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Fossil Fuel Divestiture Campaign Focuses on Big Pensions

[fa icon="calendar'] Jul 13, 2016 10:19:45 AM / by Carol Pierson Holding

By Carol Pierson Holding

The fossil fuel divestiture campaign GoFossilFree equates the end of oil, gas and coal toDivest Scottish Parliament the great moral crusades of our time — Apartheid and tobacco — while hoping to reduce demand for fossil fuel stocks and thereby threaten their stock prices.

It’s a tall order. As long as GoFossilFree was focused on divesting university endowments, the campaign was a gnat on the haunch of the elephant. After all, why should an industry worth $5 trillion be afraid of endowments worth $467 billion, whose investments in oil and gas are probably 10%, or $50 billion, at best? Chump change to this industry’s behemoths.

But more recently, the FossilFree campaign began targeting pensions as well, and that’s a problem. Consider the numbers: as of 2013, US pension assets totaled $21 trillion. Using that same 10%, you’re talking $2.1 trillion in fossil fuel stocks. That’s a number big enough to scare even Big Oil.

The first real threat came in 2015 from California’s state pensions. In April of that year, the California legislature voted to divest its coal stocks from the pensions’ $657 billion investment fund. A scary precedent and one that got Big Oil’s attention.

Evidence of Big Oil’s alarm is clear on the anti-divestment site divestmentfacts.com. Funded by the Independent Petroleum Association of America (IPAA), the site used to publish letters from University Presidents justifying their decisions not to divest and a few reports on how much individual college endowments would lose through divestment.

In June, the DivestmentFacts site underwent a radical change. Focused now on pension funds, the site promotes the idea that under divestment, pension funds will lose $7 billion over twenty years. Three studies from three separate universities support the claim.

A closer look at the study authors reveals how much more the IPAA is investing to stop pensions from divesting. The lead study is authored by none other than the notorious economist and lawyer Daniel Fischel, the short-lived dean of Chicago Law School who resigned over a sex scandal and one-time expert witness in criminal trials of Mike Milken and Charles Keating as well as officers of Enron and Philip Morris. Fischel is Chairman and President of Compass Lexecon, one of the largest consultancies that specialize in what Charles Ferguson described in the Huffington Post as “The sale of academic ‘expertise’ for the purpose of influencing government policy, the courts, and public opinion… now a multi-billion dollar business.” The other two studies are by academics who are also Senior Consultants at, yes, Compass Lexecon. That’s some pricey research.

Shortly after releasing the three studies, the IPAA published a survey of pensioners conducted by FTI Consulting, which owns — wait for it — Compass Lexecon. FTI’s report warns, “Even the largest college endowment funds in existence today hold only a fraction of the assets managed by public pension funds,” then goes on to present “statistics” that prove pensioners don’t want divestment. A spokesman from the American Petroleum Institute (API) draws on heart strings when he concludes, "Millions of retirees and pension holders depend on income from oil and natural gas investments to live.”

Both oil lobbying organizations, API and IPAA, are funded mostly by the fossil fuel majors, with the bulk coming from Shell, BP and Chevron, companies that have the most to lose from divestiture. And they’re right to spend whatever they have to, because the truth is, the smart money in pensions should flee oil and gas for economic reasons. Looking ahead, HSBC Global Research found that global carbon regulations could result in fossil fuel companies losing 40-­60% of their value, which will translate into reductions in share price. Similar warnings have come from CitiBank, Standard and Poor’s, and the Bank of England.

Big Oil is right to be afraid. Pension fund divestment has moved to Europe. Just two weeks ago, the EU issued a directive that, on ratification, will require all pensions to “consider climate and risks related to…‘stranded assets,’”, referring to oil and gas reserves that may never be used. EU pensions total £3.2 trillion, $4.4 trillion at today’s depressed exchange rates.

Spending on anti-divestment is just a finger in the dike. Big oil and gas will lose to carbon-free energy. Will they follow buggy-manufacturers who never embraced the automobile and were pushed out of business? Or will they imitate American carmakers that entered the electric car market? Perhaps divestment will exact the same financial pressure on oil and gas that forced dramatic innovation in the American auto industry.

Keep your fingers crossed.

Photo courtesy of Friends of the Earth Scotland via Flickr CC.

Carol2Carol Pierson Holding is President and Founder, Holding Associates. Carol serves as Guest Blogger for CSRHub. Her firm has focused on the intersection of brand and social responsibility, working with Cisco Systems, Wilmington Trust, Bankrate.com, the US EPA, Yale University’s School of Environmental Sciences, and various non-profits. Before founding Holding Associates, Carol worked in executive management positions at Siegel & Gale, McCann Erickson, and Citibank. She is a Board Member of AMREF (African Medical and Research Foundation). Carol received her AB from Smith College and her MBA from Harvard University.

CSRHub provides access to corporate social responsibility and sustainability ratings and rankings information on 16,495+ companies from 135 industries in 133 countries. 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 Big Oil, Compass Lexicon, Daniel Fischer, divestiture, GoFossilFree, university endowments, Uncategorized, AIP, Carol Pierson Holding, IAPP, pensions

Can Climate Change Activists Enlist Mainstream Investors?

[fa icon="calendar'] Nov 19, 2012 2:24:01 PM / by Carol Pierson Holding

By Carol Pierson Holding

On November 7 in Seattle, 350.org launched its “Do the Math” campaign to target college and university investment funds to divest of fossil fuel stocks. While this strategy is bound to raise awareness among college kids, I initially questioned if there was enough money at stake to actually influence behemoths like Exxon.

The audience at the kick-off was not a radical crowd. Like the Keystone Pipeline protests, attendees were about half college students and half veterans of previous divestment efforts. I walked in with two such veterans, now oceanographers in their 60s.

Ticket demand in Seattle was so intense that the event had to be moved to Benaroya Hall, where 2,000 seats sold out within days. Seattle was just the first city in a 21-city tour, all of which have had similar responses. The numbers and passion should be enough to spark college divestiture. But that still begs the question: will divestiture by colleges have any meaningful impact?

College and university endowments are about $400 billion, and given the high returns in fossil fuel, most no doubt hold these stocks.

On the other side of the equation is $27 trillion, or the value of 2,795 gigatons of fossil fuel reserves identified by financial analysts at the The Carbon Tracker Initiative.

In other words, even if all university endowments held only fossil fuel stocks and every stock was divested, it’s still only 1.5% of the value of underground carbon holdings.

So the question is, where else can this movement go?

350.org is using apartheid as its forebear, but in many ways, the comparison is inapt. South African manufactured goods and natural resources, even diamonds, could be sourced from other nations. Unlike the energy industry, substitutes were already available. Even more important, apartheid is a political issue and disruption would be limited to South Africa.

With fossil fuels, life itself would be disrupted. To name just one example: oil is the heart of global transportation systems, driving the auto industry, refineries, retail gas stations, encompassing hundreds of millions of jobs around the world. As the American Petroleum Institute says in its current ads, fossil fuels = jobs, energy, growth and security.

Even these seemingly unassailable arguments have holes. As Naomi Klein said this week to Bill Moyer, right now, fossil fuel companies don’t pay for the real harm in carbon waste. Hurricane Sandy’s direct economic loss is estimated at $50 billion so far. Swiss Re put total losses from Katrina, including loss of productivity, at $250 billion. Both extreme- climate events affected jobs, energy, growth and most certainly security.

What starts with college campuses could well move on to larger sustainable investment pools. Bloomberg News reported last week that—

“Institutional investors are now employing sustainable investing strategies in more than $3.7 trillion of investments -- a 22 percent increase in two years. Hospitals, retirees, pensions, banks and religious institutions used sustainable and responsible investing (SRI) strategies for $1 out of every $9 invested in the U.S. at the end of 2011.”

And the divestiture movement could spread even beyond SRI. Colleges and SRI funds use their shareholder clout to influence the actions of companies. But Lisa Woll, CEO of SIF, the SRI industry association that reported the results, credits another less selfless reason: clients are protecting themselves against risk.

Risk plays a much more important role in today’s post-great recession investment environment. Now, indices like the Dow Jones Sustainability Index are integrated into financial and management performance analysis. Blue-chip financial media from the Financial Times to the Wall Street Journal hold annual SRI conferences. Bloomberg added sustainability metrics to its analysis. Data providers such as CSRHub provide sustainability metrics to corporate supply managers and consumers when they are making purchase decisions.

The risk of what might happen in terms of fossil fuel liability for climate disasters could start to dissuade investors, especially with students and grumpy green grandparents taking to the streets. The SIF report on SRI investments found that climate change is already an issue for 23 percent of institutional asset owners using sustainability criteria. Institutional investor assets guided by environmental concerns increased 43 percent from 2010, to $636 billion.

Still chump change next to $27 trillion in carbon assets, but we’re starting to approach some numbers that could cause hurt. And hurt forces change, not just with carbon producers but with regulators. We used moral condemnation to drive divestment of tobacco companies, even after some funds lost value due to apartheid divestiture, and regulators stepped in where they’d been reluctant in the past. Are fossil fuel companies next?

Photo courtesy of Georgie R via Flickr CC.

Carol 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 6,000 companies worldwide. Carol holds degrees from Smith College and Harvard University.


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[fa icon="comment"] 2 Comments posted in American Petroleum Institute, climate change, divest, Do the Math, fossil fuel, Katrina, university endowments, Uncategorized, 350.org, Carol Pierson Holding, hurricane sandy, SRI, The Carbon Tracker Initiative

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