Exxon’s Newest Activist Investor Is a ‘Space Cowboy’

Exxon’s Newest Activist Investor Is a ‘Space Cowboy’

Exxon announced Wednesday that a third new member has been appointed to the company’s board, following a week of vote counting after the company was caught by surprise by a shareholder insurrection last week led by activist investor Engine No. 1. The new board member, Alexander “Andy” Karsner, currently works as a “Space Cowboy” for X, Alphabet’s famous moonshot company. Not totally sure what a “Space Cowboy” does, but it sounds exciting!

The other two Engine No. 1 board members are good news only because Exxon has been so bad at managing its finances and making any strides at all towards thinking about a low-carbon future. While you may hear “activist investor” and conjure up a certain Greenpeace-y image, both the other new picks, Gregory Goff and Kaisa Hietala, mostly have experience working with oil and gas companies. (Goff, in particular, seems staunchly in the camp of keeping the fossil fuel status quo and once apparently announced “I am the best oil executive in the world” to a bunch of Wall Street types gathered at a steakhouse.)

Compared to these two, Karsner definitely has bona fides that make us feel a little more hopeful about Exxon’s future. While being a “Space Cowboy” (“Senior Strategist” appears to be his official title at X) is one of his current gigs, Karsner worked as the assistant secretary for Energy Efficiency and Renewable Energy during the last years of George W. Bush administration. He went on to work on a bunch of Silicon Valley and energy world-adjacent ventures, including forming the energy group at Emerson Collective, Laurene Powell Jobs’s half-nonprofit, half-venture capital engine. Karsner was a principal negotiator at international climate talks in Bali in 2007 and served on the board of the National Renewable Energy Laboratory as well as the board of Conservation International. Thomas Friedman, the New York Times columnist who is a Big Climate Guy, apparently knows Karsner, and wrote some glowing praise of him in his column on the Exxon vote, calling him ”tough as nails and green as grass.” All sounds great!

Per Karsner’s LinkedIn (which is impressively, and appropriately, exhausting), he was also a director and member of the board at the Gas Technology Institute for eight years; he also was a member of the National Petroleum Institute between 2009 and 2018. It’s clear Karsner has spent a lot of time working with oil and gas companies. Since he’s joining the board of Exxon, this is admittedly a good point to have on a resume, but it’s also a sign he’s not getting invited to an Extinction Rebellion meeting anytime soon.

Venture capitalists (or, if you’d like, Space Cowboys) like Karsner have a tendency to put stock in exciting new technologies and ideas like carbon capture. Friedman, ever the techno-optimist, notes that Karsner and the other Engine No. 1-backed board members want Exxon to become a “more diversified energy company. That means not only investing more in future carbon capture, batteries, and other renewables, but also using its engineering prowess to invent that future — while it still has an income stream from oil and gas.”

It is worth noting, though, that many of X’s publicly-announced moonshot renewable projects acquired and developed during Karsner’s tenure, like making wind projects out of kites or fuel out of seawater, have failed; Wired reports that the company “once earnestly debated laying a giant copper ring around the North Pole to generate electricity from the Earth’s magnetic field.”

There are also a plethora of low-tech strategies like just stopping oil and gas exploration that could start us on that path ASAP. And glamorizing technofixes ignores the fact that a lot of technology needed to decarbonize the world already exists, we just need a regulatory structure that prioritises installing it rather than trusting Big Oil to save us.

Exxon, if you’ll recall, lags far behind even other oil companies in investing in renewables or making plans to lower emissions. It’s hard to have faith a company that so furiously put energy into denying climate science for decades and has stubbornly indicated it will keep up new exploration to suddenly heed the siren call of a low-carbon future.

The best thing for the planet would be if Exxon just died, not transformed into a techno-futuristic capitalist wet dream. That’s not going to happen anytime soon, so on some level at least, I’m glad Karsner is coming aboard. It remains to be seen what he and the other three members are going to do with their time there, and if a Space Cowboy can rein in one of the world’s biggest polluters.

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