Could the global warming crisis be solved if fossil fuel executives were just paid less?
Well, sort of. A new study points out that not only do executives of the 30 largest fossil fuel companies make more than comparable CEOs, the system of buybacks, stock compensation, and bonus incentives all push company leadership to double down on carbon-heavy practices.
“One reason why our fossil fuel industries are so stuck and on this destructive path is because of the short-term and perverse executive pay structures,” Sarah Anderson, Global Economy Project director at the Institute for Policy Studies and an author of the report, told ThinkProgress. “All of the incentives are in place for them to think short-term and to stick with business as usual.”
Anderson argues that there is a parallel between the inflated compensation for fossil fuel executives and for banking heads, whose packages and incentives were tied to the housing bubble and subsequent economic recession. And, like the financial crisis, overpaying fossil fuel executives has major implications for taxpayers and policymakers, Anderson said.
“The more that I’ve been talking about it and thinking about it, the more parallels I see with the financial crisis,” Anderson said. “We are already seeing coal companies go into the ground and the same thing could happen with the oil and gas.”
When coal companies go out of business, taxpayers can be on the hook for retraining workers, paying for long-term health damage, and cleaning up environmental degradation. It is already happening. In the president’s proposed 2016 budget, he requested that Congress transfer federal funds to the United Mine Workers’ pension fund, which is in “critical status.” It was one of several coal-related budget items to help cushion the blow on workers in the flailing industry.
“These companies have been able to externalize a lot of these broader costs for a long time, and the executives have reaped the windfalls from that,” Anderson said.
The salary findings reported in “Money to Burn” are stunning.
For instance, while the stock value of the top 10 U.S. publicly held coal companies fell by 58 percent between 2010 and 2014, cash compensation of executives of these companies went up 8 percent. Executives at Peabody (which lost $1 billion in the second quarter of this year) and Alpha Natural Resources (which filed for bankruptcy this year) cashed in stock options worth $47 million and $33 million, respectively, over that four-year period.
The report looked at the compensation for CEOs, CFOs, and the next three highest-paid employees at the 30 biggest oil, gas, and coal firms in America and found that the top executives made a collective $6 billion in the past five years. For context, that’s enough to weatherize 3.3 million homes, the report states. It is also double the amount the United States pledged to the United Nations’ Green Climate Fund, which offers aid to vulnerable nations for climate change mitigation and preparation.
In addition, these executives have amassed $1.2 billion in retirement packages. That is equal to “the entire flood control budget of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers for nearly three years,” the report says.
The authors repeatedly give examples of executive compensation put in terms of investment in a clean economy. Anderson said this was one way to put the “overwhelming” costs of addressing climate change into a more meaningful context. “When you think about how ExxonMobil could have doubled the amount of global renewable energy research… it gives you a kind of a sense of how much resources these companies are sitting on and how much they could do help,” Anderson said.
The top 10 publicly held U.S. coal companies have been increasing their cash-based executive pay as their share prices have been plummeting. When paychecks grow even as businesses sink, executives have little incentive to shift to a new energy future. The industry spends $600 billion a year developing new fossil fuel resources, the report found. But there is no reason executives wouldn’t pursue those developments: Fossil fuel executives generally receive bonuses for increasing their companies’ resource holdings.
“They are rewarded for adding carbon reserves even when the reserves they are currently sitting on can’t be exploited without causing climate catastrophe,” Anderson said.
CEO compensation has been a hot target in recent years, as the gap between wealthy and poor — or even middle class — grows. But these fossil fuel companies are especially egregious. CEOs averaged $14.7 million in compensation in 2014, 9 percent more than the S&P 500 average.
But perhaps more importantly, the entire system of compensation is skewed to reward executives for continuing business practices that add carbon to the atmosphere. None of the 30 companies have mechanisms that reward investment in renewable energy sources or other types of climate change action. According to the report, shareholders of ExxonMobil have introduced 62 climate-related resolutions over the past 25 years, and every single one has been opposed by management. Rex Tillerson, ExxonMobil’s CEO who made $21.4 million in stock-based pay in 2014, mocked a shareholder who asked about investing in renewables, Anderson said.
This is even more ironic given the recent changes in the energy market: While fossil fuel stocks continue to fall, renewable energy sources are at grid-parity in many places. A report issued Monday from the International Energy Agency found that the cost of generating electricity from renewable sources is comparable to using fossil fuel.