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Activists push fossil fuels divestment

Photo Credit: PHOTO BY ADAM MILLS ELLIOTT, COURTESY OF 350 OREGON - Portland Rising Tide, 350PDX and other climate activist groups organized this protest on the Columbia River near Vancouver against fossil fuel extraction and exports during the 2013 Summer Heat campaign. 350 Oregon is now lobbying governments and other groups to sell off their fossil fuel stocks. Three-hundred-fifty is a number most can agree upon: the amount of carbon dioxide in parts per million that’s safely acceptable in the atmosphere to prevent severe climate change.

But with the Earth now clocking in at 400 parts per million, there’s little consensus on how to get back down to 350, especially when it comes to a big organizing drive by climate change activists to push divestment of fossil fuel stocks.

Divestment is the selling of assets for financial or social reasons, often to press for political change. A prime example was in the 1980s, when protesters pushed the U.S. government, universities and states, including Oregon, to stop investing in South African companies to protest the racist apartheid system. The campaign often is credited with spurring boycotts, sanctions, social movements and, ultimately, the end of apartheid.

350 Oregon, named after the safe carbon dioxide level, is a local affiliate of the global 350.org that is spearheading an international divestment campaign. Activists hope to pressure governments, universities and churches to divest from fossil fuel companies. The local group started a petition — the Oregon Climate Declaration — calling on Gov. John Kitzhaber and state Treasurer Ted Wheeler to stop new investment in fossil fuels and start divesting from those companies.

State treasurer opposed

But Wheeler is reluctant, saying divesting isn’t practical for the state treasury and its $88 billion in assets.

350.org’s campaign targets the top 200 oil, coal and gas companies, including ExxonMobil, Chevron and BP. So far, the World Council of Churches, some city governments, Stanford and a handful of other universities have agreed to stop new investments or start divesting in some or all fossil fuel

companies.

Oregon Treasury leaders say divestment wouldn’t meet their fiduciary responsibility, a legal duty to act solely in the interest of those who benefit from state investments, such as state retirees.

Reed College recently rejected a call to divest fossil fuel stocks from its endowment fund. In a public statement, Reed trustees said they wanted to retain “institutional neutrality,” which “we believe, provides the best protection for freedom of inquiry and expression.”

Wheeler, a former Multnomah County chair and potential candidate for governor in 2018, questions the effectiveness and practicality of calling upon organizations to divest. The treasurer declined interview requests from Sustainable Life, and his spokesman Michael Cox says the treasury has no plans to stop investing in fossil fuels.

In a guest column for The Oregonian, Wheeler wrote that divestment is ineffective because it doesn’t financially impact targeted companies. Stocks that are unloaded are purchased by other investors, whom Wheeler says may not be advocates for carbon reduction or responsible management. Instead, he argued, it’s better to demand responsible business practices from inside.

But for Sandy Polishuk, treasurer and fossil fuel divestment coordinator of 350PDX — a local affiliate of 350 Oregon — demanding responsible business practices by fossil fuel companies is a fruitless goal.

“Their business is to burn what they have,” Polishuk says. “They’re the only industry allowed to dump garbage for free.”

Results hard to measure

Pension Consulting Alliance Inc., an independent Portland-based consulting firm, researched divestment for a May 2014 report and found mixed results for portfolios subject to divestment.

A divestment campaign protesting policies in Sudan had little impact because of the narrow list of targeted companies. Most U.S. public pension plans held less than 0.1 percent of their assets in problematic companies, according to the Sudan Divestment Task Force 2008 Peer Performance Review.

The Pension Consulting Alliance report found the success of fossil fuel-free portfolios vs. those with fossil fuels fluctuated, depending on the fortunes of oil, coal and gas companies. Authors noted that the successes of divestment campaigns are not measured by financial results, but in “gaining widespread attention and influencing government policy to adopt legislation that in turn materially affects the social goals of the campaign.”

350PDX Chair Adriana Voss-Andreae agrees that the goal of the divestment campaign is not financial ruin for fossil fuel companies.

“Divestment is really about building a movement to undermine the political power of the fossil fuel industry through stigmatization,” Voss-Andreae says.

Through stigmatization, the ultimate goal is policy change, Voss-Andreae says.

Cox says the end goals of 350 Oregon and the treasurer are similar, citing the renewable energy investment summit hosted by Wheeler on June 5 as evidence.

The state treasury manages funds for public universities, local governments and investments for the Public Employees Retirement System, which serves public employees and retirees.

“Our fundamental obligation is to get the best return for those people,” says Richard Solomon, chairman of the Oregon Investment Council, which makes investment decisions for PERS and other state funds. “Our job isn’t to make the world better. We can’t look at social issues in making decisions.”

Solomon says this guideline is in accordance with the law. The “general objective for investments,” according to Oregon Revised Statute 293.721, is “to make the moneys as productive as possible.”

The state has divested in the past, though. In 2005, the Oregon Legislature passed the Oregon Human Rights and Anti-Genocide Act, which required divestment from companies doing business in Sudan in response to human rights atrocities there. That resulted in a net divestiture of $37.4 million, according to a 2013 report required by the act.

Others do it

Some mutual funds, known as socially responsible investors, do weed out companies based on their products, including Portland-based Portfolio 21.

Carsten Henningsen, Portfolio 21’s chairman of client service and communication, says divestment from fossil fuels meets Portfolio 21’s definition of fiduciary responsibility and makes financial sense.

“We believe the long-term risk/reward profile for coal, oil and gas is unattractive based on the known risks and unnecessary as part of a prudent investment portfolio,” Henningsen says. “The fossil fuel divestment campaign is already having a similar impact of educating people about climate change and providing a catalyst for voting with your dollars,” he says.

Portfolio 21 manages more than $600 million in investments, excluding companies that extract fossil fuels or are exclusively involved in agricultural biotechnology, alcohol, gambling, tobacco and weapons production. The fund has earned an annual average return of 5.49 percent from Sept. 30, 1999, through June 30, 2014, beating its industry benchmark of 4.57 percent.

Voss-Andreae wouldn’t rank various methods for reducing carbon emissions, but says divestment is a great way to use the public voice.

“There’s over a million Oregonians concerned about climate change, but completely invisible,” says Lenny Dee, the Oregon Climate Declaration coordinator. “We need to make them visible so officials realize we have a climate crisis.”

For Voss-Andreae, working to combat climate change is close to home.

“I asked myself, ‘What is it that I love the most in my life?’ ” she says, when thinking about the deterioration of life on Earth that could be caused by severe climate change. “My biggest values, the thing I cherish the most, are family and community. These are things I’m not willing to lose.”