by Walter Brasch
Long before the price of gas and oil began to plummet, socially conscious churches, universities, non-profit organizations, and local governments began to divest themselves of fossil fuel stock and shock the fossil fuel industry to understand the environmental and public health concerns.
The World Council of Churches, which represents about 590 million Christians in 520,000 congregations, decided in July that to continue to hold fossil fuel stock would compromise its ethics, and recommended that the 349 member denominations consider divesting oil and gas stock.
Six of the eight Anglican dioceses of New Zealand and Polynesia, and four dioceses in Australia divested their portfolios of fossil fuel stock.
In the United States, the United Church of Christ and the Unitarian Universalist churches became the first denominations to begin to divest themselves of fossil fuel stock. Both denominations have a long history of fighting for social justice.
Also divesting are Quaker, Episcopal, and several other denominations. Several synods of the Evangelical Lutheran Church of America have passed resolutions asking the national board and local churches to divest themselves of fossil fuel stocks.
The Union Theological seminary, with a $108.4 million endowment, became the nation’s first seminary to divest itself of fossil fuel stock. The Rev. Dr. Serene Jones, the seminary’s president, explained the decision: “It is ever clear that humanity’s addiction to fossil fuels is death-dealing—or as Christians would say, profoundly sinful.”
Several religious groups that have shares in Chevron asked the corporation in 2011 to go “above and beyond regulatory requirements” to protect the environment and public health. Chevron flippantly dismissed the request. The corporation claimed, it “is already committed to meeting or exceeding all applicable laws and regulations [and the suggestions] would merely duplicate Chevron’s current efforts and thus would be a waste of stockholder money.”
College students, staff, and faculty have been active in pushing their institutions to eliminate fossil fuel stocks from their portfolios. The result has been an awareness of a social issue that was not seen since students pressured their colleges to divest funds in tobacco companies and in corporations that dealt with the apartheid government of South Africa.
“If we don’t deal with climate change now, we consign our grandkids to an unlivable planet,” said Unity College president Dr. Stephen Mulkey. Unity, which became the nation’s first college to divest its endowment portfolio of fossil fuel stock, specializes in environmental and natural sciences.
Among three dozen colleges and universities that have committed to divesting their portfolios of fossil fuel stock are Foothill–DeAnza Community College, Green Mountain College, Humboldt State University, San Francisco State University, the University of Dayton, and Hampshire College, which in 1977 in protest of apartheid policies, was the first U.S. college to eliminate all stocks related to South Africa.
Pitzer College, a liberal arts college in Southern California, divested about $4.4 million of its $5.5 million in fossil fuel stock in December, and pledged to work to eliminate most of the rest of the stock in fossil fuel industries. The college has about a $124 million endowment.
Stanford University announced in May it would no longer hold stock in the coal industry, but did not include divesting oil and gas stock in its $18.7 billion endowment fund. About 300 Stanford University professors published an open letter to the administration this month to request the university divest itself of all fossil fuel stock. Among the signers were Drs. Elizabeth A. Hadley, senior associate vice-president; Donald Kennedy, former Stanford president; Roger Komberg, Nobel Prize winner in chemistry; and Douglas Osheroff, Nobel Prize winner in physics.
However, Harvard University, whose $32.7 billion endowment is the largest among educational institutions, doesn’t plan to eliminate fossil fuel stocks from its portfolio. Harvard President Dr. Drew Gilpin Faust told the New York Times that in spite of wide-scale student protests, eliminating fossil fuel stocks is not “warranted or wise,” and that the university’s portfolio is “a resource, not an instrument to impel social or political change.”
David Crane, CEO of NRG, one of the nation’s leading energy providers, said he didn’t “relish the idea that year after year we’re going to be educating a couple million kids from college, who are going to be American consumers for the next 60 or 70 years, that come out of college with a distaste or disdain for companies like mine.”
The Rockefeller Brothers Fund, founded on income from oil exploration and development, declared in October it would divest fossil fuel stock. Stephen Heintz, president of the $860 million philanthropic foundation, said his executives had already divested its portfolio of coal and tar sands stocks. Heintz said the Foundation will invest in more renewable energy companies.
Several dozen U.S. cities and counties, as early as 2012, have begun the process to divest themselves of fossil fuel stocks and to urge their independent pension boards to divest. San Francisco in April 2013 began divesting about $580 million of fossil fuel stock, and by 2019 will stop purchasing stock of any company associated with fossil fuel exploration and development. Seattle, Wash., Mayor Mike McGinn in December 2013, a month before leaving office, asked the city’s pension board, which oversees a portfolio of about $1.9 billion, to “begin exploring options for moving existing investments from fossil fuel companies.” The city had $17.6 million invested with ExxonMobil and Chevron.
Investing in renewable energy, especially with the increase in jobs in those industries and the rapid decline in the costs of solar and wind energy to consumers, appears to be the better investment strategy—and one that sends a message that protection of public health and the environment, combined with stopping the destruction of the ozone layer, is far more important than destroying the Earth.
[Dr. Brasch, an award-winning social issues journalist, is author of 20 books, including Fracking Pennsylvania, an in-depth look at the effects of high volume horizontal fracturing throughout the United States.]