Big Oil Upheaval and Growing Voter Restrictions

Published Jun 22, 2021

Climate accountability expert Kathy Mulvey discusses developments in the fossil fuel industry and Dr. Michael Latner fills us in on post-election voter rights.

In this episode

Kathy Mulvey is back to talk about unprecedented shareholder rebellions and court cases targeting Big Oil this spring.

Dr. Michael Latner is back to fill us in on what is going on with voting rights in the US. He breaks down ways states are trying to restrict access to voting… and discusses the ways federal legislation can preserve our right to vote.

Timing and cues

Opener (0:00-0:31)
Intro (0:31-2:09)
Interview part 1 (2:09-13:00)
Break (13:00-13:55)
Interview part 2 (13:55-23:01)
Ending segment throw (23:01-24:16)
Ending segment (24:16-28:19)
Outro (28:19-29:00)

Related content

Editing: Colleen MacDonald
Additional editing and music: Brian Middleton
Research and writing: Pamela Worth
Executive producer: Rich Hayes
Host: Colleen MacDonald

Full transcript

Colleen: It occurs to me every so often… that I am the luckiest person to work where I work, among people who have incredible expertise in such a variety of topics. So when I have questions about what’s going on in the news… I can ask my expert colleagues to give me their hot takes.

And friends, I have had a lot of questions lately. So many that I decided to call in not one, but two of my colleagues to answer them.

First up, to answer my questions about what the heck went on with shareholder rebellions and court cases targeting Big Oil this spring, I’m delighted to welcome accountability campaign director Kathy Mulvey back to the podcast.

Kathy joined me a couple of months ago to discuss the possible outcomes of this year’s shareholder season… which is when fossil fuel companies invite representatives from their groups of investors to their annual meetings to vote on company business. She didn’t manage to predict what actually happened this year, which is understandable. Because it was like the Jersey Shore of shareholder season. It was just wild.

Colleen: Kathy, welcome back to the podcast.

Kathy: Yeah, it's great to be here. Thanks, Colleen.

Colleen: I mean, honestly, I didn't think you'd be back so soon. For our listeners who haven't caught the episode on holding fossil fuel companies accountable for their contribution to climate change, I recommend going back and giving that a listen. we saw some fascinating and exciting developments since we last spoke. So, Kathy, give us an update on what happened after these shareholder meetings.

Kathy: Yeah, Colleen, it was an absolute whirlwind and serious wake-up call to the leadership of major fossil fuel companies. So, the investors and shareholders in these companies sent a strong message that they want to see these companies get serious about taking action to address climate change, to take responsibility for reducing global warming emissions from their products, including the combustion of their products by end-users. And that they also need more disclosure about lobbying and political advocacy that these companies are doing and how it aligns or doesn't with the goals of the Paris Climate Agreement.

Colleen: So, what actually happened that was so earth-shattering?

Kathy: Well, I think most news was focused on so-called proxy fight with ExxonMobil. So, this is where a group of activist shareholders who are fed up with the company's current leadership and want to see it go in a different direction put forward board members who are more aligned with the direction that they think the company ought to be going in order to serve the interests of shareholders, right? And here, we're talking about public pension funds, about public employees. So, teachers, firefighters, people whose ability to retire securely depends on their investments being sound. And so what happened is this hedge fund called Engine No. 1 put forth four candidates, for directors, for the board of directors of ExxonMobil on the basis that they really weren't satisfied with how the company is evolving for the low carbon energy transition. And in an absolutely unprecedented rebuke to the management and board of ExxonMobil, three of those board candidates were elected.

So, what this means, in order for a nominee like that, who is opposed by the current board of the company to get elected, it means that a lot of other factors have to line up, and in this case, we had big public pension funds. So, the California State Teachers Retirement System, the California Public Employees Retirement System, the New York State Common Retirement Fund, so really heavy hitters in the investor world and who've been leaders on pressing companies to take climate action for a long time were behind this push by Engine No. 1. And we also saw major asset managers vote in favor of at least some or most of this slate of nominees. So, the $9 trillion BlackRock, which has made a lot of statements about its commitment to climate change and sustainability, had its feet held to the fire to vote for some of these nominees. And it came out just the day before the meeting that BlackRock would vote for three of these nominees. And Vanguard is also a major holder in ExxonMobil. And we won't have the full report on exactly who voted for what it appears that some of these big shareholders supported these nominees. And that's why they actually will become members of the board of directors of ExxonMobil and they will be pressing from the inside to change the direction of this company to actually align it with the energy system of the 21st century. And remember, we talked about that in our previous conversation.

Colleen: this seems like some actual movement will happen and that business practices will change. Is that how you're seeing things?

Kathy: So, this is a real ratcheting up of the pressure, both externally and internally on ExxonMobil. You know, we've seen ExxonMobil really resist the changes that are necessary to bring its business model into line with a carbon-constrained world. And I have no great optimism that ExxonMobil is going to have a change of heart now, but the leverage for pressure will allow investors in the company and the movements that are supporting this action to really pursue on all of the above strategy with ExxonMobil. And it's a signal that the company's own investors are hip to its efforts to delay and greenwash. And they're, frankly fed up with that, and they want to see some real action.

Colleen: So, what are the next steps for you and your team?

Kathy: I want to say that this drama that played out at ExxonMobil will reverberate throughout the fossil fuel industry. And it wasn't the only thing that happened this past month during Annual Meeting Season. So, on the same day as Exxon Mobil's annual meeting, Chevron held its annual meeting, And Chevron also faced a shareholder revolt, with a majority of its shareholders calling on the company to set global warming emissions reductions targets that are consistent with the goals of the Paris Climate Agreement. And, importantly, part of what's happening here is that investors and the world at large are letting major fossil fuel companies know that they expect them to take responsibility for what happens with their products. When people out there use them, when people put them into their cars and drive around, you know, when the gas that ExxonMobil provides to a power plant is burned to power our homes. And so what we're hearing from investors is, if you dig up and sell this product, and profit from it, you're responsible for it. And on this same day, in late May, we got a similar conclusion from a court in the Netherlands on a human rights-related climate case that was brought there against Royal Dutch Shell. So, this court actually has ordered Shell to reduce its emissions by 45%, below 2019 levels by 2030.

And that verdict includes emissions from burning the products that Shell markets and sells so that is, as I said, it's grounded in human rights standards that are global in scope. So, we expect that to have global implications, even as we expect Shell to appeal the ruling. And the other thing that's really important here is the Dutch court really looked closely at what science says is necessary to achieve net-zero emissions and to be aligned with the Paris Agreement, said that that Shell, as a company has responsibility to move in that direction. And that taking part of company lip service to Paris alignment and net-zero because Shell has claimed to have an ambition to achieve net-zero emissions. This court ruling really provides an important tool to refute greenwashing by Shell and other major oil and gas companies. And that will have implications, although, the ruling strictly applies in the Netherlands only, that the reasoning about how Shell's claims and its actions aren't lining up could provide really important basis for cases that are proceeding in the U.S. to hold major fossil fuel companies accountable for defrauding consumers and for violating consumer protection laws. So, there are a growing number of cases that are filed by cities and state attorneys general that allege that ExxonMobil, Shell, other major fossil fuel companies, the American Petroleum Institute, have been misleading consumers and this Dutch court case showed a real lack of tolerance for that kind of glossing over and greenwashing by companies.

Colleen: Right. And it's about time because we don't have that much time to get things under control. How quickly do you want to see things change? What signposts are you looking for to measure progress?

Kathy: So, what we need to see from these major fossil fuel companies, ExxonMobil, Chevron, Shell, and their peers and competitors are real plans, short, medium, and long-term plans to make swift and deep reductions in emissions from their products.

So, not just their operations but also the use of their products that are on a pathway to achieving net-zero global warming emissions by 2050, because that's what science says is necessary to avoid the worst effects of climate change.

And now we have into the mix, during Annual Meeting Season, we had a long-awaited report by the International Energy Agency that found that to bring global energy-related carbon dioxide emissions to net-zero by 2050. And give the world just an even chance of limiting global temperature rise to 1.5 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels investment in new oil and gas projects must stop now.

So, this is part of the message from the votes at annual meetings and the litigation in the Netherlands, that people are looking, not just at emissions reduction pledges and targets and plans to achieve them but also how are these companies planning to spend their money going forward? What's their business plan? If they continue to put the vast majority of their spending into new oil and gas exploration and infrastructure, we're gonna blow past any temperature targets, and the climate crisis is just going to get worse. And that has an impact on all of us. And we know that the climate crisis is hitting low-income communities and communities of color first, and worst.

Colleen: Well, Kathy, these are really exciting developments. Was there anything else you wanted to add?

Kathy: If we continue to build on this momentum, it's my hope that a decade or two decades from now, that people will look back at May 2021 as a real turning point in the struggle to hold fossil fuel companies accountable for climate harms, and turn us in the direction of real and sustained action to protect the climate.

Colleen: Excellent. Well, thank you, Kathy.

Kathy: Thank you, Colleen.

Colleen: And now, to help answer my questions about what’s going on with voting rights in our country, I’m welcoming back my colleague Dr. Michael Latner, a Senior Fellow with the Union of Concerned Scientists. Mike was a repeat guest in the runup to election season in 2020, and I’m sorry to say things have only grown more complicated since then, so we still need his help.

Colleen: Mike, welcome back to the podcast.

Mike: Thanks for having me.

Colleen: So, you know, we haven't spoken since before the election, so it'll be really great to catch up. Post-election, there has been a widespread narrative about voter fraud, which data shows to be completely false. Can you catch us up on that?

Mike: Yeah, sure. The big lies that's come to be known in certain media circles has persevered, indeed, it has metastasized into precisely what we were concerned about as the election was getting underway. And that is, once all of the audits were actually done, the real audits in Georgia and a number of other states that were very close and all of the data process from those audit showed that voter fraud and election fraud were generally was infinitesimal and that there was no level of fraud anywhere approaching the degree that it would change any of the election outcomes. What we have seen is that, in an effort to further politicize the election process and the administrative process, specifically, we are seeing a number of states now introduce hundreds of bills to further restrict voting, and specifically voting by mail, which Democratic voters used more frequently in 2020 relative to Republican voters.

So, we're seeing this reclamping down of many of the opportunities for voting that were provided during the pandemic. We're seeing those rolled back and we're seeing even more restrictive measures put into place with regard to applications for absentee voting, for what types of people can organize others to vote, including some really draconian laws like we've seen in Texas and other states, where it's now basically illegal to take other people's ballots to a precinct or a voting location. And more importantly, most importantly, I should say, we are seeing the politicization of the administrative process in that many states are making it easier for partisan poll watchers to become part of the process and for partisan elected officials to have greater say in determining what counts as a failed election and greater say in lower evidentiary standards for judges in their capacity to overturn elections. And this is, by far, the most alarming thing that we're seeing in a number of states because what this signals to us is that those legislatures that are in control of the process are gearing up to be able to overturn the results of free and fair elections in the next electoral cycle.

Colleen: So, can you explain the role of the poll monitor?

Mike: Sure. So, all states have procedures for partisan poll monitors to be part of the ballot counting process. And then typically, what this involves is you have a certain number of people that you allow in to the county registrar or the office, wherever the ballots are actually being counted, to observe the process, right? They are election monitors, and we certainly welcome advocates for parties to observe the process, to ensure that it's a free and fair process, but they should not be part of the counting process itself. They can monitor, but there are certain safeguards that need to be put into place to protect the privacy of voters, for example, and to protect the choice of voters, that is who voters are voting for, from being part of the decision as to whether to count a ballot or not. And so, what we're seeing in a number of states are provisions that increase the partisan presence of advocates in that election space to the degree that there's a greater control, partisan control, over the certification of ballots and over the certification of elections.

And that's a real problem because those are things that need to be conducted by non-partisan professional election officials, whose job it is to ensure the integrity of the election, whereas the job of partisans is to try to win elections.

Colleen: So, this introduces the possibility of making it easier to challenge ballots?

Mike: Yeah. And there are procedures that are being legislated and put into place that reduce, for example, the evidentiary standard to challenge ballots, right? So, if you make it easier for partisans to challenge ballots, then you're creating more of an administrative burden. You're also providing an incentive for people to try to call out and to try to challenge ballots, even when there's nothing wrong with them. And so, there needs to be high evidentiary standards that have to be met if you're going to challenge a ballot. Furthermore, the process of determining whether a ballot should be counted or not needs a high evidentiary standard and needs to be pro voter in the sense that, just like in a jury system where we presume innocence until we can prove guilt, right, the standard for voters needs to be that we assume a ballot is valid unless we can provide good, reasonable evidence, beyond a reasonable doubt, that a ballot is either invalid or fraudulent or whatever the case may be. And those standards are being lowered, which makes it easier to challenge ballots, which makes it, in a very close election, right, you're just introducing more noise into the process, which makes it easier for partisans to then challenge the validity of an election.

Colleen: So, what needs to happen to operationalize voting so we're all following the same consistent and fair rules?

Mike: Well, the only way that you're going to get the same and consistent and fair rules is to do so through national standards. The only way that you can be assured of free and fair elections regardless of which state you live in is for there to be national standards administering elections. And so, in order to do that, Congress needs to act, they need to establish minimal standards for free and fair elections, through legislation like the For the People Act, which provides all of those regulations now, and it's stuck in the Senate due to the filibuster. And then we also need to reinforce those laws with protections like the John Lewis Voting Rights Act, which would establish pre-clearance, once again, in the Voting Rights Act of 1965, would establish questionable practices that would trigger investigations and pre-clearance for state legislatures or local legislatures tinkering with election laws in a way that threatens the integrity of elections.

Colleen: Give us an example of that because I'm not sure that people will know specifically what you mean.

Mike: Sure. So, the For the People Act, for example, has a number of provisions in it that would provide national election standards. It would provide strict regulation over voter eligibility and over the types of restrictions that can be placed on requiring eligible voters to be certified and eligible to vote. It would not allow things like strict voter identification laws. It would not allow for the purging of voter registration lists in the rather arbitrary way that it's done in some states now. And it would provide that the...basically, the only two restrictions on voting that are embedded in the constitution are that one be a citizen and one be 18 years of age or older. And so, by doing away with all of those other additional restrictions, you would maximize voter eligibility and you would maximize fairness and you would restrain state legislatures from putting into place all the restrictions that they're putting in place now.

Colleen: Can you give a quick description of the John Lewis Voting Rights Act?

Mike: Yeah. So, John Lewis Voting Rights Act would be a renewal of the sections of the Voting Rights Act that were ruled unconstitutional by the Supreme Court in 2013 in their Shelby v. Holder decision, which did away with the practice of pre-clearance. And what pre-clearance is, is a set of criteria that states that have a history or jurisdictions that have a history of racial voter discrimination are put under what's known as a pre-clearance regime, meaning that they can't change their election laws without the approval of the Department of Justice or a federal court. It's what's known as a retrogression standard, right? So, you can't make the election laws any worse than they were previously. And it's been an important, arguably the most important check on the imposition of restrictive election laws since 1965. We're talking about thousands of cases where states and jurisdictions were prevented from enacting restrictive laws.

And it's no coincidence that literally the day that the Supreme Court made that decision in 2013, states like Texas and Alabama and North Carolina had laws on the books that they were waiting to implement, and they went ahead and did it, and there was no way to protect other than using Section 2 of the Voting Rights Act, which puts the burden on the plaintiffs. There was no way to stop these states from implementing these state laws, and then they had to be sued after the fact. And that's sort of where we're at now, right? We have this regime where states can implement restrictive laws, and sometimes it takes years for these things to get through courts. And that could be numbers of election cycles denying people their right to vote.

Colleen: Is there a downside to implementing a national election system?

Mike: Potentially, sure. I mean, depending on the language of the law, right, I mean, the federal law needs to get it right. We need to have more hearings and we need to be sure that the language in the law gets it right so as to, not so much prevent states and jurisdictions from innovating, right? So, I think my preference, and I'm not an attorney or an election law attorney specifically, but generally speaking, you want to have laws in place that tell jurisdictions what they can't do, right? So, it's important to be able to prohibit discriminatory activity without forcing a one-size-fits-all apparatus on all states and jurisdictions. And by that, I mean, you know, it wouldn't be appropriate to have a single method, perhaps, voter registration list management, right? Because technology changes over time. We might come up with better ways of doing it than we do it now. And so, we don't want to stifle innovation. We don't want to force rural election officials to have to necessarily follow the same rules as urban election officials because the contexts are different. And so, we want to provide for that freedom for election officials on the ground to be able to do what they need to do, but we have to have minimal protections in place.

Colleen: What will you be keeping your eye on in the coming months?

Mike: Oh, I think all eyes right now are on Congress and the leadership in the Senate and what decisions they're going to make regarding how to get the For the People Act into place. And that is going to, by all scholarly assessments, require a suspension of the filibuster, at least for voting rights and civil rights procedures. And that's going to be a hard lift because it's not just Senators Manchin and Sinema from Arizona and West Virginia that are vocally reluctant to change the filibuster rules, there are probably other Democrats as well. So, that's going to be a heavy lift, but it's...I think, we have to recognize the magnitude of the situation that we're in. And with regard to that, all other eyes are going to be on the state legislatures. So, there's the For the People Act and the John Lewis Voting Rights Act and The Fair Representation Act, that are three important bills that are in Congress that we need to keep an eye on. And we need to ensure their passage if we're going to protect electoral integrity in this country. But also, we need to keep an eye on what's going on in the state legislatures. We need to closely monitor what the state legislatures are up to so that we can amplify and make transparent just what sorts of actions they're taking and the types of restrictive activities that they're imposing on voters in their states.

Colleen: Well, Mike, it sounds like you're not going to be going on vacation anytime soon.

Mike: It's going to be a busy time.

Colleen: Too much to do.

Mike: Yeah. It's a busy time, for sure.

Colleen: So, Mike, thanks so much for checking in and bringing us this update. I look forward to talking to you again in a few months to see where we are.

Mike: Yeah. I hope that I have a story of progress for you.

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