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Future Will Battle Past at Exxon Mobil Annual Meeting

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The term "shareholder resolution" usually conjures up images of banner-wielding PETA members or other scruffy hecklers who bear little resemblance to buttoned-down institutional investors quizzing corporate management about the fate of their billions of dollars. But that will not be the case on May 28 in Dallas, where stockholders at Exxon Mobil's annual meeting will vote on a group of the most potentially historic (albeit non-binding) resolutions in the world's transition to a cleaner, more renewable energy mix.

These clean energy-advocating, "dissident" Exxon Mobil shareholders just happen to be members of the Rockefeller family -- 72 of the 78 adult descendants of John D. Rockefeller, whose 19th century Standard Oil empire eventually begot Exxon. (When Esso changed its name in the 1970s to Exxon, I remember my father, a steel company executive, pointing out that the new moniker included a 'double-cross', but that's another story). Anyway, 15 of these Rockefellers, the oldest continuous shareholders in the company, have filed four resolutions requiring that the company significantly ramp up its heretofore paltry efforts in renewable energy and greenhouse gas reduction.

When the Rockefeller family is leading the charge toward cleaner energy, you know this stuff is the real deal. But this didn't come out of the blue. In the past two to three years, there has been a parade of prominent hard-core business types -- even some notorious ones -- embracing clean technology developments and investments around the world. Last year, legendary Texas oilman/corporate raider T. Boone Pickens announced plans to build the world's largest wind farm in the Lone Star State. (This month, his company ordered 667 wind turbines from GE.) Wal-Mart has become a leader in energy efficiency initiatives and greening the supply chain. It doesn't excuse that company's behavior on employees' health care, big-box sprawl, and other issues, but the Colossus of Bentonville does deserve its clean-tech and energy-reducing kudos. Some may counter that Wal-Mart isn't being altruistic -- its executives are trying to save on energy costs and improve their bottom line. And Pickens isn't about anything but making money.

But that's exactly the point. As Ron Pernick and I wrote last year in The Clean Tech Revolution, moving to cleaner energy sources, cutting energy use and carbon emissions, is the way to make money in the 21st century. Or in the oft-quoted words of GE CEO Jeff Immelt, "Green is green." An Environmental Defense Fund report released May 20 reached the same conclusion.

Enter the Rockefellers. Despite Exxon Mobil's eye-popping $10.9 billion first-quarter profit, it's the family's concern for the future of the company's bottom line that's fueling their shareholder resolutions. "If the next 20 years of the energy business were just going to be about oil and gas, we probably wouldn't be here today," said Peter O'Neill, head of the family's committee dealing with Exxon Mobil, and John D. Rockefeller's great-great-grandson. Another descendant, Neva Rockefeller Goodwin, said the company is "focusing on a narrow path that ignores the rapidly shifting energy landscape around the world, including developing nations."

In their highest-profile resolution, the Rockefellers are specifically calling for an independent executive to take the chairman's title from Exxon Mobil CEO Rex Tillerson. That same resolution got 40 percent of shareholders' support last year, so despite management's strong opposition, it may have a shot at passing. The other resolutions seek the adoption of reduction targets for greenhouse-gas emissions from company operations, a new policy for renewable energy R & D with a progress report to investors next year, and a task force to study the effects of climate change on poor economies around the world.

Exxon Mobil management is dead-set against all of these ideas, and its allies on the Wall Street Journal editorial page have predictably taken up the cause, referring to moves into cleaner energy businesses as "social goals" and "political fads." They're completely missing the point. It's not that the Rockefellers have suddenly gone soft, green and hippy-dippy. Calling for and moving into businesses that tap clean energy, carbon reduction, and alternatives to $135-a-barrel oil is mainstream now -- at least for anyone looking ahead to the future and a very different energy landscape. It is Exxon Mobil, and supporters of its current oil-and-more-oil strategy, that are out of step and stuck in the past.

May 28 could be very interesting.