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The shifting climate battle over Big Oil

In this image, a Shell brand tanker sits in front of a plant on a cloudy day.
Royal Dutch Shell said it's quitting a major lobbying group, American Fuel & Petrochemical Manufacturers. Photo: Jeff J. Mitchell/Getty Images

These are split-screen times for shareholder advocates pushing the world's most powerful oil companies to do more on global warming.

Driving the news: Axios' Amy Harder reported yesterday that the SEC granted ExxonMobil's request to throw out a shareholder resolution urging the oil giant to disclose targets for steeply cutting emissions.

The intrigue: Her story landed just hours after Royal Dutch Shell said it's quitting a major lobbying group, American Fuel & Petrochemical Manufacturers, over differences on climate policy.

  • It's a move stemming from a review of trade group memberships, which Shell agreed to conduct in a wider agreement with activist investors late last year.

The bottom line: The developments highlight successes and hurdles facing activists seeking to use investors' stakes as leverage to force more aggressive steps on emissions and disclosure.

What's next: In the Exxon fight, the group shareholder advocacy group Ceres said yesterday evening that they're looking at several options after the SEC decision.

What they're saying: Ceres' Andrew Logan said in a statement that the investors behind the resolution will "make full use of their suite of rights." In a followup email, he told me they are mulling options, including...

  • Asking the SEC for reconsideration or even taking them to court.
  • Corralling support behind other proposals on the ballot for Exxon's annual meeting, such as one pushing for a climate committee on the board.
  • "Expressing displeasure" with Exxon's board by voting against re-election of one or more members.
  • Nominating alternative director candidates in 2020.

The big picture: Let's turn back to Shell's action. There's an argument that yesterday's splashy move really just affirmed the status quo.

  • Yes, sure, they dumped one trade group, but stuck with bigger ones — including the American Petroleum Institute and the U.S. Chamber of Commerce — that aren't that different from AFPM on climate policy.

But, but, but: Jason Bordoff, head of a Columbia University energy think tank, said via Twitter that Shell's move is "just the beginning" and that he sees it spilling over into API, the industry's main lobbying group.

  • "The differences among API members on the key issue of climate are vast. That's going to reach a breaking point," he tweeted.
  • I asked Bordoff to elaborate, and he added in an email, "I think API is going to have increasing difficulty sustaining its coalition in its current form unless it is able to build more consensus among its members about what a constructive role for the oil and gas industry looks like to address climate change."

Go deeper: SEC throws out investor proposal pushing Exxon on climate change