Investors Pressure Oil Giants on Ocean Plastics Pollution

Climate-conscious shareholders who have long focused on fossil fuel damage are turning attention to another growing and related problem: plastics.

Pre-production plastic pellets, known as nurdles, that had spilled from a train car. Credit: Rick Loomis/Los Angeles Times via Getty Images

Pre-production plastic pellet, like these that spilled from a train car, have become a common pollution problem in oceans and waterways along with fragments of plastic bottles and containers. Credit: Rick Loomis/Los Angeles Times via Getty Images

Several of the largest producers of the fossil fuel feedstocks used to make plastics are being pressured by investors to explain what the companies are doing to reduce plastic waste in the world's oceans and waterways.

Plastics represent a new direction for the activist shareholders, who for years have focused on greenhouse gas emissions from fossil fuels in their effort hold corporations responsible for the environmental fallout of their industries.

By turning attention to plastics, the investors hope to kick-start a conversation with the industry that will provide a realistic view of the size and scope of the plastics problem, exemplified by the millions of tons of garbage left behind to float in the oceans when plastics are not recycled.

Conrad MacKerron, senior vice president of As You Sow, a shareholder advocacy organization, said he was prepared for a stiff fight when his organization filed plastics-related shareholder resolutions this year with Exxon, Chevron, Phillips 66 and chemical giant DowDuPont.

Instead, the oil giants agreed to address the plastics issue in exchange for the investors withdrawing their formal resolutions. The companies agreed to issue reports addressing the amount of pea-sized plastic pellets released into the environment annually during production. Called nurdles, they are produced by the billions to make nearly all plastic products. The companies will also assess the effectiveness of policies and actions to reduce the volume of their plastic materials contaminating the environment.

The resolution with DowDuPont could still go to a shareholder vote at the company's annual meeting June 25.

"This is an issue that is reaching critical mass in the public awareness," MacKerron said. "The companies see that, and I hope see the importance of addressing the issue."

Although the requests made to the four companies specifically deal with plastics, they share common DNA with dozens of other resolutions pending before publicly traded fossil fuel and utility companies: climate change.

Plastics production is responsible for a significant amount of greenhouse gases, the underpinning of global warming. Together, plastics and other petrochemical commodities are expected to overtake the transportation sector as the largest driver of global oil demand by 2050, said Lila Holzman, energy program manager for As You Sow.

Plastics' Greenhouse Gas Problem

The supply chain behind plastic production is responsible for considerable greenhouse gas emissions.

It starts with the hydraulic fracturing, or fracking process where the gas used as the building blocks for plastic is removed from underground. It's during this extraction process that methane is released, the first of a number of escape points for greenhouse gases.

Leaks along the pipeline transportation system and at the destination point account for more discharges. Then the energy used in the manufacture of the plastic feedstock is responsible for additional releases of greenhouse gases.

"The whole refining process is very greenhouse gas intensive," Holzman said. "From the gas fields to the production end there is a huge carbon footprint to plastics."

Chart: Plastic's Life Cycle Greenhouse Gas Emissions

The investors' efforts can be used as building blocks upon which to accelerate a discussion of the overall consequences of the carbon footprint plastics leave behind, said Sangwon Suh a professor of environmental science and management at the University of California, Santa Barbara, and the co-author of a recently published study examining greenhouse gas emissions from plastics.

"This is a definite step toward understanding the whole life cycle of plastics that includes the greenhouse gas emissions," Suh said.

Climate Change Also Puts the Industry at Risk

As much as producing plastics exacerbates climate change, climate change is a threat to the petrochemical facilities that produce plastics, especially on the hurricane-prone Gulf Coast.

That led the investors to ask Exxon and DowDuPont  to also assess the public health risks of expanding operations in areas increasingly prone to climate change-induced storms, flooding and sea level rise.

"Growing storms and the costs they bring our company are predicted to increase in frequency and intensity as global warming escalates," the resolution As You Sow filed with Exxon said. It asked the company to assess, among other issues, "the adequacy of measures the company is employing to prevent public health impacts from associated chemical releases."

The investors point to impacts from Hurricane Harvey in 2017 that shut down chemical plants and triggered the release of unsafe levels of volatile organic compounds like benzene.

Oil and chemical companies have invested $180 billion in new and planned plastics facilities, according to an annual report produced by a number of shareholder advocacy organizations. Exxon alone has committed $20 billion over 10 years to build and expand 11 manufacturing facilities. Those plants are springing up along the Gulf Coast and Ohio River Valley and raise questions about the threats to health and climate.

That rush to expand plastics production prompted shareholders in the four petrochemical companies to also ask about plans to prevent spills of the tiny plastic pellets known as nurdles, and about reducing the volume of the company's plastic materials contaminating the environment.

The shareholder requests, which noted that oceans contains an estimated 150 million tons of plastic, call plastic pollution "a global environmental crisis."

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