Descendants of John D Rockefeller, America's first and biggest oil industry magnate, say that ExxonMobil, a company spawned from his 19th-century monopoly Standard Oil, faces becoming obsolete if it does not step up the search for alternative fuels.
Fifteen family members yesterday went public in an attempt to get Exxon to face up to the realities of climate change, and they promised to join a shareholder rebellion to shake up the board to alter company's strategy.
"Kerosene was the alternative energy of its day when he realised it could replace whale oil," said Neva Rockefeller Goodwin, great-granddaughter of the oil Standard Oil founder. "Part of John D Rockefeller's genius was in recognising early the need and opportunity for a transition to a better, cheaper and cleaner fuel."
And Ms Goodwin, now an economist and environmentalist, added that Exxon was blinkered in its short-term pursuit of profits "from investments and decisions made many years ago, focusing on a narrow path that ignores the rapidly shifting energy landscape around the world, including developing nations".
The family's intervention came the day before Exxon reports what are expected to be profits of about $11bn (£5.5bn) for the first three months of the year. That figure, the equivalent of £1m every 25 minutes, could match Exxon's own record for the biggest quarterly profit in corporate history, thanks to record oil prices that yesterday stood at $114 per barrel.
Environmentalists have long pointed to Exxon as a villain of the climate change debate, since it denied a link between carbon emissions and global warming. Under its current chairman, Rex Tillerson, however, the company has softened its position, and focused on reducing the emissions from its operations.
The Rockefellers want the company to go much further, however. They are backing resolutions at the Exxon's shareholder meeting next month which call on the company to fund research into how climate change will affect developing nations. They believe a push into alternative fuels by Exxon and other major oil companies could improve the situation, and demand a new policy on funding alternative fuels.
They also want the company to set public goals for reducing carbon emissions from their output – targets which, if tough enough, would force the company to offer less-polluting products than oil and gas.
They are also demanding that Mr Tillerson split the roles of chairman and chief executive, a resolution which last year won 40 per cent of the vote.
"If the next 20 years of the energy business were just going to be about oil and gas, we probably wouldn't be here today," Peter O'Neill, head of the Rockefeller committee dealing with Exxon told reporters in New York. "Having an independent chairman leading an independent-thinking board of very experienced directors will substantially improve Exxon's ability to look the future squarely in the face."
John D Rockefeller's Standard Oil grew to monopolise the industry and the US courts broke it up into 34 separate companies 1911. Exxon and Mobil, which merged in 1999, were each descended from those new companies.
Gore fund raises $638m to tackle climate change
The fund management business led by Al Gore, the former US vice-president-turned-environmental campaigner, has raised $638m (£322m) to invest in companies developing new ways to tackle climate change.
Generation Investment Management, which is based in London, says it will put the money into renewable energy technologies, schemes to improve building efficiency, cleaner fossil fuels and sustainable agriculture and carbon markets. It is the second fund raised by Generation since its inception, and it underscores investors' increasing enthusiasm for "green-tech" ventures. Mr Gore set up the venture in 2004 with former staffers and alumni of Goldman Sachs, aiming to marry investment analysis with environmental research in the hunt for long-term financial returns.
David Blood, the former head of Goldman Sachs Asset Management, who is Generation's managing partner, said the new Climate Change Fund would be an activist shareholder in public and private companies. "Sustainable development that addresses the climate crisis will be a significant driver of industrial and economic development over the coming decades," said Mr Blood.