HOUSTON — Darren W. Woods rarely makes headlines even though he is the chief executive of Exxon Mobil, the oil company that some people consider a top environmental villain and others think of as a vital engine of the U.S. economy.
Few have taken seriously, or even noticed, that he is beginning to make promises to respond to climate change, which is at the very least a rhetorical break from his predecessors if not a substantive one.
“What society demands, and appropriately so, is affordable, reliable energy that doesn’t have the emissions associated with today’s energy systems,” he said on Tuesday. “We’re working on that evolution.”
While that might seem like a guarded statement, Mr. Woods, a soft-spoken electrical engineer from Wichita, Kan., is clearly changing the tone of the company, which he took over four years ago. The Texas swagger employed by his predecessors, one of whom openly dismissed concerns about climate change, has turned into something vaguely philosophical.
In an interview meant to be a curtain raiser to an annual presentation that executives will offer financial analysts and investors on Wednesday, Mr. Woods, 56, waxed poetic about the history of technology and the energy industry and even suggested there was common ground between his plans to reduce emissions and President Biden’s efforts to fight climate change. He went so far as to promise that Exxon would try to set a goal for not emitting more greenhouse gases than it removed from the atmosphere, though he said it was still difficult to say when that might happen.
“We are supportive of that ambition, and our goal is to help society to achieve it,” Mr. Woods said. “Frankly, the recognition of the challenge is continuing to grow. It’s an evolving conversation that I find very helpful to think through what needs to happen.”
Under pressure from activist investors, Exxon said this week that it was adding two new directors with no previous ties to fossil fuels to its board. The company recently said it would create a new business that captured carbon dioxide from industrial plants and buried it deep in the ground. It also recently invested in Global Thermostat, a company that aims to suck carbon dioxide out of the air.
Of course, many people are deeply skeptical about the company’s plans and motives. Unlike executives of European oil companies, Mr. Woods is not cutting investments in oil and gas in favor of spending money on wind and solar power. He steered clear of commenting on BP’s pledge last year to cut its net emissions to zero by 2050.
“Unlike their big oil competitors that have begun taking action on climate change, Woods and Exxon Mobil continue to live in a fairy tale world of inaction while California burns and Texas freezes,” said Peter Krull, chief executive of Earth Equity Advisors, a research and investment firm specializing in sustainability.
After spending nearly three decades with a company traditionally known for its insularity, rigid culture and public indifference to global warming, Mr. Woods suggested that he was ready to steer it onto a different course, albeit gradually.
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With Exxon’s stock price still lower than it was a decade ago, many investors have demanded no less.
“My interaction with investors is a reflection of what I would say are the broader trends of society,” Mr. Woods said.
Mr. Woods’s four years as chief executive have spanned a rocky time for the industry. Oil and gas prices have bounced up and down several times in recent years. And last year, demand for petroleum products collapsed as the coronavirus pandemic took hold. Exxon lost $22.4 billion in 2020, much of it from write-downs of assets the company acquired at rich prices before Mr. Woods took over.
But in recent weeks, oil and gas prices have recovered, and Exxon and its stock are doing better. Mr. Woods said revenues were flowing again, allowing the company to reduce debt and pay for future projects. The company’s dividend, which it had raised every year for nearly four decades, now appears to be safe from being cut.
What Exxon isn’t doing is spending much of its fortune on businesses or ideas designed to sharply reduce emissions. It is spending just $3 billion through 2025 on capturing carbon from industrial plants — a small faction of the $16 billion to $19 billion it plans to spend on oil exploration and capital projects this year.
Mr. Woods said he would seek more change through researching breakthrough technologies. But many of them remain years or decades away from having a big impact on emissions.
“Until we know the path and what is going to be required and what the solutions are, it’s hard to know,” he said. “What we can do is commit to figure that out, and once we find the answers you would see us begin to commit and actually be on the path toward net zero.”
While Exxon is investing in energy efficiency projects, biofuels and hydrogen, Mr. Woods expressed particular enthusiasm for his company’s 20 carbon capture and storage projects. While the technology has yet to become widely deployed because it is very expensive, Mr. Woods and Exxon scientists argue that it could play an important role in reducing emissions from cement and steel manufacturing and other industrial processes that cannot easily run on renewable energy.
“Carbon capture and storage is going to be needed,” he said.
He even suggested that “there is certainly the potential” that Exxon’s carbon capture and storage program could fit neatly with Mr. Biden’s policies and goals.
“Policy support and the right regulatory framework to support these investments are needed and are going to be important,” Mr. Woods said. “We want to engage with them in that conversation. You are going to need permitting for investments. You are going to need pipeline systems, legislation, and regulatory reform and legal frameworks for storing CO2.”
Mr. Biden has expressed support for carbon capture and sequestration. It is one environmental policy that could gain the backing of congressional Republicans, although many liberal Democrats are not keen on it because they see it as prolonging the use of fossil fuels.
Many climate scientists are deeply skeptical that the technology can be deployed at the scale needed to make a big dent in emissions. Some energy executives share that skepticism.
Charif Souki, the executive chairman of Tellurian, a liquefied natural gas company, said carbon capture was one of many potentially promising technologies to combat climate change. But he added, “There is no efficient way to do it on the scale that is necessary to accommodate what we need to do.”
But Mr. Woods said he was optimistic about the path Exxon had chosen. “It’s very difficult to predict when a breakthrough is going to occur,” he said, “but if you look back in time, they happen consistently.”