By Clifford Krauss © The New York Times Co.
HOUSTON » Darren Woods rarely makes headlines even though he is the chief executive of Exxon Mobil, the oil company that some people consider a top environmental villain and others think of as a vital engine of the U.S. economy.
Few have taken seriously or even noticed that he is beginning to make promises to respond to climate change, which is at the very least a rhetorical break from his predecessors if not a substantive one.
“What society demands, and appropriately so, is affordable, reliable energy that doesn’t have the emissions associated with today’s energy systems,” he said Tuesday. “We’re working on that evolution.”
While that might seem like a guarded statement, Woods, a soft-spoken electrical engineer from Wichita, Kan., is clearly changing the tone of the company, which he took over four years ago. The Texas swagger employed by his predecessors, one of whom openly dismissed concerns about climate change, has turned into something vaguely philosophical.
In an interview meant to be a curtain-raiser to an annual presentation by executives to financial analysts and investors Wednesday, Woods, 56, waxed poetic about the history of technology and the energy industry and even suggested there was common ground between his plans to reduce emissions and President Joe Biden’s efforts to fight climate change. He went so far as to promise that Exxon would try to set a goal for not emitting more greenhouse gases than it removed from the atmosphere, though he said it was still difficult to say when that might happen.
“We are supportive of that ambition, and our goal is to help society to achieve it,” Woods said. “Frankly, the recognition of the challenge is continuing to grow. It’s an evolving conversation that I find very helpful to think through what needs to happen.”
Under pressure from activist investors, Exxon said this week that it was adding two new directors with no previous ties to fossil fuels to its board. The company recently said it would create a new business that captured carbon dioxide from industrial plants and buried it deep in the ground. It also recently invested in Global Thermostat, a company that aims to suck carbon dioxide out of the air.
On Wednesday, Woods told investors that Exxon was well-positioned “to capitalize on the growing demand for decarbonization and market opportunities that are increasingly coming together to support lower-carbon energy solutions.”
Of course, many people are deeply skeptical about the company’s plans and motives. Unlike executives of European oil companies, Woods is not cutting investments in oil and gas in favor of spending money on wind and solar power. He steered clear of commenting on BP’s pledge last year to cut its net emissions to zero by 2050.
“Unlike their big oil competitors that have begun taking action on climate change, Woods and Exxon Mobil continue to live in a fairy tale world of inaction while California burns and Texas freezes,” said Peter Krull, chief executive of Earth Equity Advisors, an investment firm specializing in sustainability.
After spending nearly three decades with a company long known for its insularity, rigid culture and public indifference to global warming, Woods suggested that he was ready to steer it onto a different course, albeit gradually.
With Exxon’s stock price still lower than it was a decade ago, many investors have demanded no less.
“My interaction with investors is a reflection of what I would say are the broader trends of society,” Woods said.
Woods’ four years as chief executive have spanned a rocky time for the industry. Oil and gas prices have bounced up and down several times in recent years. And last year, demand for petroleum products collapsed as the coronavirus pandemic took hold. Exxon lost $22.4 billion in 2020, much of it from write-downs of assets the company acquired at rich prices before Woods took over.
But in recent weeks, oil and gas prices have recovered — with the U.S. bench mark climbing above $60 a barrel — and Exxon and its stock are doing better.
What Exxon is not doing is spending much of its fortune on businesses or ideas designed to sharply reduce emissions. It is spending just $3 billion through 2025 on capturing carbon from industrial plants — a small fraction of the $16 billion to $19 billion it plans to spend on oil exploration and capital projects this year.