Posted on April 14, 2014 by Seth Jaffe
Last week, in response to shareholder requests that it disclose information regarding how climate change might affect it in the future, ExxonMobil released two reports, one titled Energy and Climate, and one titled Energy and Carbon – Managing the Risks. They actually make fascinating reading and seem to represent a new tack by ExxonMobil in its battle with those seeking aggressive action on climate change.
The reports do not deny the reality of climate change. Indeed, the reports acknowledge climate change, acknowledge the need for both mitigation and adaptation, acknowledge a need to reduce fossil fuel use (at some point), acknowledge the need to set a price on carbon, and acknowledge that ExxonMobil in fact already is making future planning decisions utilizing an internal “proxy” price on carbon that is as high as $80/ton of CO2 in the future.
The reaction of the shareholder activists who pushed for the disclosures? They are not happy. Why not?
Because ExxonMobil has said explicitly that it doesn’t believe that there will be sufficient worldwide pressure – meaning government regulations imposing very high carbon prices – to reduce fossil fuel use sufficiently quickly enough to limit global temperature rise to 2 degrees Celsius. It also does not believe that worldwide carbon regulation will leave it with any “stranded assets.”
I understand the moral case against fossil fuel use. Personally, however, I’d rather rely on a carbon price that provides the appropriate incentives to get the reductions in CO2 emissions that we need to mitigate climate change. On that score, sadly, it’s not obvious to me at this point that ExxonMobil’s analysis of likely outcomes is actually wrong.
My biggest complaint with the reports is the refusal to recognize that markets react dynamically to new regulatory requirements. The history of big regulatory programs is that they pretty much always cost less than the predictions made before the regulations are implemented. The lesson then is that the current projections of energy cost increases resulting from a high cost of carbon are likely to be overestimated.
Time will tell. At least I hope so.