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How Fossil Fuel Divestment Will Hurt Fossil Fuel Stock Prices

[fa icon="calendar'] Jan 21, 2015 9:33:25 AM / by Carol Pierson Holding

By: Carol Pierson Holding

If anyone needed more proof that economics trumps sustainability: low gas prices are causing a plunge in electric vehicle and hybrid sales.

Ban Fracking Tax Carbon

The same phenomenon is happening in the divestment movement. Moral outrage pushed 83 churches, universities and non-profits to divest $50 billion before the September climate march. This is a blip for an industry valued at $5 trillion, whose top investor Blackrock owns $146 billion in fossil fuel investments and where a single company Exxon Mobil is valued at $425 billion, and Shell and Chevron at $268 billion and $248 billion respectively.

These numbers are staggering, and the pace of the divestment movement in relative monetary terms is glacial, despite its many moral and symbolic victories. Even if as Bloomberg’s New Energy Finance says this divestment movement has more rapid growth and quicker scaling than any of its predecessors, does it have a chance of affecting fossil fuel company behavior?

Only when it starts to affect the stock price.

Tim Dickinson argues eloquently in this issue of Rolling Stone that divesting has become the smart move for the financially savvy, and not because of divestment pressure. Prompted by the recent 50% drop in the price of oil, now hovering below $45 per barrel —

“From late June to early January, across the world, the 10 oil firms with the largest proven reserves collectively lost roughly 20 percent of their market value.  …Goldman Sachs warned that nearly $1 trillion in planned oil-field investments would be unprofitable – even if oil were to stabilize at $70 per barrel. The industry is already scaling back the hunt for high-cost sources of new oil. Chevron has shelved drilling in the Canadian Arctic, and Hercules Offshore, a significant driller in the Gulf of Mexico, has idled four rigs and laid off more than 300 workers. Plunging profits are also putting the brakes on fracking.”

And that’s only the beginning. Countries around the world are putting limits on carbon emissions, so much so that Governor of the Bank of England Mark Carney warned that "the vast majority of reserves are unburnable." The argument that fossil fuel companies’ reserves will become “stranded assets” has long been a hopeful prediction from activists, but the message has a different tone when it comes from a powerful central banker whose main concern is not sustainability but stability.

Another concerned guardian of the status quo has similar fears. Bevis Longstreth, who served as commissioner of the SEC under Ronald Reagan and later chaired the Finance Committee of the Rockefeller Brothers Foundation, blasts the oil companies: "There is no good reason for this vast expenditure of stockholder wealth. It is wasted capital, an offense against stockholders in terms financial alone."

But my favorite argument for divesting comes from a report generated by Oxford University’s Stranded Assets Programme. The authors bring up the very real reputational risk that a divestment movement creates, which they label “Organisational Stigma,” or “disapproval, even ‘disgust’ at an organisation’s activities, values or behaviour” and tie it directly to stock price: “Even when divestment outflows are small or short term and do not directly affect future cash flows (as is true with fossil fuel divestment), if they trigger a change in market norms that close off channels of previously available money (i.e., the ability to sell stock), then a downward pressure on the stock price of a targeted firm may be large and permanent.”

Add to that the growing perception that the fossil fuel companies’ decisions about where to invest are considered irrational, and you've created a very serious threat to fossil fuel companies' stock price and the managers whose pay and bonuses depends on that price. And that’s the most likely route to real change.

Photo courtesy of Carol Pierson Holding 


Carol Pierson HoldingCarol Pierson Holding writes on environmental issues and social responsibility for policy and news publications, including the Carnegie Council’s Policy Innovations, Harvard Business Review, San Francisco Chronicle, India Time, The Huffington Post and many other web sites. Her articles on corporate social responsibility can be found on CSRHub.com, a website that provides sustainability ratings data on 13,000+ companies worldwide. Carol holds degrees from Smith College and Harvard University.

CSRHub provides access to corporate social responsibility and sustainability ratings and information on 13,000+ companies from 135 industries in 127 countries. By aggregating and normalizing the information from 370 data sources, CSRHub has created a broad, consistent rating system and a searchable database that links millions of rating elements back to their source. Managers, researchers and activists use CSRHub to benchmark company performance, learn how stakeholders evaluate company CSR practices and seek ways to change the world.

 

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[fa icon="comment"] 0 Comments posted in Bevis Longstreth, BlackRock, Bloomberg New Energy Finance, Exxon Mobil, Fossil Fuel Divestment, Shell, Uncategorized, Mark Carney, oil reserves, organisational stigma, Rolling Stone, Tim Dickinson, oil prices, Oxford University Stranded Assets Programme, stranded assets, Carol Pierson Holding, Chevron, Hercules Offshore

Imagine If Harvard Took on Climate Change

[fa icon="calendar'] Oct 29, 2013 10:50:51 AM / by Carol Pierson Holding

By Carol Pierson Holding

It was with a heavy heart that we read President Drew Faust’s announcement that HarvardHarvard would not join the Fossil Fuel Divestment movement. At 1,275 words, her statement acknowledges how seriously Harvard’s administration considered the issue. The statement opens with “Climate change represents one of the world’s most consequential challenges,” but “divestment from the fossil fuel industry is (neither) warranted or wise.”
Last Thursday, Seattle’s Mayor Michael McGinn wrote an impassioned protest for Huffington Post that lays out the arguments against Harvard’s stance, but it was surely no surprise to anyone. Harvard has a history of withstanding divestment movements, refusing to join even the anti-Apartheid divestment until ten years after protests began.

But still I expected more. Faust is one of my heroes. As the first female President of Harvard, she operates successfully and in some ways radically in one of the most entrenched old boys clubs in the country. My own alma mater, Harvard Business School, recently revealed a pattern of sexual harassment and discrimination that was as astonishing in its depth. Even more surprising is the fact that it was revealed at all, much less addressed with such fervor by HBS’ male Dean Nitin Nohria. Appointed by President Faust, Dean Nohria pledged to “remake gender relations.”

A few weeks before the divestment rejection, I had received another email from Harvard, the transcript of a speech by President Faust announcing a $6.5 billion capital campaign. Even more damning than Harvard’s failure to signal its support for an end to fossil fuels was its omission of climate change in its plans for the future.

Faust spoke eloquently answering the question, “What institutional commitments will we make to define who we are and who we will be decades and centuries from now?” She names Harvard’s priorities as genomics, imaging, nanotechnology, big data, computation and “forging of new connections and crossing traditional boundaries” required by digital privacy, bioengineering and understanding and alleviating ethnic and sectarian conflict.

How could there be absolutely no mention of climate change? Surely this issue is more critical to life as we know it than nanotechnology or digital privacy.

Then I remembered a phrase in the Fossil Fuel Divestment email: “funds in the endowment have been given by generous benefactors.” Here was the most likely reason for Harvard to reject pleas from 72% of its student body and millions of climate change advocates:

The fossil fuel industry and its owners give big, and their influence is pervasive.

Just one example: David Koch, the climate change denier/coal and oil baron, a graduate of MIT, has given $185 million to his alma mater.

Harvard’s campaign was kicked off with Bill Gates, suggesting that the computer industry might be its primary target. But Harvard’s campaign is too big to risk alienating its largest donors from any sector.

It seems Harvard’s anti-divestment decision might be simply put, a practical fund-raising strategy.

But the school is missing an even bigger opportunity. To quote the Harvard Political Review, “Divestment…would signal that America’s universities take the climate-energy challenge seriously.” And what better institution to lead America's universities than Harvard?

Another missed opportunity: Harvard could be raising capital to address the most intransigent, complex and compelling challenge of all, climate change. Bill Gates is more excited about it these days than computing. His big bet, TerraPower, is a nuclear energy innovator.

Imagine if Harvard put all of its might behind “forging of new connections and crossing traditional boundaries” to solve the climate crisis. It might be the best fund-raising strategy of all. Michael Bloomberg has given his alma mater John’s Hopkins a total of $1.1 billion for cross-disciplinary work, part of that specifically on sustainability. Surely there are other environmental advocates out there among the 52 billionaires who are Harvard graduates.

Maybe it’s time for Harvard to rethink its strategy.


Carol Pierson HoldingCarol Pierson Holding writes on environmental issues and social responsibility for policy and news publications, including the Carnegie Council's Policy Innovations, Harvard Business Review, San Francisco Chronicle, India Time, The Huffington Post and many other web sites. Her articles on corporate social responsibility can be found on CSRHub.com, a website that provides sustainability ratings data on 8,400+ companies worldwide. Carol holds degrees from Smith College and Harvard University.

CSRHub provides access to corporate social responsibility and sustainability ratings and information on 8,400+ companies from 135 industries in 104 countries. By aggregating and normalizing the information from 270+ data sources, CSRHub has created a broad, consistent rating system and a searchable database that links millions of rating elements back to their source. Managers, researchers and activists use CSRHub to benchmark company performance, learn how stakeholders evaluate company CSR practices and seek ways to change the world.

 

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[fa icon="comment"] 0 Comments posted in apartheid, climate change, Fossil Fuel Divestment, fossil fuels, Harvard, Harvard Business School, Uncategorized, Michael Bloomberg, Paul Epstein, Robert Stavins, sexual harassment, Terrapower, $6.5 billion capital campaign, Bill Gates, Carol Pierson Holding, David Koch, Drew Faust, Impax Investment Management

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