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Movement targets oil, coal stocks

Churches, others join fossil fuel divestment campaign


by: COURTESY OF RORY FINNEY - Protesters at the Oregon Climate Action Now event at the state Capitol use a giant salmon as a prop. The movement is now expanding into divestment, trying to press organizations to sell oil, coal and gas stocks. When climate-change activist and 350.org founder Bill McKibben spoke in Portland last November, he called on Oregonians to stop investing in fossil fuel companies — and he definitely struck a chord. Within months, a new local 350.org chapter had been founded, and divestment movements were under way at several local colleges and churches. Even a foundation run by the Jubitz family, known for their namesake truck stops, sold off its holdings in oil and gas companies. By early June, Portland Mayor Charlie Hales was calling for the entire state of Oregon to divest.

Divestment is a powerful word — one that immediately evokes the campus protests against South African apartheid in the 1980s. And it’s a concrete way for members of a group to ask for action within their own sphere, whether that’s a college, a church or a local government.

But the devil is in the details, even for institutions that are committed to reducing the impacts of greenhouse gas emissions. 

“Climate change is a huge, huge challenge,” says Adam Brunelle, who helped organize 350 PDX, the Portland chapter of 350.org. “Divestment is a way for people to say, ‘it’s wrong to wreck the planet. It’s wrong to profit from that wreckage.’ ”

The ultimate goal of 350.org is to prevent the planet from reaching a tipping point where global warning is no longer reversible. The organization’s name refers to 350 parts per million of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere, an amount that, if maintained, could avert climate crisis. In May, carbon dioxide in the atmosphere hit 400 parts per million for the first time, based on long-term monitoring at Hawaii’s Mauna Loa observatory.

The reasoning behind 350.org’s call for divestment is that if all the gas, oil and coal currently held in the reserves of the biggest energy companies is burned, there will be no going back.

As Brunelle acknowledges, a major energy company isn’t going to be hurt by a few of its stocks being sold.

“A lot of people say, this isn’t really going to dent the fossil fuel companies’ profit,” he says. “Getting an educational institution or a government institution to divest isn’t really going to affect their profits that much.”

The real goal, he says, is to take away their moral credibility, and to build the wider movement.

“Continued use of fossil fuels is not just a scientific question; it’s a moral question, too,” he says. “We need to grow this movement because the clock is ticking.”

He adds: “A lot of times in the past the environmental movement has been based on single-issue campaigning, and there’s a movement nowadays towards trying to address the systemic problems in a way that’s concrete ... I think that divestment starts to get at that.”

Students tend to respond well to the idea of divestment, Brunelle says. There are about 300 campuses nationally with some type of active divestment movement, as well as a lot of interest from faith-based organizations, and traction in an estimated 100 civic entities — cities, states, and counties — including the city of Portland.

If the response of Portland’s mayor shows the momentum the divestment idea can generate, the response of Oregon’s state treasurer shows some of the roadblocks.

The state has an array of commitments to promote alternative energy and to reduce greenhouse gases, as State Treasurer Ted Wheeler emphasizes in a June 11 letter to Hales.

The state also has an $80 billion portfolio of global investments overseen by the Oregon Investment Council, a five-member body that includes Wheeler. The portfolio includes index funds and private equity, and both may have fossil fuel company holdings.

“Most of these investments are illiquid and cannot be immediately sold...” Wheeler writes, “or they are a small portion of much-larger passive index funds that include a whole host of other industry sectors (including renewable energy).”

In other words, it’s not a simple matter of selling one stock and replacing it with another. Investments are bundled, dispersed and obligated in such a way that even determining where fossil fuel companies fit in would require a significant amount of time and money.

Not only that, but unlike some churches or colleges, the state doesn’t have a social responsibility directive written into its investment strategy. On the contrary, says James Sinks, spokesman for the treasurer’s office. “The investment council is held to a fiduciary standard that says you can’t invest for social causes or anything else other than seeking returns,” Sinks says.

Avoiding any type of high-yielding investment could expose the state to lawsuits.

Besides the material difficulties, the state treasury, like many large institutions, sees the advantage of maintaining clout as a shareholder. “As shareholders of energy companies,” Wheeler writes, “we have the opportunity to exercise our proxy powers to make practical change from within.”

Eventually, he adds, as fossil fuels become obsolete, they will naturally drop out of the portfolio; 350.org would like to nudge that market shift along.

Either way, the debate highlights the fact that fossil fuel profits are as deeply entrenched in our finances as fossil fuel usage is in the rest of our lives.