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How (and why) Big Oil just had a very bad day

The oil and gas industry is generally not accustomed to having bad days, but yesterday Big Oil saw several dramatic developments, just over a few hours.
Image: A woman holds a nozzle as she refuels her car
A woman refuels her car.Gene J. Puskar / AP file

The oil and gas industry is generally not accustomed to having bad days. On the contrary, Big Oil's business model is built on persistent successes in everything from energy policy to finance to shaping the governments of whole countries.

Yesterday, however, as Politico noted, the industry had an unusually bad day.

The oil industry, long a political heavyweight in Washington, suffered a series of extraordinary blows on Wednesday after shareholders, customers and the courts turned on the industry out of concern over climate change.

I hope you saw Rachel's coverage of this last night, because Big Oil's future is going to matter to all of us, and yesterday was a day in which the industry's future appeared to shift direction.

It started in a courtroom in The Hague, where a judge ordered Royal Dutch Shell -- the biggest oil company in the world outside of China -- to slash its greenhouse gas emission by 45% by the end of the decade. NBC News' report added, "The climate lawsuit, which was filed by seven groups including Greenpeace and Friends of the Earth Netherlands, marks a first in which environmentalists have turned to the courts to try to force a major energy firm to change strategy."

Soon after, the public learned that a majority of Chevron shareholders, ignoring the company's corporate board, also ordered the oil giant to radically reduce its carbon emissions.

And in case that weren't quite enough, just hours later, in what NPR described as an "astonishing" development, ExxonMobil saw some of its shareholders dump some of the company's board of directors and elect climate-friendly successors.

I can appreciate the fact that for many news consumers, the phrase "corporate shareholders meeting" is probably a cue to move on to some other story, but the developments we saw yesterday may very well help push Big Oil in a new direction.

Oh, and did I mention that Ford's F-150 Lightning electric pickup now has tens of thousands of pre-orders? This isn't exactly the sort of news oil companies want to see, either.

At a certain level, there's arguably an inevitability to days like yesterday. The seriousness of the climate crisis is such that Big Oil is facing, and will continue to face, enormous pressure to change into something different. Our collective future requires it.

But it's nevertheless amazing to see the changes begin in earnest in rapid succession.