San Francisco Pension Votes to Engage With Fossil Fuel Companies Over Climate Change; Next Step Could Be Divestment

Golden Gate Bridge

The Board of the San Francisco Employees’ Retirement System (SFERS) voted Wednesday to begin engaging with the fossil fuel companies in which it invests.

The vote opens the door for an eventual vote on divesting from fossil-fuel companies altogether – an idea that is sure to receive mixed reviews from board members and city officials.

The pension fund currently holds about $540 million in fossil fuel companies, which accounts for less tan 4 percent of the fund’s entire portfolio, according to SF Gate.

More details from SF Gate:

The board voted Wednesday to go to “level-two engagement,” meaning it will actively attempt to influence the policies of the companies in which it invests. The next step would be to move forward with divesting from the companies.

“If you want to divest, you have to start somewhere,” commission President Victor Makras said. “Our mere size and name brings something to the engagement process.”


“There is some urgency,” Supervisor John Avalos, who has led the charge, told the board. “We have to take into consideration the real (climate) changes that are happening overnight.”

The counterargument is that stocks of fossil fuel companies are a component of most major index funds, and divesting from them could limit pension-fund revenues that pay for the retirement benefits of thousands of city workers.

“I don’t think I’m in a position to do that,” said Commissioner Brian Stansbury, the only one of seven board members to vote against moving to level two. Stansbury, a San Francisco police officer, expressed concern that moving the money out of fossil fuel assets would be “financially risky.”

The San Francisco Employees Retirement System manages $20 billion in assets.


Photo by ilirjan rrumbullaku via Flickr CC License

CalPERS, CalSTRS Responds To Push For Coal Divestment


California Senate President Kevin de León said on Monday he would introduce a bill in 2015 that would require CalPERS and CalSTRS to divest from coal-related investments.

CalPERS was the first of the funds to publicly respond to the bill. Summarized by Chief Investment Officer magazine:

CalPERS responded strongly to the proposal, stating that “we firmly believe engagement is the first call of action, and results show that it is the most effective form of communicating concerns with the companies we own”.

The statement also detailed CalPERS’ “proven track record” of engaging and dealing with climate change risks within its portfolio. This included CalPERS’ work as a founder member of the Investor Network on Climate Change, and its efforts to persuade governments and policy makers to support a low-carbon future.

“We are also working aggressively with a coalition of 75 international investors worth over $3 trillion in assets to engage with the 45 largest fossil fuel companies to ensure they are taking appropriate action to manage the physical and capital risks associated with climate change,” CalPERS said.

CalSTRS released its own response as well, according to

CalSTRS highlighted its review of “sustainable investing and risk management” as well as its plan to triple the value of its investments in clean energy and technology in the next five years. CIO Chris Ailman said at the time the pension could raise its allocation as high as $9.5 billion—5% of the current value of its portfolio.

CalSTRS said climate change was “a material risk assessed across the entire portfolio that could impact current and future investment value”.

“CalSTRS believes our investment decisions must carefully weigh our duty to perform profitably with consideration of environmental, social and governance impact of those investments,” it added. “CalSTRS is a patient, long-term investor, and the ultimate impact of our investment in coal is something that we will be assessing in the coming year.”

CalPERS’ full statement, released on Facebook, can be seen here.


Photo by  Paul Falardeau via Flickr CC License

Britain Secretary of Energy: Investing in Fossil Fuels Big Risk for Pension Funds

fossil fuels burning

Last week the advisory board of one of the largest asset owners in the world, the $857.1 billion Norway Pension Fund Global, concluded that divesting from fossil fuels would be an unwise financial decision that would reduce returns.

But Edward Davey, Britain’s Secretary of State for Energy and Climate Change, said Monday he thinks fossil fuel companies could become the sub-prime assets of the future.

He called on Britain’s pension funds to examine the risk associated with oil, gas and coal investments.

From the Telegraph:

Investing in fossil fuels is becoming increasingly risky because global action to tackle climate change will curb demand, forcing companies to leave unprofitable reserves in the ground, Ed Davey, the energy secretary, has warned.

Financial authorities must examine the risks posed by coal, oil and gas companies to prevent pension funds investing in what could become “the sub-prime assets of the future”, Mr Davey said.

The comments are Mr Davey’s first intervention into the debate over the “carbon bubble”, the theory that the world’s existing fossil fuel reserves are overvalued because the majority must be left unburned in the ground if extremes of global warming are to be avoided.

Mr Davey told the Telegraph: “One has got to worry about the investments for pensioners.

“If pension funds are investing in companies or banks that have on their balance sheets huge amounts of assets in fossil fuels, and those assets don’t give the return that people expect – because of changes in technology where low-carbon becomes cheaper or because of the world having to take action against carbon emissions – one has got to protect those pensioners and those investments.”

More from Mr. Davey:

Mr Davey singled out coal – the dirtiest of the fossil fuels – as “the short-term biggest worry by a long way” as countries including China commit to cap their coal use. “Investing in new coal mines is going to get very risky,” he said.

He acknowledged that oil and gas would still be needed for some time in the absence of green alternatives, and defended the UK’s investment in the North Sea and shale. But he said oil and gas investments too would become a worry “over the next decades”. He suggested fossil fuel use could be “almost non-existent” within three or four decades and described BP and Shell as strong assets only “over the medium term”.


“I don’t want our financial system to end up underperforming for pensioners. I don’t want them to have to invest in stranded assets. I don’t want to get to a point where in 10 to 20 years’ time these assets turn out to be the new sub-prime assets of the future.”

To read more coverage of the debate over fossil fuel divestment, click here.


Photo by  Paul Falardeau via Flickr CC License

Washington Pension Board Declines to Divest From Fossil Fuels

Washington Seal

The Washington State Investment Board (WSIB), the entity that handles investments for the state’s pension systems, at its latest board meeting weighed whether to divest from fossil fuel-based companies.

The Board ultimately decided against divestment. But the members said they would continue to evaluate whether climate change posed any risk to pension investment returns, and would use their power as major shareholders to push companies for transparency about financial risks posed by climate change.

The WSIB has major stakes in oil and coal investments.

Further details on the board’s decision, from the Olympian:

When evaluating a future investment, the SIB said it will consider whether climate change poses any financial risk to its expected returns.

It should not stop investing in lucrative but controversial energy projects. That would expose the board to potential legal action over its failure to produce as much value as possible.

Outgoing SIB Chair Jim McIntire, who is also the state Treasurer, proposed a more responsible strategy for showing sensitivity to environmental issues. He said the SIB should press companies for greater transparency about the risk from climate change, and how they are mitigating that risk.

A large institutional investor such as the state of Washington can use its leverage to change company policies. McIntire said that’s the SIB’s preferred approach.


The SIB’s legal mandate is to make money for the pension funds it manages. Its fiduciary duty is simply to get the best return possible for the individuals who will someday depend on those pensions.

But setting investment policy is more complex than that. The SIB members are responsible for examining the short- and long-term risks of its investments. And that requires assessing both internal and external factors that might influence an investment’s return.

The WSIB presents an argument many pension funds have made over the past few months: divestment isn’t as effective as lobbying for change as a major shareholder.

No public pension funds in the U.S. have yet divested from fossil fuel companies on the grounds of climate change.

Vermont Fund May Become First To Hit Gas On Fossil Fuel Divestment

smoking smokestack

Vermont Gov. Peter Shumlin had previously been against the state’s pension fund divesting from fossil fuel companies.

Shumlin talked to the Associated Press about divestment last November:

“I believe that by keeping a seat at the table and by encouraging smart investments, we can make progress towards a cleaner, greener economy while still meeting our obligations to pay for the retirement of [state and municipal employees] in the most responsible way for taxpayers,” Shumlin told the Associated Press…

In other words: they can do more to effect change as a shareholder of fossil fuel companies. His argument against divestment echoes what we’ve heard from other pension funds around the country.

But Vermont’s view might be changing. Last week, Shumlin went so far as to call divestment from fossil fuels a “good idea”. Reported by Seven Days:

“I actually think it’s an intriguing idea,” Shumlin said. “And, you know, I think that, over time, we’ll find ways that we can be more active in that effort. I would like us to be. As you probably know, we have a fiduciary responsibility to the taxpayers to ensure that, you know, we’re getting a good return on our investments. So it’s going to take some time to make the transformation, but I think it’s a good idea.”


“I think it’s great,” [environmentalist and scholar Bill] McKibben told Seven Days by email, referring to Shumlin’s shift. “He’s been talking about climate change in powerful ways since [Tropical Storm] Irene, and this (assuming he actually follows through, and soon) is an obvious and easy move (Vt. led the way in divestment from apartheid, after all).”

“And it’s hardly revolutionary,” McKibben added, noting that the Rockefeller Brothers Fund, whose $860 million comes from Standard Oil money, committed to divestment on Sunday. “If the heirs to the world’s greatest oil fortune think it’s unwise and immoral to invest in fossil fuel, what the hell excuse do any of the rest of us have?”

More and more, pension funds are thinking about this issue. CalSTRS and other major institutional investors announced last week they are helping to fund a study on the effect climate change would have on markets.


Photo: Paul Falardeau via Flickr CC License