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On Wednesday, May 27 in Dallas, Treasurer Beth Pearce spoke in support of a shareholder proposal at ExxonMobil’s annual shareholder meeting that called for the fossil fuel giant to limit its greenhouse gas emissions. During the meeting, ExxonMobil’s CEO Rex Tillerman mocked renewable energy and minimized the effects that climate change is already having on millions of people worldwide.

 

In April, under pressure from the divestment movement, the Treasurer’s Office released a report outlining its coalition work with other institutional investors working to combat climate change. Much of this work is impressive, and importantly, most of it can continue full steam ahead even when the state divests.

 

While the Treasurer’s objectives in Dallas are laudable, asking the third largest company in the world to go out of business is a distraction from the real work that needs to be done. Until they change course and support state divestment out of fossil fuels, VPIC and the Treasurer are pursuing a policy that will ultimately saddle pension beneficiaries with greater risk and less return.

 

Existing ExxonMobil gasfield in Papua New Guinea

Existing ExxonMobil gasfield in Papua New Guinea

The meeting began with a summary of the company’s accomplishments and ambitions. They included a photo of a fracking site in the mountains of Papua New Guinea. They showed all of the recent land acquisitions globally for new fossil fuel extractions. They boasted of being able to extract oil from “extremely challenging environments,” like the Artic and tar sands. It was a sad day for the planet, for women, and for workers. You can listen to the meeting here.

At the meeting, several shareholder resolutions were presented, including one on climate change, equal pay & benefits for women, and transparency in lobbying.

 

Sister Pat Daly introduced the resolution on capping greenhouse gas emissions, and she has been engaging at shareholder meetings since 1997. She spoke on behalf of 45 institutional investors, including the Vermont Pension Investment Committee (VPIC). She insisted that many shareholders are requesting transparency with Exxon’s climate change policies and asking the company to become an integrated and low carbon company.

 

Beth Pearce provided the only comment on the GHG resolution. She indicated that public pension fund investors, like VPIC, are more and more concerned with climate change. She said that she wanted to see ExxonMobil excel in a carbon-constrained economy. She mentioned the climate change impacts that Vermont is feeling – impacts to maple syrup, skiing industry, and our rivers. “Climate change poses real financial risks…and requires a strategic shift,” Pearce said, because the current strategy is “wholly inadequate” to address climate change.

 

Sadly, though unsurprisingly, the resolution failed miserably. Only 9.6% of shareholders voted for the resolution. Last year, a similar proposal brought in over 20%.

 

With the climate clock ticking ever more quickly, many climate advocates are urging a better alternative: divestment from fossil fuel stocks. To avoid the most catastrophic effects of climate change, most reserves of coal, oil, and gas must stay underground. Divestment poses a direct threat to the companies, like ExxonMobil, fueling climate change. Fortunately, due to rising social and regulatory pressure, fossil fuel companies may soon be forced to keep reserves underground. When that happens, stockholders will be left with stranded assets – trillions of dollars in overvalued reserves of coal, oil, and gas that will be rendered valueless when the carbon bubble bursts.

 

In response to these risks, there have been several large divestments over recent months. Last September, the Rockefeller Brothers Fund announced their divestment from fossil fuel companies. In February, Norway’s Government Pension Fund Global, the world’s largest sovereign wealth fund worth $850 billion, removed 114 fossil fuel companies from its holdings. On May 1, the Church of England announced that it had divested from coal and tar sands. Last week, the huge insurance company Axa said that it was removing $386m of coal investments from its portfolio. The “carbon bubble” is deflating, so the time to get out of fossil fuel investments is now.

Due to 350 Vermont’s urging at the May meeting, VPIC has begun looking into the financial effects coal divestment will (or won’t) have on the pension funds. VPIC member Karen Paul asked the Northeast Pension Consultants (NEPC) to compile a report on Vermont pension divestment from coal for the July meeting. 

Divesting from the largest fossil fuel companies is a win-win scenario for Vermonters. Pension-holders’ retirement funds would be more prudently managed, and the state would no longer undermine its own efforts to reduce dangerous carbon emissions by financing the fossil fuel companies.

350VT Coordinator Maeve McBride “really didn’t think she could stomach [ExxonMobil’s] meeting” – it was that bad. 350 Vermont and our allies are leading a campaign to urge VPIC and the Treasurer to divest our pension funds, rather than wasting time on futile shareholder engagement. But to change everything, we need everyone. If you would like to be involved, please email jillian@350vt.org or maeve@350vt.org.

 

Onward!

  Jillian MayerIMG_1125

  Divestment Organizer for 350VT