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Illustration: Eniola Odetunde/Axios

There's a lot of drama swirling around Exxon these days, which means their fourth quarter earnings report Tuesday will be even more closely watched than usual.

Driving the news: On Sunday, the Wall Street Journal and then Reuters reported that the CEOs of Exxon and Chevron last year discussed a blockbuster merger between companies whose combined market cap is currently over $350 billion.

  • Both outlets report that the pandemic's heavy toll on the sector spurred the talks. Both report they're no longer active.
  • The execs "envisioned achieving synergies through massive cost cuts to help weather the downturn in energy markets," Reuters notes.
  • The WSJ, citing people familiar with the talks, reports that they "could come back in the future."
  • Exxon declined comment, while a Chevron spokesman told Axios: "We do not comment on market rumors or speculation."

Meanwhile, the forces on Exxon to do more on global warming are expected to grow further.

  • A separate Reuters report states: "More than 135 investors managing more than $2 trillion are forming a coalition to push Exxon Mobil Corp into making sweeping changes including refreshing its board and focusing more on energy transition."
  • A source pointed me to this page that briefly describes plans by the shareholder advocacy group As You Sow "to help form a coalition of stakeholders to weigh in on the actual (and rumored) shareholder activism at ExxonMobil to promote capital disciple and address climate change."
  • It repeats the $2 trillion figure. As You Sow did not provide comment Sunday.

Catch up fast: The brewing effort comes as Exxon is already under pressure from activist investors to shake up its board — including via the addition of clean energy experts — and to do more to control spending.

The big picture: The storylines are indicative of huge and overlapping forces acting on the oil industry right now, and Exxon in particular.

  • The pandemic has sapped demand and hit prices, though there's been substantial recovery from the depths of the crisis.
  • And, pressure on Big Oil from activists and shareholders — and now the Biden administration — to do more on climate change is mounting.

Between the lines: Those two forces are especially relevant right now for Exxon. Its financial performance was already uneven before the pandemic, and it has been less aggressive on climate than its European-based peers.

What we're watching: How much (if anything) Exxon is willing to say tomorrow about any of this.

  • Last week Exxon said that in the "coming weeks" it would update shareholders on plans to create "sustainable value" and commercialize emissions-cutting tech.

The bottom line: The Energy Information Administration "estimates that the world consumed 92.2 million barrels per day (b/d) of petroleum and other liquid fuels in 2020, a 9% decline from the previous year and the largest decline in EIA’s series that dates back to 1980," they said in a summary.

Reproduced from EIA; Chart: Axios Visuals

Go deeper

Updated 16 mins ago - Health

California surpasses 50,000 COVID-19 deaths

A man prepares a funeral arrangement in in Los Angeles, California, Feb. 12. Photo: Mario Tama/Getty Images

California's death toll from COVID-19 surpassed 50,000 on Wednesday, per Johns Hopkins data.

The big picture: It's the first state to record more than 50,000 deaths from the coronavirus.

2 hours ago - Technology

Facebook bans Myanmar military

A protester holds a placard with a three-finger salute in front of a military tank parked aside the street in front of the Central Bank building during a demonstration in Yangon, Myanmar. Photo by Aung Kyaw Htet/SOPA Images/LightRocket via Getty Images

Facebook said on Wednesday it would ban the rest of the Myanmar military from its platform.

The big picture: It comes some three weeks after the military overthrew the civilian government in a coup and detained leader Aung San Suu Kyi, causing massive protests to erupt throughout the country. Military leaders have been using internet blackouts to try to maintain power in light of the coup.

It's harder to fill the Cabinet

Data: Chamberlain, 2020, "United States of America Cabinet Appointments Dataset" Chart: Will Chase/Axios

It's harder now for presidents to win Senate confirmation for their Cabinet picks, an Axios data analysis of votes for and against nominees found.

Why it matters: It's not just Neera Tanden. The trend is a product of growing polarization, rougher political discourse and slimming Senate majorities, experts say. It means some of the nation's most vital federal agencies go without a leader and the legislative authority that comes with one.