Dateline Texas

Pursuing the toxic trail of ExxonMobil


At a rally before ExxonMobil Corporation’s annual shareholders meeting last month, Peter Altman stood outside Meyerson Symphony Hall in Dallas and told a crowd of about 150 people, many of them waving signs and puppets, that it was time for the company to change its ways. “We and other shareholders are working to convince management that they can no longer afford to ignore reasonable environmental, social and work policies,” he said. “Whether it’s through pressure from the inside, or activists in the street, this corporation will soon be forced to change.”

As director of Campaign ExxonMobil, a coalition of shareholders and activists concerned about ExxonMobil’s environmental or social policies, Altman is a persistent thorn in the company’s side. During the shareholders meeting itself, campaign members and company managers engaged in a three-hour-long, often confrontational exchange, spurred by ExxonMobil Chairman of the Board Lee Raymond’s opening remarks denouncing the Kyoto treaty. (“The debate over Kyoto has distracted policymakers for too long,” Raymond said of the 1997 international treaty to reduce emissions of greenhouse gases: “We see the Kyoto Protocol as unworkable, unfair, ineffective, and potentially damaging to other vital economic and national interests.”)

Campaign ExxonMobil moved four shareholder resolutions at the meeting, targeting ExxonMobil’s failure to enact a policy of non-discrimination against sexual orientation, its emphasis on fossil fuel burning to the neglect of alternative renewable energy projects, and its refusal to investigate environmental consequences of drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. In addition to a specific resolution on each of these issues, the campaign moved that social and environmental factors should be considered when determining executive compensation.

After it was over, protesters declared victory. In the final tally of votes cast by company stockholders, all of the Campaign’s resolutions gained significantly larger percentages of votes over 1999, allowing the resolutions to be re-submitted at next year’s meeting. “Today ExxonMobil lost ground while shareholders and citizens across the world won some big percentages in increased support on these important environmental, social justice, and workplace resolutions,” announced Altman to his cheering supporters.

The showdown at the meeting came at the end of a three-day Dallas conference on corporate power and accountability, which brought together more than 200 religious leaders, environmentalists, and social activists. Taking a break late on the second evening of the conference, Altman fielded questions while conversing with John Passacantando, executive director of Greenpeace, and Sister Pat Daly, a New Jersey nun who works with the Interfaith Center for Corporate Responsibility. As he spoke, a group of young activists gathered in one of the conference rooms to prepare brightly painted puppets and banners for the next day’s protest at the stockholders meeting, while the other conference participants crowded into the bar of the Radisson Hotel to unwind after a long day of seminars and keynote speakers.

“Investors ought to be concerned that ExxonMobil has positioned itself as the most important global environmental target on what many people see as the most important global environmental issue,” said Altman, beer in hand after a frenetic day. “The shareholder resolutions give investors a choice between losing money to a boycott or investing money in solutions. Even a small change in buying habits by consumers could translate into tens of millions of dollars in lost revenues.”

Altman first got involved in environmental activism when he moved to Texas 11 years ago, motivated primarily by what he saw as the imperative to promote sustainable development. He began working at Ecology Action, an organization dedicated to creating more alternatives for recycling before the city of Austin established a curb-side recycling program. Altman ran an appliance recycling center at the city landfill and drove a truck to deliver recyclable materials to processing plants. In 1994, he graduated from the University of Texas and joined the Sustainable Energy and Economic Development (SEED) Coalition, an advocacy group that promotes sustainable energy strategies for Texas.

“For me the biggest personal issue has a lot more to do with justice than strictly environmental issues, that is, the abuse of power. People are forced to breathe unhealthy air or drink unhealthy water, or eat genetically modified foods, or face, in one way or another, the negative consequences of somebody’s irresponsible way of doing business.” Pollution, says Altman, results to a large degree not from collective decisions by informed citizens, but from environmentally irresponsible corporate behavior.

Campaign ExxonMobil, meanwhile, traces its roots back to the movement by faith groups to use their shareholder status to urge changes in corporate behavior, starting in the 1970s. Those groups began to address climate issues in the 1990s, and some grew concerned about ExxonMobil in 1997, after Raymond gave a speech to the World Petroleum Congress questioning global warming. In 1998, shareholders first filed a resolution asking for an independent report on global warning, winning enough support to be introduced again in 1999. When it failed to get enough support to be brought again in 2000, Reverend Michael Crosby, of the Interfaith Center on Corporate Responsibility, and other activists decided to form Campaign ExxonMobil, formally announcing the group in January of 2000.

Earlier this year, Altman’s research on ExxonMobil’s environmental record in Texas led him to investigate the company’s petroleum refinery in Baytown, Texas, the largest refinery in the United States in terms of crude oil capacity. His report, sponsored by the SEED Coalition, reviewed public records concerning the emissions of the company’s refinery. According to the study, the refinery is the largest single source of smog-forming pollutants (specifically nitrogen oxide, sulfur dioxide, and volatile organic compounds) as well as the third largest individual source of carbon monoxide emissions in the Houston-Galveston area, which has the worst ozone air quality standards of any major metropolis in the United States.

“This is bad news for Texans who want clean air,” said Altman. The report shows a history of persistent pollution problems at the refinery, including accidental releases of emissions that have continued for weeks at a time. In 1998 the plant released more sulfur dioxide during scheduled maintenance work and accidents than it did for all its normal operations. The study concludes that the company is failing to properly plan repairs at the plant, and is ill-prepared to handle accidental releases of emissions.

The study also documents the failure of the Texas Natural Resource Conservation Commission (TNRCC), the state’s environmental agency, to maintain complete and accurate records of refinery operations, as well as its failure to enforce environmental regulations. Since 1984, ExxonMobil has violated 72 TNRCC rules, but has only received six legally binding orders to address those violations, with only $64,000 in fines, an insignificant sum for one of the world’s largest corporations, which had a net income of $17.7 billion in 2000. “What this report makes clear is that major polluters can repeatedly violate our clean air laws, neglect to fix persistent problems, under-report or fail to report vital information–and the TNRCC will sit back and let them,” Altman says.

(Asked for a response to the SEED’s allegations, ExxonMobil provided the Observer with a statement issued in May. “We operate the Baytown Refinery in accordance with all laws and environmental regulatory requirements,” it said, adding that ExxonMobil has made “substantial investments to reduce emissions.” The SEED report, according to the company, “appears to include a number of misrepresentations about how the plant operates and our history.”)

Altman’s campaign is counting on a variety of initiatives to influence ExxonMobil. Bolstered by the support of powerful allies Greenpeace, Global Exchange, and the Sierra Club, the shareholder resolutions are an effort to bring financial pressure against the company by internal means. European citizens, meanwhile, are electing to boycott the company. Also at the shareholder’s meeting was Bianca Jagger, international human rights activist, who warned, “Until ExxonMobil stops its opposition to the Kyoto Protocol, abandons its call to open the Arctic Wildlife refuge for drilling and invests in renewable energy, we must boycott the company.”

Although two of ExxonMobil’s main competitors, Royal Dutch Shell Group and British Petroleum, have significantly increased development of renewable energy sources, ExxonMobil remains opposed. In their recommendation to shareholders concerning the resolution on renewable energy, ExxonMobil’s Board of Directors argued that renewable energy sources are not competitive with fossil fuels. Moreover, they wrote, devices such as solar panels, wind turbines, and bioenergy sources also affect the environment. ExxonMobil points out that solar panels require manufacture and installation, that wind turbines affect wildlife and cause noise pollution, and that bioenergy sources use considerable amounts of energy in the planting cultivation and harvesting of crops.

The company rejected an explicit protection for homosexual employees, stating that “adding additional special categories to the U.S. policy would only erode the policy and divert attention from the basic objective of providing for nondiscrimination and a harassment-free work environment.” It also opposed the resolutions for executive compensation based on environmental and social factors, as well as opposing any evaluation of the environmental impact in the Arctic Wildlife Refuge. Chairman Raymond dismissed the actions of the shareholders resolutions as a “rehash” of proposals from the 1999 annual meeting, and emphasized that all of the resolutions were defeated by margins of more than 80 percent.

Trying to change environmental policy for one of the world’s largest corporations is and will remain a big challenge, says Altman. Speaking of smog in Texas cities, he says, “That stench in the air is the smell of money.”

Mitch Deacon is a writer living in Austin.