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Article • 16/04/2024

Eco-Warriors vs. Petro-Giants: Are Climate Activists a Reputational Risk to Big Oil?

big oil industry stock image

Climate activists have been turning up the heat on Big Oil. From throwing soup at Van Gogh’s sunflowers to staging slow marches through London’s streets, their steadfast commitment to stopping Big Oil and other major polluters is evident.

Have activist groups’ intensified heat sparked a blaze? Do these increasingly disruptive and PR-savvy protests pose a reputational risk to Big Oil beyond the usual negative headlines? Are activists the biggest enterprise risk, or are other risk factors bubbling beneath the surface?

We analyzed external risk intelligence through the Signal AI platform to pinpoint the main risk factors impacting Big Oil with a distinct focus on climate activism.

Climate activism and radical protests are purposefully designed to make a lot of noise and raise public awareness. Yet, we found that their intended targets, big oil companies, aren’t seeing much impact. Here’s what our data shows:

Key Findings:

  • Coverage of climate change activism is slowing down (-19%) yet increasingly targeting oil companies (+21%).
  • Oil Companies, through M&As, earn positive sentiment despite reputational risk from activist movements.
  • Radical moves are a double-edged sword for activist groups. They affect Big Oil’s reputation (with a -.76 NS score related to climate activism) but also cause public backlash against activist groups. 
  • The key enterprise risks for oil companies are governance, the environment, and regulation.

Let’s get into the data.

Point 1: Climate change activism coverage is slowing down (-19%) yet increasingly targeting oil companies (+21%).

Climate activists have typically targeted known polluters, such as luxury aviation companies. In some cases, activists like Futuro Vegetal, single out individual contributors, like spray-painting superyachts and using the hashtag #BanPrivateJets.

Between the beginning of the latter half of 2023 and the end of the first quarter of 2024, when assessing coverage related to climate change activism, less than 1% of that coverage was directed at oil companies. 

However, that 1% targeted at oil companies is on the rise. 

During the transition from Q4 of 2023 to Q1 of 2024, overall coverage of climate activism dropped by almost 19%, while mentions of oil companies in related news increased by nearly 21%.

Chart 1: Climate activism targeting oil companies increases, even as climate activism activity declines.

Chart 1: Big Oil and Climate Activism by Signal AI

Despite that increase, during Q1 of 2024, climate change activism accounted for approximately 0.50% of global news coverage about major oil companies.

This lack of prominence aligns with the minimal impact NGOs, investor activism, and divestment movements have had on fossil fuel companies.

Point 2: Oil Companies, through M&As, earn positive sentiment in the media despite reputation threats from climate activists.

In 2023, the oil industry looks alive and well. Oil companies experienced a year of expansion marked by coordinated consolidation efforts.

There was a dramatic upswing in mergers and acquisitions (M&As) within the oil and gas industry. This set the stage for an impressive recovery from the industry’s pandemic lows when energy demand tanked, and crude prices briefly dipped into the negative.

Chart 2: Oil company M&As garner positive attention from the media.

Chart 2: Oil company M&As garner positive attention from the media. by Signal AI

Another key trend that signals the industry’s health is the consolidation of U.S. shale companies in the Permian Basin, which is influenced by financial considerations and the basin’s maturing nature. Financial Times writes: “Half of the sought-after Midland sub-basin, which makes up the eastern part of the Permian, will be controlled by just two companies: ExxonMobil and Diamondback.”

This shift favors larger, more asset-focused players over those prioritizing speed and innovation. A re-evaluation of geopolitical risks has also significantly boosted the U.S.’s role as a major exporter of liquefied natural gas, bolstering the shale industry.

Point 3: Radical moves are a double-edged sword for activist groups. They affect Big Oil’s reputation but also cause public backlash against activist groups. 

Climate activists can’t rely solely on corporate goodwill to curb emissions, as they’ve learned from limited past success. Instead, to raise awareness, activist groups have opted for more radical approaches.

In the UK, Just Stop Oil activists, who oppose government investment in fossil fuels, made headlines by throwing soup at a Van Gogh painting in London’s National Gallery in October 2022 and disrupting Wimbledon matches with glitter and puzzle pieces in 2023.

These actions are part of a broader trend of environmental protests across Europe. In Italy, Ultima Generazione activists dyed the waters of Rome’s Trevi Fountain black to protest fossil fuel subsidies. In France, Derniere Renovation activists spray-painted the entrance to the Prime Minister’s office in Paris, criticizing the government’s climate policies.

These actions have led to increased negative attention, with oil companies naturally emerging as one of the primary targets. But, the climate activist groups themselves have not emerged unscathed.

Chart 3: In news coverage related to climate change activism, sentiment toward both activist groups and oil companies is notably lower compared to unrelated news coverage.

Chart 3: Sentiment for activist groups and oil companies by Signal AI

While these protests have sparked significant public debate (as intended), they have provoked substantial backlash. The disruptions caused by these climate protests primarily affected the public rather than the oil companies they sought to target. 

This has led to questions in the media about whether the means justify the ends and whether the increasingly violent and disruptive activist efforts have had any real impact on effecting change.

Shareholder activism is also making little change in the industry

Shareholder activists, although quieter, have had a similarly small impact on the industry overall.

The divestment movement, supported by 1,550 organizations managing over $40 trillion in assets committed to divesting from fossil fuel investments, has proven largely ineffective or even counterproductive.

Its primary objective, to lower the share prices of fossil fuel companies and increase their capital costs to the extent that they struggle to invest and survive, has not been achieved. A recent study by economists from Stanford University and the University of Pennsylvania concluded that the impact of these activist investors was “… too small to meaningfully affect real investment decisions.”

Shareholder activists may overlook the unintended consequences of divestment, as each share sold by green investors could end up in the hands of those less concerned about the environment, leading to increased emissions.

Point 4: For oil companies, the key factors posing enterprise risk are governance, the environment, and regulation.

Chart 4: Key risk factors for oil industries by Signal AI

Corruption presents a major governance risk in national oil companies, with the oil and gas sector topping the list of violations processed under the US Foreign Corrupt Practices Act. Corruption is closely linked to environmental issues as it undermines the internal controls essential for efficiently managing operational and environmental risks.

Negative coverage around corruption then fuels the positive sentiment toward US and European environmental regulation efforts. The regulatory efforts aim to ensure sustainable methods of production and living, with clean energy playing a central role.

  • In the United States, the 2022 Inflation Reduction Act marked the nation’s largest investment in clean energy and climate action. 
  • The SEC recently introduced regulations requiring public companies to disclose extensive climate change-related information in their SEC filings.
  • This mirrors the European Union’s Corporate Sustainability Reporting Directive implemented in early 2023, which mandates businesses to provide more comprehensive reports on their environmental and social impact.

Where are activists actually gaining ground? 

Local opposition to upstream oil and gas projects and energy initiatives in general is also growing. Movements aimed at “keeping oil and gas in the ground” are gaining momentum, fueled by a combination of governmental directives and grassroots activism. 

For example, Ecuador’s August 2023 referendum, proposing the closure of a significant oil field, exemplifies the impact of collaboration between government officials and activists. Additionally, projects involving carbon capture, storage, renewable energy, and associated infrastructure are encountering resistance from local authorities and activist groups

Governments are also modifying terms and conditions amid the energy transition towards sustainability. 

Upstream industry players strive to optimize their positions as the transition unfolds by divesting from fossil fuel-dependent companies and investing in more sustainable alternatives or green companies.

Meanwhile, investors in established producing regions advocate for more favorable terms to justify ongoing investment. In 2024, numerous mature producers, such as Bangladesh, are expected to relax fiscal terms to attract international oil companies back or bolster investment.

What does this mean for oil companies?

While activism can levy costs on corporations through reputational damage, oil companies’ primary challenges and enterprise risks stem from the increasing public awareness of fossil fuels’ environmental impact that leads to government regulatory pressure. In other words, it’s less about climate activists’ big-splash efforts to make noise but the one-two punch of awareness when aligned with regulatory agencies.

If left unaddressed, this opposition threatens not only oil and gas development plans for exploration but also government efforts, like carbon capture and storage, to diversify energy sources and curb emissions.

Businesses often face unexpected risks that can harm their reputation, operations, and finances. With Signal AI’s reputation and enterprise risk management tools, business leaders can proactively monitor potential threats to manage enterprise risk before it affects business performance. Learn more about our enterprise Risk Management tools and services here.

Research Methodology

Using Signal AI search technology, our analyst, Raquel Oliveira, scours premium sources across traditional news, podcasts, blogs, and social media platforms. We cover 75 languages and 226 markets, leaving no stone unturned.  

This piece focuses on ExxonMobil (ranked 303rd in Signal AI 500, Energy Sector), Chevron Corporation (ranked 330th in Signal AI 500, Energy Sector), Valero Energy, Saudi Aramco, BP (ranked 279th in Signal AI 500, Energy Sector), Shell, and PetroChina.

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