Proxy gloves are off: Why Sarasin is going head to head with Equinor over net zero
Sarasin plans to vote against Equinor’s financial statements and other resolutions at their upcoming AGM. The City investor's head of stewardship explains why
Norwegian energy giant Equinor is failing to pivot quickly enough away from harmful fossil fuels. In part, this stems from its failure to reflect the economic reality of decarbonisation in its financial statements, leaving climate risks out of sight and, thus, out of mind.
At least, that is the merciless verdict of one of its main shareholders, City investment giant Sarasin & Partners.
Discussing the voting intentions of Sarasin for Equinor, Natasha Landell-Mills, head of stewardship, disclosed that her company plans to vote against Equinor’s financial statements and other resolutions at their upcoming AGM, which is scheduled for 10 May.
Landell-Mills pointed out that the Norwegian government, a signatory to the Paris Climate Agreement, owns two-thirds of the company.
"The clarity of its majority shareholder’s commitment to deliver a 1.5°C cap on global warming should empower the board and executive to act decisively," she said.
This is why Sarasin & Partners, alongside other CA100+ signatories, wrote to Norway’s Prime Minister in January to highlight "our shared interest" in pressing Equinor to deliver a more urgent transition plan, she added.
Despite strong shareholder support for 1.5°C alignment, Equinor reiterated its commitment to stick with its current transition plan in its latest Annual Report.
The CA100+ initiative and other research have assessed this plan as falling short of a 1.5°C-pathway.
"The central problem with Equinor’s proposed plan is that it envisages investment in new oil and gas reserves," Landell-Mills said.
"This contravenes the International Energy Agency’s (IEA’s) guidance that no new reserves can be developed if we are to deliver a 1.5C outcome," she stressed.
Moreover, the company intends to maintain production at close to current levels until at least 2030.
Risks to investor capital
"The failure to pivot capital away from fossil fuels stems from Equinor not recognising the realities of decarbonisation in its accounts," Landell-Mills continued.
Where the accounts leave out likely losses and/ or liabilities linked to accelerating decarbonisation, they will overstate the returns associated with fossil fuel activities. This drives excessive reinvestment, she explained.
Landell-Mills welcomed improved disclosures describing how decarbonisation and Equinor’s own climate commitments are accounted for in its 2022 financial statements.
However, like last year, management and the auditor have concluded there is no reason to change any forward-looking assumptions; there are consequently no write-downs linked to climate change.
She said this conclusion appears to rest on "questionable assumptions," most notably "decarbonisation will be gradual and consistent with warming likely well above 1.5C."
"The use of carbon capture and storage (CCS) will enable existing and new fossil fuel assets to continue in use and CCS costs associated with the transition plan do not need to be accounted for, as these seem to have been left out of asset impairment testing," Landell-Mills noted.
"Asset retirement obligations, clean-up costs that are borne when assets are closed down remain a distant concern, as asset lives remain unchanged and the cost of capital for carbon-intensive activities will not rise," she added.
"Each of these assumptions can be challenged."
"What if the use of renewables and other zero carbon technology continues to accelerate, undermining demand for fossil fuels more quickly than anticipated? What if governments decide that CCS is not as effective as renewables and other clean technology, and introduce fossil fuel production limits instead?" Landell-Mills noted.
"What if banks and capital markets price in a premium to cover the rising risks of financing carbon-intensive activities? These are not far-fetched ideas – many are already playing out."
Landell-Mills said that on Equinor's annual Report & Accounts (Resolution 6) Sarasin will vote against.
"Planned carbon capture and storage seems to be unaccounted for, while asset retirement obligations are presumed to be a distant concern."
Then on resolutions 16.1 and 16.2, remuneration policy & report, Sarasin, again, intends to vote against.
"We cannot be certain that bonuses or other long-term incentives will only be awarded for performance that is aligned with the Paris Agreement," Landell-Mills explained.
"With the current non-aligned transition plan, we believe executives are being rewarded for non-aligned performance. We favour the introduction of a net-zero underpin that would provide a safeguard against such awards."
Finally, there is resolution 17, on approval of remuneration for the company’s external auditor. Sarasin plans to abstain
"We remain concerned over the lack of commentary on how CCS costs are accounted for; how production forecasts are consistent with decarbonisation and the lack of adjustment to the cost of capital," Landell-Mill concluded.
Equinor has been approached by Net Zero Investor for a response. The company's AGM is scheduled for 10 May.