BP's investors unite over fears firm is 'falling behind' on climate

When BP Plc meets with shareholders next week, it’ll be facing one of the clearest signals yet that the fossil-fuel business is facing an adapt-or-die reckoning.

A resolution at the company’s annual general meeting on May 21 will ask BP to prove in a series of reports how individual capital investments, and its overall business strategy, are aligned with the goals of the Paris climate accord. The proposal already has the backing of almost a tenth of the company’s shareholders, including seven of the oil major’s 20 largest stockholders, such as Legal & General Investment Management Ltd., and UBS Asset Management.

The resolution is intended to make BP address climate change sooner and is one of many examples of investors seeking to pressure companies. Shareholders have forced the issue now because at least four years of talks on the issue with management were “moving slowly,” said the director of stewardship at Hermes EOS, who took the lead on speaking to BP.

“We felt the company was falling behind other competitors in terms of its ambitions,” Bruce Duguid, at Hermes, said in an interview. Right now “there’s not a clear demonstration that the company’s strategy is consistent with the goals of the Paris agreement.”

BP said earlier this year it supports the resolution and asked all shareholders to vote for it at the meeting. If a majority do, it will be legally binding.

The company said it will begin including the information requested in its 2019 annual report, which will be released in about a year. It should show which projects are high-cost or most polluting, the riskiest sorts of investment in a world trying to wean itself off carbon.

Talks with BP became especially pointed last year as competitor Royal Dutch Shell Plc defined its long-term ambitions around climate change, which is to halve its net carbon footprint by 2050 and ultimately pivot to cleaner fuels.

BP in contrast has been focused on paying more than $60 billion in fines and legal costs associated with spilling millions of barrels of crude into the Gulf of Mexico in 2010. The company has now returned to sound financial footing and plans to rapidly expand its oil and gas output to reach near parity with its larger peers.

“The fact that the company has now come through the Gulf of Mexico litigation and is now back to a growth strategy, is a key cause of the concern,” Duguid said.

While BP Chief Executive Officer Bob Dudley has spoken about his support for climate change action, he has taken aim at some measures the company has been asked to adopt. He said detailed disclosures can be fodder for class action lawyers which look to profit from minor and unpreventable inconsistencies.

The company has instead supported efforts such as the Oil and Gas Climate Initiative, which invests in low-carbon technologies. It has also bought stakes in solar and other renewable energy companies and it purchased an electric car-charging company last year.

Duguid said BP still has fallen behind its competitors in defining how it will “transition” as the world cuts carbon from the energy system. He said he drafted the resolution in the autumn, with other investors, without knowing whether BP would support it. Ultimately 58 investors signed on as co-filers.

The engagement with BP was also aided by an 18-month old coalition of investors called Climate Action 100+. The group, which oversees about $33 trillion in assets, is asking more than 150 of the largest corporate greenhouse gas emitters to align their business strategy with the Paris accord. Climate Action 100+ has already persuaded Shell to adapt short-term climate targets and convinced Glencore Plc to cut coal production.

“There’s 161 companies on the focus list, so around the world we’ve got groups of investors engaging with each one of those,” said Stephanie Pfeifer, head of the Climate Action 100+ group’s European arm. “There’s plenty of time to have more dialogue, and sort of ratchet up the asks, as well.”

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