Vermonters care where their dollars go, and they don’t care to see them go to fossil fuels…
At 350VT we’re working to make sure our Vermont dollars don’t support investments in companies that are wrecking the planet. 350Vermont activists have engaged with legislators, the State Treasurer, the Vermont Pension Investment Committee (VPIC), and everyday Vermonters in our efforts to see Vermont dollars work towards building a low-carbon future.
About the State Pension Fund Campaign
Vermont’s pension fund is the state’s largest publicly managed fund, with a total value of nearly $3.8 billion. We’ve called on our legislators, the State Treasurer, and the Vermont Pension Investment Committee (VPIC) to put the Vermont’s pension funds on a path towards a low-carbon future, as fossil fuel investments morally corrupt, they are also financially irresponsible!
Most of the oil, gas, and coal that companies have is still in the ground, known as “carbon reserves.” If all of the carbon reserves are extracted, sold, and burned, that would be 6x more CO2 emissions than it would take to warm the Earth past 2°C temperature rise. To prevent catastrophic climate change these companies must keep the majority of their carbon reserves in the ground; if their reserves aren’t commercialized, then the company’s stock value will plummet.
About Vermont’s Defund DAPL Campaign
As the Standing Rock Sioux bravely stood their ground in opposition to the Dakota Access Pipeline (DAPL) they also researched who was funding the project and called for actions of solidarity against those funders. One of those investors has a large presence here in Vermont, TD Bank, which entered into a loan agreement with Energy Transfer Partners to support the project. As winter approached Vermonters mobilized to stand in solidarity with the Water Protectors encamped in North Dakota and coordinated many non-violent direct actions at TD Bank locations. Vermonters have also begun to focus on TD Bank’s contract with the State of Vermont which involves almost 200 million in taxpayer dollars!
Do you personally have dollars in TD Bank? Learn more about how you can be an activist with your funds here.
- Let us know you want to help out by giving us a call at (802) 444-0350 or shooting an email to firstname.lastname@example.org!
- Tell Treasurer Pearce that you support a low-carbon future for Vermont
- Write a letter to the editor of your local paper in support of divestment!
- Send VPIC a public comment!
- Ask your town’s Select Board to support divestment!
- Volunteer with 350VT at local events!
- Watch the Carbon Risk Forum here.
- Interested in personal divestment? Read more about how to Defund DAPL here
- Watch the Personal Divestment Seminar here.
Great Press on State Pension Fund Campaign
Conservative Group Targets McKibben, Shumlin In Records Requests | Vermont Public Radio
Opinion: Divestment makes economic sense | Jon D Erickson | Burlington Free Press
Dartmouth Students Rally To Divest Endowment From Fossil Fuels | Vermont Public Radio
Frequently Asked Questions about the State Pension Fund Campaign
1. What is the Vermont State Pension Fund?
The pension fund is an approximately $4.1 billion pool of money comprised of 1) The Vermont Municipal Employees’ Retirement System, 2) The The Vermont State Retirement System, and 3) The Vermont State Teachers’ Retirement System. These are the public pension plans provided by the State of Vermont for participating members of those groups.
2. Why make these cahnges to the Pension Fund? Putting Vermont’s pensions on a path to a low-carbon future and away from fossil fuels both insulates us from financial losses and sends a strong message that we reject the business model that fuels climate change. Stockholders in fossil fuel companies will soon be left with stranded assets – underground reserves of coal, oil, and gas that are already on the balance sheets but aren’t yet extracted – and diminishing returns on their investments. The carbon bubble is the projected sum of the losses that our financial sector will face when an estimated $6-28 Billion in reserves are left in the ground. For fossil fuel companies, stranded assets are just money left underground. For the rest of the world, stranded assets mean we have a chance to keep warming below 2°C.
3. Is divesting from fossil fuel companies a breach of fiduciary duty? No, divesting from fossil fuel companies in order to reduce the portfolio’s risk is well within the responsibility of fiduciaries. Failing to consider any risks, such as the risk of stranded assets, is actually a breach of fiduciary responsibility. According to the Pension and Welfare Benefits Administration’s Office of Regulations and Interpretations, fiduciaries must “consider the role of the particular investment or investment course of action in the plan’s investment portfolio, taking into account such factors as diversification, liquidity, and risk/return characteristics.” If these requirements are met, “the selection of a ‘socially-responsible’ mutual fund… would not, in itself, be inconsistent with the fiduciary standards set for in sections 403(c) and 404(a)(1) of ERISA.”
Pension Fund Campaign Year in Review
Great Legislative Testimony
Our divestment campaign pulled a lot of people out to get involved in the legislative process. Below are the names of some of those who testified before the state legislature on the subject of divestiture;
- Bill McKibben – Scholar, author, and activist- Middlebury College
- Eric Becker – Clean Yield Asset Management
- Beth Pearce – State Treasurer – Office of the State Treasurer
- Selene Colburn – Burlington City Council
- Matt Patsky – Trillium Investments
- Hank Kim – Executive Director – National Conference on Public Employee Retirement Systems
- Toby Heaps – CEO & Co-Founder – Corporate Knights
- Chris D’Elia – President – Vermont Bankers’ Association
- Joe Choquette – Downs Rachlin Martin (API Lobbyist)
- Al Boright – Retired Senior Vermont Legislative Counsel
- Keith Brainard – Research Director – National Association of State Retirement Administrators
- Maura Carroll – Executive Director – Vermont League of Cities and Towns
- Mike O’Neil – President – VT Troopers Association
- Matt Considine – Director of Investment – Office of the State Treasurer
- Austin Davis – Policy & Communications Coordinator – 350Vt
- Michael Dworkin – Director of the Institute for Energy and the Environment – Vermont Law School
- Nate Hausman – VT Chapter of the Sierra Club
- Don Hooper – National Wildlife Federation
- Bob Kenny – Goddard College President
- Robb Kidd – Program Manager – VT Sierra Club Conservation Program
- Nancy Lynch – Directive of Legislative Affairs – VSEA
- Deborah Markowitz – Secretary – Agency of Natural Resources
- Luke Martland – Director and Chief Counsel – Office of Legislative Council
- Jack Robinson – Trillium Assets
- Ed Stanak – President – District Environmental Commission
- Ben Walsh – Climate & Energy Program Director – Vermont Public Interest Research Group
Proxy Match Between Big Oil and Vermonters
All of this activity has brought Big Fossil Fuels involvement to Vermont politics, as Vermont has begun to serve as a proxy match. Between ExxonMobil and the API, 11 lobbyists have been hired in Vermont during this legislative biennium amounting to over $52,000 spent by the companies in the last year, according to lobbying disclosures. At least one of these lobbyists has been in the room for fossil-fuel divestment hearings of the Vermont Pension Investment Committee meetings so far, and will probably continue to be at every one in the near future. A lobbyist from the American Petroleum Institute has even gone so far as to testify multiple times before the Senate Committee on Government Operations in opposition to divestment.
Another lobbyist, who appears frequently on the heavily trafficked #vtpoli hashtag that many Vermonters use to follow their government on Twitter, has the handle “Divestment Facts.” The website that accompanying to that website also entitled “Divestment Facts” is sponsored by the Independent Petroleum Association of America (IPAA). This lobbyist also appears with equal frequency and enthusiasm in the Montpelier State House and the Vermont Pension Investment Committee meetings.
The Energy and Environment Legal Institute and Free Market Environmental Law Clinic, have filed lawsuits against Attorney General Bill Sorrell when he refused to produce correspondence pertaining to his work with other Attorneys General and climate activists surrounding a pending investigation of ExxonMobil. Sorrell’s isn’t the only one in Vermont who is coming under fire, and who’s correspondence is being requested lately. A conservative group out of Arlington, Virginia that goes by the name America Rising Squared (AR2) has requested numerous times via the Freedom of Information Act all correspondence between Vermont activists and the office of the Governor and Treasurer.
H.R.13 – House resolution urging that the State of Vermont remove the stocks of companies with coal holdings and the stock of the Exxon Mobil Corporation from its pension investment portfolios.
This resolution was a major accomplishment as Vermont is the first, and only, state in the nation to have its legislative body single out ExxonMobil as a bad actor, and urge its divestment. Additionally, Vermont is now the second state in the nation to call for divestiture from coal assets.
Senator Anthony Pollina (P) proposed a letter from the Senate Committee on Government Operations that concurred with the statements of the House Resolution, but also added what the committee would hope to see from the newly established VPIC subcommittee tasked with fully vetting divestment. The letter went through numerous iterations over the coming week, but finally resulted in a finished copy that was signed by a majority of the committee on Wednesday the 16th and can be found here. The next day, Divest VT Coalition members gained 12 additional signatures for the letter, and one more a week later.
The most substantial requests of the letter included,
- Divesting from coal and ExxonMobil
- Divesting from the Fossil Fuel 200 Underground in 5 years’ time
- Reporting to the Senate Committee on Government Operations by May 3rd
While this is not legislation, this is a win for the divestment. We’ve heard the Treasurer’s office and VPIC say numerous times over the past months that, “legislating investments is bad practice” so here’s their chance to find the right direction on their own, while working with stakeholders. With all the guidance and pushing from the legislature, it is clear that if this subcommittee of VPIC does not make a good faith effort and find its way to divestment, legislation will easily move at the start of the next legislative session.
Preliminary VPIC Subcommittee on Divestment Meeting
On April 18th a preliminary meeting was held in the Treasurer’s office to discuss the direction and scope of the subcommittee process. Members of the Divest VT Coalition, as well as union leadership and representatives of the fossil fuel industry discussed next steps and topics to include. Going forward, the VPIC subcommittee will consist of 6 members, 3 from VPIC, and 1 member from each of the teachers, state employees, and municipal employees’ retirement boards.
Outside stakeholders do not have a voting role in the subcommittee, but will be heavily involved in the discussion as well as the procurement of information and experts that will guide the meetings. Eventually the findings of the subcommittee will be reported back to the VPIC board, and the board will take action based on those findings.
The first Vermont Pension Investment Committee (VPIC) divestment subcommittee
Convened with some important breakthroughs;
First, we’ve started to move past the flawed divestment studies undertaken by the VPIC’s consultant New England Pension Consultants (NEPC). The plan now is to facilitate a consensus study that follows the same model used to agree upon projected state revenues. In the case of state revenues, the legislature and the administration both select an economist and these economists are tasked with working together to develop a report that works through different perspectives of both parties. In this case, VPIC would continue to use NEPC and we have created a short list of investment managers to represent us with the appropriate acumen to achieve optimal results. There are still issues associated with this; primarily around the potential cost of a study.
Second, the agenda for the meeting included an overview of the Environmental and Social Governance (ESG) policy which is supposed to apply ethical standards to the pension investments. This was taken as an opportunity to call into question the efficacy of the policy. Policy & Communications Coordinator – Austin Davis – asked members of the committee how if they could not see into comingled funds, as they reported to the legislature repeatedly during testimony on divestment, that they could be sure that their ESG policy is applied properly. They couldn’t speak to this, and when pushed as to how they have managed to divest from tobacco, it came out that we are not divested from tobacco in comingled funds.
This is significant, because the requests to divest to date have involved the pension fund divesting from fossil fuels by same means and methodology used on previous divestments, including tobacco. We’ve heard countless times in testimony and media sound bites that comingled funds make divestment very difficult, but comingled funds have never been part of a previous Vermont divestment processes. It looks like now it will be easier to push a divestment of funds other than the pesky comingled funds in the short term, and work on a long term approach to divesting entirely.
The Second VPIC Subcommittee on Divestment Meeting
This past week marked the second meeting of the Vermont Pension Investment Committee (VPIC) subcommittee on divestment. For this meeting, we took on the topic of fiduciary responsibility. Four experts were invited to attend and discuss their perspectives on fiduciary responsibility and how it pertains to divestment.
Keith Johnson, head of Reinhart Institutional Investors Legal Services team came all the way from Wisconsin for the discussion. As a leader on the topic of fiduciary responsibility, Keith brought an interesting perspective regarding how fiduciary duty evolves over time, and how they will possibly evolve to include practices of divesting from fossil fuels on a risk exposure rationale. Another expert panelist who brought a unique perspective to the panel was Adam M. Kasner of Domini Social Investments. Adam pointed out to the committee that fiduciaries are uniquely inclined to address climate risk, due to the long term approach required in a pension fund. Additional panelist, Robert Klasner of Kaufman, Jensen & Levinson and Lindsay Jackson of Morgan Lewis while not openly embracing divestment from fossil fuels, wouldn’t rule it against the fund’s fiduciary responsibility.
At the end of this process, Austin Davis put to the panel this question:
“It seems prudent and within the fiduciary responsibility to deliberately shed fossil fuel assets over an extended period of time by taking into consideration collateral benefits of investments with comparable risk and return, as outlined by ERISA (Employee Retirement Income Security Act).”
No one at the table could necessarily disagree with such a statement; however the treasurer and others noted that a component necessary to ensure any such action would be consistent with the VPIC’s fiduciary duties would be a study such as the consensus study already in the making.
To follow that question, Policy & Communications Coordinator queried;
“This method of deliberate shedding would minimize transaction cost”
Meaning that by developing new criteria, and incorporating during the normal buying and selling of assets, or normal hiring and firing of managers, the cost of a transition to a low carbon portfolio could be minimal. Again, no one opposed such an idea.
This marks a significant shift in the paradigm of this governing body.
The underlying motif from all four panelists was that process matters, and the great news is, we’ve already been building a robust process. As I outlined in previously DivestVT we already have a process in the works involving a consensus study similar to those done by the legislature and the administration to come to come to an agreement on projected fiscal year revenues.
The Treasurer identified that she has found available funds in her office’s budget (about $40,000, important to note this is not from the pension fund or it’s beneficiaries) to conduct the study. Additionally, long time divestment proponent Eric Becker of Clean Yield Asset Management has identified 4 consultants who can perform the study on behalf of divestment supporters, in collaboration with VPIC’s consultant New England Pension Consultants (NEPC).
Youth Lobby Day
May 28th: college and high school students from all across Vermont came to the State House for the first ever Vermont Youth Lobby Day, dubbed “Rally for the Planet.” These young Vermonters took over the State House lawn and made their presence known with signs and props, a rock band, and loud chants.
They were able to meet with legislators and vocalize their platform which they had worked to craft in the weeks leading up to the event. They hope to draw attention to the dangers of climate change, and want to shape the environmental future in a positive way in our state and in our world. Among their list of demands were calls for pricing carbon pollution, proliferation of clean, renewable energy, and divestment of our states assets from fossil fuels! See pictures from Rally for the Planet on our Facebook!
Treasurer’s Report Back to Legislature
May 3rd: The State Treasurer went before Senate Committee on Government Operations to report on the divestment process progress, as was requested in the letter 17 senators sent in July. The Treasurer had some important news to present to the committee, Vermont is out of Coal! Of course, this wasn’t part of an intentional divestment; rather the market squeezed the VPIC coal holdings out on Monday morning.
While Vermont now doesn’t own coal in its separately managed accounts, it may still be in commingled funds, and could still find its way back into the portfolio in coming weeks without the appropriate measures taken. While this isn’t a clear win, we’ll take it, and we can rest easy that Vermont isn’t currently holding coal as we anticipate our consensus study to come back.
We Rallied Behind AGs Taking Bold Climate Action
The National Association of Attorneys General was in Burlington, Vermont on June 22nd 2016. Among the AGs from around the country who came to Burlington was a subset of folks who have banned together to back the Clean Power Plan, and investigate climate fraud such as that carried out by ExxonMobil. To show our support, 350VT coordinated with 350.org to host a rally just down the street from where they met. We were elated to be joined Ben & Jerry’s, which provided free ice cream from their climate themed Tesla and by some high profiles folks such as Bill McKibben, and Gubernatorial candidates Sue Minter and Matt Dunne who all spoke strongly about the need to forward strong climate action such as that being done by the AGs. Matt Dunne took things one step further, saying that if governor, he would have the state boycott Exxon in all wholesale fuel purchases. Senator Bernie Sanders and Congressman Peter Welch could not be with us, due to the gun debate in DC, however they sent correspondence and staff to ensure they were with us in spirit, and express support!
Be sure to check out our calendar for upcoming events, actions, and opportunities to make positive change in Vermont!
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