March 20, 2019 Read More →

IEEFA op ed: New York State pension fund should divest from fossil fuels

Investments need to address poor stock performance of fracking industry

A shock went through energy stock markets recently as Norway moved its $1 trillion sovereign wealth fund to dump oil and gas stocks, seeing the risk increasing. Recall this is a fund built on oil money.

Yet state Comptroller Tom DiNapoli, the sole custodian of our $200 billion state pension fund, still can’t find good arguments for why our fund should not follow Norway and more than 1,000 major investors and start divesting from fossil fuel companies. Even oil money is saying the future is not in oil money.

DiNapoli’s latest list of poor excuses comes through a recent and unprecedented letter to state Sen. Liz Krueger, D-Manhattan, the main sponsor of a bill that would require the state’s pension fund to divest responsibly over the next five years from the top 200 coal, oil and gas publicly traded companies, as defined by carbon content in the companies’ proven reserves.

Divesting from these big companies, like Exxon and Shell, is not as big a problem as you might think. Over the last decade, our fund, like the market as a whole, has decreased its reliance on fossil fuel stocks. In the 1980s, 29 percent of the Standard & Poor’s 500 index was made up of fossil fuel stocks. Today, the actual fossil fuel holdings of the S&P 500 represent only 5.5 percent. So, the fund is being asked to divest approximately $4.5 billion in stocks over a five-year period. Responding to poor performance, the fund has already cut its investment in ExxonMobil almost in half.

Oil industry avoids climate risk reporting

DiNapoli defends holding the fossil fuel stocks because they “actually earned over $4 billion over the last 10 years.” But he is making the opposite point. That means these investments earned far less than the 10-year average for the pension fund’s total stock portfolio, thus dragging down its overall earnings. While $4 billion is a lot, $10 or 20 billion would be better.

The comptroller has acknowledged “urgent investment” risk to the pension fund from climate change. His response is to invest at least $10 billion that “shifts investments away from high greenhouse gas emitters.” What’s not clear is how $10 billion in good investments makes it alright to continue $4.5 billion in investments that are bad both financially and from a climate point of view.

Remaining a shareholder, DiNapoli claims, allows working for change on the inside through shareholder resolutions related to climate change. But the effort to engage with oil and gas companies has not produced the same kind of results that shareholders have had with other companies and industries. In 2017, 62 percent of shareholders voted to urge ExxonMobil to improve its reporting on how climate change would impact its business, yet the company’s resulting 2018 climate risk report was flawed and unresponsive. ExxonMobil, like many of its peers, is continuing a dangerous business-as-usual, making huge capital expenditures in fossil fuels. What’s more, ExxonMobil has just appealed to the Securities and Exchange Commission to stop the comptroller and shareholders from filing another shareholder resolution.

The comptroller states that any divestment decision could only be undertaken after a financial and economic analysis demonstrates there would be no negative impact on the fund. The fairly consistent message in the comptroller’s letter is that the fund would be negatively affected. But has he initiated the appropriate asset allocation analyses that would give him the kind of information he would need to justify his conclusions? Will he share this analysis with the Legislature prior to an April 30 public hearing on Krueger’s fossil fuel divestment bill?

Meanwhile, major investors are acting. A recent report by the Institute for Energy Economics and Financial Analysis has identified over 100 companies that have restrained investment in coal. Many of these same financial institutions, including some of the largest in the world — AXA, ING and World Bank — have committed to end investments in all fossil fuels.

Most of these financial institutions, like the New York State Common Retirement Fund, have a global investment outlook. These funds, now including Norway, apparently understand how divestment from their funds would mitigate climate change and financial risk.

It’s time DiNapoli joined them.

Tom Sanzillo is IEEFA’s director of finance, [email protected]

This commentary originally appeared as an op-ed in the Albany Times Union

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