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ESG = Energy Stops Growing

For most of my career, oil demand has grown each year and supply has roughly kept up. Sure, it’s overshot in both directions. We’ve seen shortages and we’ve seen gluts. We’ve even seen oil go negative. Throughout this time, we’ve always intuitively known that the cure for high prices is high prices. Last week may have forever changed this prudent logic. I’m starting to wonder if ESG really means Energy Stops Growing.

For those not paying attention, an obscure ESG hedge fund, Engine No. 1, captured two Exxon Mobil (XOM – USA) board seats. It now seems that for companies in indexes, whoever controls the ETF’s votes, now effectively controls their corporate destiny. ETFs are about marketing and asset gathering. There is no better way to stay in the news, looking responsible, than to burnish your ESG credentials. Does an ETF manager care if energy, one of the smallest weightings in most indexes, is now forced to destroy capital by going into run-off while trying to do “green” things? Probably not—they’re all cheering as BP (BP – USA) does exactly that. The attack on XOM was meant as a warning shot to all of corporate America; go along with ESG—or risk a pirate attack.

Meanwhile, over in Europe, Royal Dutch Shell (RDS.A – USA) was told by a court in The Hague to cut emissions by 45% by 2030. Clearly this is impossible even if they don’t drill another well. I expect that this will only embolden similar lawsuits. Most will be thrown out, but enough will be decided against energy producers that it will move the needle. If courts legislate against energy production, then producers will go into run-off. It’s not like there are a lot of investors stepping up looking to fund production growth anyway.

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