal clear that mainstream finance wants stronger steps on climate.

  • In one sign of this trend, asset management giant BlackRock voted for three of the four insurgent directors nominated by the investment group Engine No. 1.

Meanwhile, the Dutch court decision is the first to order a major oil company to make its emissions plans more consistent with the Paris Climate agreement targets.

  • It could spur legal action against other oil and gas firms, but also other industrial giants too.
  • “This case does open the door for challenges to other energy-intensive sectors,” Liz Hypes, an analyst with the consultancy Verisk Maplecroft, tells the Wall Street Journal.

What they're saying: Energy experts tell Axios the court ruling and Exxon votes illustrate what could be a significant shift.

  • They "reflect the growing societal expectations that oil firms be able to demonstrate their business strategies are aligned with our long-term climate goals and resilient to climate risk," says Jason Bordoff, who heads a Columbia University energy think tank.
  • "The era of 'always be drilling' oil major capex has clearly come to an end with today's events. Investors are betting there are profitable ways for legacy energy companies to transform themselves in alignment with the net zero [emissions] imperative," says climate finance expert Daniel Firger, managing director at Great Circle Capital Advisors.

Yes, but: The substantive effects of Wednesday's action won't be known for a long time.

  • It's impossible to say, for now, how much influence Exxon's small share of new board members will have on the company's direction.
  • Shell said it would appeal the decision in a statement that also touted its existing near-term targets and its plan to become a "net-zero" emitter by 2050.

Here's a little more from Bordoff, who was an energy aide in the Obama White House, on the rising climate pressure on oil majors:

  • "It is important to note that if the response is for companies to sell oil assets in order to reduce emissions from the oil they produce, global emissions will not decline if others just buy those assets and produce the oil, which is why it is urgent that policy and technology start to curb oil use that is still rising year after year."

Go deeper: Biden administration backs Trump-era Alaska oil drilling plans

Go deeper

Dutch court orders Shell to cut its emissions in landmark ruling

A Royal Dutch Shell Plc logo on a fence at the Shell Pernis refinery in Rotterdam, Netherlands, on Tuesday, April 27, 2021. Shell reports first quarter earnings on April 29. (Peter Boer/Bloomberg via Getty Images)

In a precedent-setting ruling, a Dutch court ruled Wednesday in favor of environmentalists and more than 17,000 residents of the Netherlands, by ordering Royal Dutch Shell to cut its emissions of greenhouse gases.

Why it matters: It’s the first court ruling that orders a major oil company to make its emissions plans more consistent with Paris Climate Agreement targets, and it could spur legal action against other oil and gas firms.

Ben Geman, author of Generate
Updated May 26, 2021 - Energy & Environment

In blow to Exxon management, climate activists install two new board members

Photo Illustration: Igor Golovniov/SOPA Images/LightRocket via Getty Images

Exxon shareholders, bucking company management, voted to install at least two new members to the oil giant's board in a push to make Exxon more aggressive on addressing climate change and more disciplined in its oil investments.

Why it matters: Exxon management campaigned strongly against the entire slate of four people nominated by Engine No. 1, the activist investment group whose campaign was backed by several major pension funds.

May 27, 2021 - Podcasts

Climate activists get a win over Big Oil

Yesterday, a court in The Hague ordered oil giant Royal Dutch Shell to reduce its carbon emissions. In a first-of-its kind ruling, Shell was ordered to cut emissions by 45% by 2030, 25% more than their previous 2030 goal.

It’s just one of the latest moves to hold Big Oil accountable on climate change.

  • Plus, Haitian migrants in the U.S. react to renewed deportation protection.
  • And, U.S. intelligence is now intensifying its investigation of the origins of COVID-19.