On capricious government
Nov 6, 2015
Bishop Hill in Energy: oil, Greens

The decision by New York regulators to investigate Exxon over climate change is an interesting one. Apparently the aim is "determining whether the company failed to disclose the climate change risks to investors as well as the public".

And you can't really say fairer than that. If companies are obliged to disclose risks - and there is no doubt that they are - then I don't think one can argue that Exxon or any other oil company should be disclosing to investors the possibility, say, that governments might do foolish things in response to hysteria over climate change. These are real risks that affect investors. There are interesting questions over what point any particular political foolishness becomes concrete enough to make it disclosable, however. Governments are driven by perverse incentives, and politicians are capricious at the best of times. Political risk is therefore always a hard thing to gauge.

Moreover, Exxon is a global company, and political risks in any one country are therefore even less likely to affect the overall business. Global political risks are even more nebulous than national ones: the possibility of a global carbon tax, for example, remains remote, with the developing world unwilling to let their populations die young in order to make western greens feel good about themselves.

Of course, the investigation looks more like a fishing trip, trying to get access to Exxon's internal communications on behalf of environmental activists. There is, in the minds of greens at least, a vast oil-funded conspiracy to be exposed. I don't suppose they will find very much.



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