Peter Altman is the national coordinator of Campaign ExxonMobil and executive director of the Sustainable Energy and Economic Development Coalition.

Monday, 8 Apr 2002


The irony of being an environmental activist is that I spend much of my day sedentary, staying in my office and talking on the phone as I dial-in from one conference call to another. Before, during, and after calls, I hurriedly write comments, press releases, memos, and suggestions. My hyperactive nature is a plus, since it allows me to keep moving without getting up. Some days I barely even make it out of my chair.

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What’s the point of these endless telephone calls, constant emailing, shuffling through stacks of papers on my desk for the fax that came in or that has to go out? This is all the prep work that goes into the final products — and the fun: reports on pollution and global warming, press conferences, demonstrations, meetings with investors and boards, hosting international activism trainings.

Today is the first of many intensive days, as a whole lot of work comes together at once: projects and press coverage on Campaign ExxonMobil, hosting the Empowering Democracy Training for Corporate Campaigners, as well as state and national work on power plant and refinery pollution.

Campaign ExxonMobil teamed up with other groups to protest the company’s environmental and social conduct at the May 2001 annual meeting.

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My first act of environmental activism was pulling up developer’s survey stakes when I was nine-years old. Since then, I’ve gotten legal — and focused my work on promoting sustainability in energy systems — by working to support clean energy alternatives and combat pollution. Although I’m working on several projects to achieve those goals, right now I spend most of my time as the national coordinator of Campaign ExxonMobil, a country-wide coalition founded to convince ExxonMobil to take a responsible position on global warming.

The campaign was founded by Interfaith Center on Corporate Responsibility members Reverend Mike Crosby and Sister Pat Daly, religious shareholder activists. The ICCR has been leading the movement for corporate accountability for the last 30 years. In 1997, Mike and Pat became frustrated with ExxonMobil’s continued denial of the science behind global warming and its refusal to invest in clean energy alternatives. (You can learn more about the campaign’s history on our website.)

The campaign strategy is to persuade investors to recognize that ExxonMobil’s position is bad for shareholders in the long run — both because of the damage to the company’s reputation and because its competitors are getting the jump on renewable energy.

Our work centers around two “shareholder resolutions,” one calling for a report on renewable energy development and the other calling for greater environmental responsibility. Since the resolutions are voted on during annual meetings, they force management to address the issue. Last year $26-$28 billion worth of stock — around 8 or 9 percent — was voted in support of the resolutions. That sounds small, but it’s really substantial: For the number to be that high, the campaign must have reached beyond the network of church groups, socially responsible investors, and family members that support Campaign ExxonMobil, and attracted the interest of mainstream investors. If we get enough such investors to put pressure on management, we’ll start seeing some changes. ExxonMobil may be able to ignore Main Street (and it usually does), but it cannot afford to ignore Wall Street.

Over the next few weeks, I’ll be on the road, meeting with investors in the U.S. as well as the U.K. My job is to make the case that ExxonMobil’s behavior is a threat — not least to the company itself — and to build up support for the environmental resolutions.

In addition, we’re going to take the issue straight to ExxonMobil’s board. After all, the board is supposed to be accountable for the company’s actions. We’ve asked several board members to meet with us directly, and we’re also developing ads and postcards that highlight each board member’s role with the company.

On top of all of this, at some point today I’ve got to make time to pitch our new report, “ExxonMobil, Global Warming and Corporate Value,” to the media, publicize the story of Exxon persuading the Bush administration to drop support for the top scientist at the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, and finish up the database we’re constructing so people can look up and contact the companies that are heavily invested in ExxonMobil.

And all this from my chair.

Tuesday, 9 Apr 2002


6 a.m. My three-month-old daughter wakes up. The day begins!

Abigail Jane Altman.

Get to the office, plug in, pour coffee, and we’re off! I review my “must-do” list to help keep me focused for the day, and then check my email and get responses out. I ask a prominent climate scientist who wants to write to Exxon’s board if he’ll share his letter with me, and I ask an investor in London if we can move a planned meeting to a later time. (I’ll be in London toward the end of this month trying to sell investors on the importance of responsible corporate climate policy.)

Today I’m deluged by emails from Empowering Democracy. The background is this: About a year and half ago, I was looking for some training opportunities to learn more skills and strategies for use in corporate campaigns. I couldn’t find the training I needed, so I called up people I knew personally and people I’d heard of at various socially responsible organizations (In Fact, Shareholder Action Network, Rainforest Action Network, Friends of the Earth, and Interfaith Center on Corporate Responsibility) and pitched the idea of working together to design such a training. A working group formed and in six months we had the first corporate campaigner’s training in Dallas — organized to coincide with ExxonMobil’s annual meeting. (There’s a report on our website.)

Baldemar Velasquez of the Farm Labor Organizing Committee speaking at the 2001 Empowering Democracy Training.

This year, the training is organized around the annual meeting of Citigroup. Citi is a target of many activists for their complicity in rainforest destruction, predatory lending, global warming, and a host of other ills. Rainforest Action Network has a campaign focused on Citi.

My organization is a fiscal sponsor of Empowering Democracy, so I get to do a lot of panicking as I watch the finances go up and down. On top of that, I’m organizing and preparing workshops. Speaking of which, I’m behind on scheduling calls for those workshops (“How Corporations Got So Powerful” and “Taking on Corporations in Your Community”), so I spend the next 30 minutes leaving messages and sending emails.

My main priority for today is to find a reporter to cover our new study on ExxonMobil. I’m working with the Coalition for Environmentally Responsible Economics and long-time shareholder activist Bob Monks on a study evaluating the impact of ExxonMobil’s position on global warming on shareholder value. We have a great consultant working with us, too, and he’s found some very interesting results. We are all very excited about getting media coverage for this study.

Corporate Campaigners at the 2001 Empowering Democracy Training.

After checking my notes on the main points and reviewing the report again, I decide I’m ready to call the reporter. I tell her who I am and pitch the story, and — nope, she’s not interested. Next I call up a fellow who is spending one day a week advising corporate climate campaigns. After I explain the report, what our major points are, and what I need, he says he’ll read the report and get back to me with some ideas.

Next, I hop on a call with Ross Gelbspan and an ExxonMobil shareholder whose grandfather was one of the company’s builders. We are strategizing about how to get ExxonMobil to meet with us to talk about global warming. ExxonMobil is usually very keen to spend time explaining to large investors why they don’t believe the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, the World Meteorological Organization, or the National Academy of Sciences, but now suddenly they are shy and don’t want to meet with our friend or her family. We spend some time thinking about short-term steps and long-term ideas, and then I’ve got to hang up to take a call from an Empowering Democracy organizer with whom I’ve been playing phone tag.

After that, I get back to wrapping up work on the workshops I’m running. (Only one more speaker switch and a moderator who can’t make it — about par for the course.) Then I get the latest version of the Exxon report and print it out, thinking I can start reading through it later tonight as I walk my daughter to sleep. If only these reports had more pictures, I could try reading them to her. The ultimate in horrible multi-tasking!

Wednesday, 10 Apr 2002


A sunny day! I ride my bike to work, enjoying the chance to travel carbon-free. It’s good to have a relaxing morning commute, because once I get into the office, another conference call marathon gets underway.

It starts with thinking about the next-to-final draft of the Exxon report. The most challenging — and interesting — part of this work is putting the issue of global warming into terms that investors can understand. One way to do that is to talk about it terms of the pocketbook, so the report looks at how ExxonMobil is putting itself — and thus investors’ money — at risk due to its position on global warming.

We’re thinking about releasing the report to coincide with publication on our website of the “Global Warming 500” (not a final title), a list of the top 500 investors in ExxonMobil. Since the top investors include banks, credit card companies, and other institutions with public faces (see the chart below), we figure that people doing business with these institutions have the right to know about and challenge their relationship to ExxonMobil and global warming.

When we launch the Global Warming 500, you will be able to use our website to look up companies with whom you have a checking account, or a credit card, or a 401k, and see if that company owns ExxonMobil stock. If it does, you will be able to write a letter to that company asking them to vote their shares in support of the environmental resolutions this year. Or, if you own shares in ExxonMobil through that institutional investor, you can tell them how to vote your shares.

People will also be able to view and create lists of top shareholders, like the one below. This will be the first time such lists have been used for this kind of campaign.

Top Ten ExxonMobil Shareholders
(AS OF Dec. 31, 2001)
STATE STR GLOBAL ADVR (U.S.) 157,792,850
VANGUARD GROUP 112,104,778

Another way to demand accountability is to go straight to the board of directors. Two years ago, I met with Michael Boskin, an ExxonMobil board member from Stanford University. When I asked him what would convince him of the threat of global warming, he said, “When ExxonMobil tells me its real, I’ll believe its real.”

Hardly a heartening response, but still, it’s imperative to keep trying, because board members are powerful people, the ones who can really make a difference. We’re working on some new approaches to help highlight the role of the individual board member in the company’s conduct. For example, we’re starting a postcard campaign to the ExxonMobil board. Just download the ready-to-go postcards, print them out, and mail them. Try it!

There’s more than postcards, though. Next week Sister Pat Daly and I will go to the Sprint company’s annual meeting to present a resolution on global warming. Why Sprint? Because the chairman and CEO, William Esrey, is an ExxonMobil board member. He’s clearly not getting quality information from ExxonMobil, so we’ll try to get it to him at Sprint. Also, Sprint’s competitors are taking action on global warming. According to Adam Markham at Clean Air-Cool Planet, Verizon has an internal global warming gas reduction program and is installing fuel cells at a call-routing center. International telecommunications companies are also taking action, so Sprint should be developing its own response, too, or it will be in danger of missing the boat.

One good thing about the Sprint annual meeting: I’ll finally get to leave this chair! Pat and I leave Empowering Democracy on Monday afternoon, fly to Kansas City for the meeting, make press visits, and then high-tail it back to Washington, D.C., for an investor briefing the next morning.

In the meantime, I have just enough time after my last phone call to get a few notes typed up, reply to some emails, and edit a fundraising letter before the next call, this one about the Empowering Democracy training. Next, a two-hour meeting on a side project: A team of environmental and faith groups are working together to market Texas-generated renewable electricity to our members. We drive the market for new renewable power plants, we get our members to buy 100 percent renewable, and instead of profits to shareholders, excess revenues go to the groups. We are briefed on the progress of the business plan and send its authors back to their spreadsheets with new input. Fun!

After, oh yes, another call and a few more minor tasks, I pedal out of the office — stopping at the drug store to pick up my monthly sack of asthma medications. You really notice air pollution when you’re an asthmatic on a bike.

Thursday, 11 Apr 2002


I slept in some today, as the baby kept me up much of the night. Once up, I decide to work from home, because I have a lot of writing to do and it’s easier without the distractions of the office.

I start the day with my SEED Coalition hat on. In 1996, I was asked to lead this statewide project to promote renewable energy and energy efficiency in Texas. While we’ve got some victories under our belt (working with close ally Smitty of Public Citizen’s Texas office) in the form of power plant cleanups and mandates for the use of renewable energy, there’s a long way to go.

Texas has the best combined wind and solar resources in the nation. Out in west Texas the wind never stops blowing, and ranchers and rural communities are benefiting from wind power development. It would make a great case study on the economic benefits of renewable energy — and in fact, we’re working on such a study right now.

The problem is that Texas is the country’s biggest greenhouse gas emitter. If some folks got their way and Texas became an independent country, it would rank as the seventh biggest carbon dioxide emitter in the world. So despite the excellent, eco-friendly energy resources in the state, it’s still an uphill battle to promote their use, plus push for the cleanup of the conventional energy industry.

The current leader of the SEED Coalition air program is Karen Hadden. She has been doing a lot of outreach and collaboration with sport fishermen in Texas, building support for cleaning up mercury emissions from coal plants. Karen is also educating people about the value of proposals at the federal level to overhaul the nation’s outdated power plants.

Most of the electricity in the U.S. comes from burning coal — that’s right, the same stuff that powered trains 100 years ago. As a result, power plants are a leading source of global warming, smog, haze, and acid rain gases, as well as other forms of toxic pollution. Clear the Air is a national group leading the fight against dirty power. We work with that organization to educate citizens and policymakers about the value of cleaning up coal plants. But it’s tough work in Texas, home to some of the nation’s most bull-headed policymakers. Joe Barton is a good example. He’s the chair of Congress’s Energy and Air Quality sub-committee, which is responsible for the Clean Air Act. Funny position for a man who’s pretty much a sworn enemy of clean air. A few years ago, Barton earned himself the nickname “Darth Vader of the Environment” when he tried to gut the Clean Air Act.

Now Barton and his compadres are at it again, trying to weaken the Clean Air Act and some of its most important provisions. If these efforts are successful, they will really hurt people who live near refineries. Almost all refineries are located in urban areas, often in low-income or minority neighborhoods, and they are huge sources of toxic emissions that cause high rates of respiratory, reproductive, and other health problems. Thus people who live near refineries consider themselves to be in the sacrifice zone; their lives and health are sacrificed so that the refiners — ExxonMobil, Shell, Orion, Premcor — can pocket bigger profits. Some of the stories are absurd — plants that continue to operate with broken equipment, failures to warn communities when clouds of pollution escape, totally inadequate regulation by state and federal authorities. (You can see the kind of devastation refineries cause on the Refinery Reform website.) Pure and simple, refineries are a national disgrace.

That’s why the SEED Coalition formed the Refinery Reform Campaign this year: to build widespread support for refinery cleanup. We were lucky to get Denny Larson, a long-time community organizer, to lead the campaign for us. Denny spends his time traveling the country, talking to refinery community groups and helping them get educated and organized. One of the key tools is teaching people to do their own air monitoring with sampling “buckets,” Community groups form “bucket brigades” and sample the air when they smell bad odors or detect what might be violations at the nearby plant. One of our partners is Anne Rolfes of the Louisiana Bucket Brigade. She’s helping several communities sample their air and use the results to pressure offending companies to clean up their acts and regulators to do their jobs.

I’m grateful for the opportunity to work with so many terrific people and to feel like I’m working on the energy system as a whole — promoting solutions, fighting pollution, getting people organized, and helping them reclaim control over their lives and health.

Friday, 12 Apr 2002


Oh boy. Today starts with the hard drive on my laptop expiring. That’s inconvenient! I’m hitting the road tomorrow for five days of fast-paced action and work. I hand over the computer to Ray the computer guy and pray. Then it’s back to the office, where I rig a spare laptop and get to work.

Today I’m making progress on one of the more humorous tactics for Campaign ExxonMobil. Many people are familiar with those obnoxious “advertorials” that ExxonMobil runs in the New York Times, the Washington Post, and the Wall Street Journal, with their smug headlines and oh-so-balanced sounding text. From the tone, you’d think they were written by someone who was brought up on — and never grew out of — “Father Knows Best.”

These ads are where ExxonMobil commits some of its most egregious sins of omission and plain old twisting of the truth. Take the classic “Unsettled Science,” which acknowledges that global warming could be real but then reminds readers that weather is unpredictable and cautions against taking hasty action. What a load of bunk! The questions ExxonMobil raised in that ad were settled years ago by scientists. We had some fun with that ad — putting it up on the website with all the nonsense highlighted in yellow. (Yes, most of the ad wound up yellow.) You can click on the highlighted parts to read the truth behind the distortions, and when you’re mad enough, you can click through to send the board of directors a letter.

Since “Unsettled Science,” ExxonMobil came up a with a whole spate of similar ads — how renewable energy is nice but (too bad!) just won’t work; how committed ExxonMobil is to reducing emissions (even though it refuses to set goals); and how the company’s first priority is to meeting customer preferences (as long as those don’t include the oft-repeated request for less pollution).

After reading enough of this nonsense, Campaign ExxonMobil decided it was time to have some fun and make our own “op-ads” mocking the company’s ludicrous claims. The first one — inspired by the use of a debunked petition written by non-scientists from a non-institution as proof that ExxonMobil isn’t so crazy — was presented to shareholders by Global Warmer in Chief Lee Raymond himself (company chair and CEO). It’s called “Put a Climate Scientist in Your Think Tank.” In response to an ExxonMobil ad claiming that pollution reductions in the U.S. have declined due to voluntary actions and goodwill by polluters, we put together “Blowing Smoke” — which, after we posted it on the Internet, spawned about 3,500 letters to ExxonMobil.

Now I’m working on one to commemorate ExxonMobil’s recent efforts to oust Bob Watson, the chief of the international panel on global warming. You can read all about it on our website. Its my best guess as to what ExxonMobil execs are actually thinking when they do this stuff. Satire is fun!

As one of my board members said as he recovered from attending his first ExxonMobil shareholder meeting with me, “These guys are so ludicrous the only thing left to do is make fun of them.”

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