ExxonMobil's Tillerson on Renewable Energy: Realism amid Politics
As reported by Russell Gold at Environmental Capital, ExxonMobil CEO Rex Tillerson has made an incisive new argument against his company’s investing in government-dependent renewable energy.
“If I wanted to kill [tax subsidies], the thing to do is for Exxon Mobil to go and invest heavily in them and then Congress would immediately cancel the tax subsidy. Actually what they would do is they would just cancel it for us,” said Mr.Tillerson, during the annual analyst meeting at the New York Stock Exchange.
He added: “In reality, that is what I fear would happen. So we are not going to go into investments that are dependent on a government providing a tax system to make them viable.”
This is very interesting. Former ExxonMobil CEO Lee Raymond and now Tillerson have argued against investing in politically dependent renewables because they have been-there-done-that, with investor losses in the 1970s. And looking at the present and future technology of wind and solar relative to what ExxonMobil can realistically add, they are not sanguine about going forward in the same area.
But Tillerson is now saying something new: If ExxonMobil were to enter the wind and solar market, then a clause in any new legislation could exclude the oil major from getting the production tax credit.
Say the venture is profitable on a bed of special government favor. The green scream would that the “polluter” is using profits from the “clean side” to subsidize the “dirty side.” Therefore, each company—perhaps of a certain size—should be subject to an “average emission test” under which taxpayer subsidies cannot be received if its overall energy production contains too much greenhouse-gas-emitting (oil and coal) energy production.
Thinking ahead in this way, a “green” strategy would be to get a company “hooked” on subsidies and then ratchet up the pressure on that firm to reduce its legitimate, consumer-driven, core energy activities. ExxonMobil is just smart enough to sniff this one out.
Russell Gold’s post continues:
Putting aside Mr. Tillerson’s dark commentary on how unpopular the company is in Washington D.C., he raises a point investors might want to consider.
Renewable energy has a lot of promise and hype, but it still needs government support. It is clearly getting that support today, but how long will the government policy underwrite renewable energy? How long will it be able to afford to underwrite renewable energy? How long will voters support green initiatives that create extra costs during this prolonged economic downturn?
This is good journalism reporting a worthy corporate stance—a rare one-two in today’s politicized discourse over energy policy.
What a great moment for free-market capitalism’s principled entrepreneurship, ™ when so much of corporate America is involved in political capitalism. Is there any doubt that ExxonMobil would be Adam Smith’s favorite company? It is certainly the consumer’s friend and the taxpayer’s friend.
Compare Raymond and Tillerson to the political entrepreneurs of the energy field such as the late Ken Lay (Enron), the disgraced John Browne (BP), and the value destroyer T. Boone Pickens (Mesa Petroleum, BP Capital). The best can still win in corporate America.
Perversely, for the second year in a row, a group of Rockefeller descendants are backing a shareholder resolution to have ExxonMobil invest in renewable energy, as reported in the Wall Street Journal. My response to this is: “Don’t Enron Exxon.” (Enron left its natural gas core to invest in solar, wind, energy efficiency, and so forth, with uniformly bad results.) The disgruntled heirs of John D. have the energy sustainability vision of Ken Lay. They should not only leave well enough alone, they should rethink their whole political philosophy and applaud the management of what is now America’s star company.
Postscript: The Fall of General Electric
Which brings up the sad tale of another company. Once in a league with ExxonMobil, General Electric is badly wounded because of mismanagement. I remember back in my Enron days when I took a phone call from GE Capital (my bosses were busy). The caller said that GE was considering adopting a company policy of no longer financing coal projects.
Corporate social responsibility, no doubt. Never mind that coal is middle-class energy and that climate alarm was and is exaggerated. Rather than focusing on consumers, GE was playing the political correctness game, as it was when it purchased Enron Wind Corporation, now GE Wind. Evidently, such form-over-substance promiscuity (the Enron disease) later spread to other areas at GE Capital.