Pushing back against ESG movement, conservatives propose pro-fossil fuel board member for Exxon Mobil

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A conservative corporate watchdog group is promoting a pro-fossil fuel scientist and lawyer to serve on the board of Exxon Mobil Corp., attempting to push back against the growing ESG movement. 

The National Legal and Policy Center recommended Don van der Vaart, currently a North Carolina judge and former secretary of the state’s Department of Environmental Quality, to serve on the board, as this month, a new Securities and Exchange Commission rule makes it easier for shareholders to recommend board members. 

Last year, progressive investment fund Engine No. 1 proposed a competing set of recommendations for Exxon Mobil’s board, and three of its four choices won approval to be board members. This was a victory for the ESG movement, which stands for environment, social, and governance. In this case, governance would be members of the governing board. 

"Engine No. 1 got three of their nominees on the board. Conservatives see that as kind of an insurgency by the pro-ESG folks to try to turn Exxon away from its core competencies and address their climate agenda," said Paul Chesser, director of the corporate integrity project for the National Legal and Policy Center, which owns shares in dozens of companies and has frequently submitted shareholder resolutions.

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The new SEC rule that took effect on Sept. 1 makes it easier for shareholders to nominate board members on proxy cards, potentially allowing a slate of candidates in competition with a company’s recommended candidates. 

Oil drills are pictured in the Kern River oil field in Bakersfield, California, Nov. 9, 2014. (Reuters/Jonathan Alcorn)

Chesser says in this case, the NLPC seeks to have van der Vaart placed on the proxy card with the endorsement of Exxon’s board of directors. 

Chesser wrote the recommendation letter for van der Vaart in mid-August to the energy giant’s three-member Board Affairs Committee. It’s up to the committee whether to send the recommendation to the full board of directors for consideration at the 2023 annual shareholder meeting. 

"We’re serious about it. If we couldn’t have found a good recommendation, we wouldn’t have done it," Chesser told Fox News Digital. "How Exxon receives it and how they process it, we don’t know. Just through the little bit of communications we’ve had with the company, we get the sense that they are taking it seriously and we are encouraged by that." 

Exxon Mobil did not respond to FOX Business' request for comment on this story. 

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Van der Vaart is currently the chief administrative law judge and director of the Office of Administrative Hearings for North Carolina. He was the secretary for the North Carolina Department of Environmental Quality from 2015 to 2017, after working in several roles in the department. 

Exxon Mobil headquarters in Irving, Texas (istock / iStock)

He has a Ph.D. in chemical engineering from the University of Cambridge in England, and a law degree from the North Carolina Central University School of Law.

According to the letter of recommendation from the NLPC, he is willing to serve on the board if elected. He was also previously North Carolina’s energy policy director and served on the EPA’s Scientific Advisory Board. 

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"I can say that not only do ESG strategies deviate from ones based on purely fiduciary responsibilities, the arbiters of ESG strategies are often overly simplistic in their understanding of the science," van der Vaart told Fox News Digital in an email. "An example is the terrible environmental and social costs of electric vehicles – and yet the ESG ‘judges’ demand investment in electrification of our transportation sector."

Van der Vaart has previously noted that plug-in electric vehicles will require more natural gas combustion, which he has argued could lead to more greenhouse gases. 

Wind turbines at a wind park in Marsberg, Germany, June 15, 2022. (AP Photo/Martin Meissner, File / AP Newsroom)

Large corporations such as Disney, Coca-Cola and others have dived into political controversies in recent years. Chesser noted even the industry group the American Petroleum Institute advocates for a carbon tax that would harm the customers of energy companies.

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Chesser said the NLPC is not trying to turn corporations into conservative activists. 

"As conservatives get involved in shareholder activism, we are trying to shift the whole corporate world to primarily caring about their fiduciary responsibilities over political agendas," Chesser said. "We don’t want to shift companies to be conservative activists. We just want them to have fealty to the broadest number of shareholders as possible." 

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