Whizzing inside the tent

ExxonMobil shareholders use their stock to push a corporate giant toward change

Standing at the podium underneath a huge organ, ExxonMobil's Lee Raymond seemed to enjoy fencing with the protesters. Casting himself as a poverty crusader, he claimed the protesters were hurting the world's most impoverished citizens and threatening to retard economic growth with their demands for restrictions on fossil fuel use. "It is important that we don't jeopardize the opportunity for people around the world, particularly those currently at the lowest levels, to have access to the most basic needs--such as decent housing, clean water, and rudimentary education--and then to ultimately improve their standard of living," he told shareholders.

He dismissed calls for greater investment in renewable energies, arguing that the former Exxon had experimented with solar energy and other sources during the 1970s but failed to make a decent profit. Until renewable energy is attractive financially, he said, it would remain relegated to the fringes of the market. He predicted a bright future for mineral deposits. "I've been in [the oil and gas] industry for almost 37 years and have seen many forecasts of doom fall wide of the mark," Raymond said. "What these commentators simply fail to understand is the critical importance of fossil fuel energy to the world's economic growth."

The ExxonMobil chieftain also used the meeting to tout new deep underwater drilling and emissions-reducing technologies, while refusing to link emissions to scientific claims of a warming planet. Pointing to a petition circulated by the Oregon Institute of Science and Medicine and signed by 17,100 scientists that disputed a link between climate change and fossil fuel use, Raymond insisted it was he, and not the protesters, who kept an open mind on the issue of global warming. "We're going to follow the science," he said. "We're not going to follow what's politically correct."

The meeting shined light on other manifestations of controversy at ExxonMobil, perhaps inevitable considering the immense size of the company. Gay rights advocates, while not a formal part of the Campaign ExxonMobil, were present to protest the company's lack of a specific clause in their anti-discrimination policy protecting workers on the basis of sexual orientation, as well as the company's lack of domestic-partner benefits. Even some of the clergy present put on "Equality Project" stickers to support the cause. Crosby calls the issue a civil rights "no-brainer."

And human-rights advocates present blasted the company for a proposed $8 billion drilling and pipeline project in the landlocked sub-Saharan African nation of Chad, the world's fifth-poorest nation, and neighboring Cameroon. ExxonMobil and several European officials say the project is a boon to help the desperate nation fund education and health initiatives without charity or foreign aid, and the World Bank on Tuesday approved $365 million in loans to help Chad and Cameroon invest in the project.

But Amnesty International, the Sierra Club, and other groups fear a climate of intimidation as governments, eager to reap a windfall of petro-dollars, silence environmentalists and other dissenters. Reportedly, Chadian security forces have killed 200 unarmed civilians in the Doba oil region. Despite promises from ExxonMobil and government officials, activists also fear that corrupt leaders will pocket oil profits and not use the cash for development. "Neither country has a track record of using money to help the people of the country," says Sister Dolores Brooks, a Dominican nun and human-rights activist.

Despite their critical stance toward ExxonMobil, the religious leaders don't take a rigid anti-corporate stance. They frequently speak of ExxonMobil in possessive terms ("our" company) and insist they want the company to continue to succeed financially. After all, their retirements are counting on it. A flier distributed outside the Meyerson center read: "Attention ExxonMobil shareholders: Use your vote to protect your investments, human rights, and the environment!"

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