Activists urge state to sell fossil fuel stocks

Times Union | February 13, 2015 | Column by Brian Nearing

Comptroller's office says it is studying risks holdings carry

David Gardiner, center, of Albany holds a sign during a rally to urge NYS to divest all pension funds from fossil fuels outside the the NYS Comptrollers office Friday Feb. 13, 2015, in Albany, NY. (John Carl D'Annibale / Times Union)

Albany

With climate change activists urging that the state sell billions of dollars of investments in fossil fuel companies from the state pension fund, Comptroller Tom DiNapoli is studying how investments may present risks to the fund.

About a dozen activists stood in frigid weather outside DiNapoli's State Street offices on Friday, asking the comptroller to begin selling — a concept called divesting — fossil fuel investments from the $180 billion fund that provides retirement benefits to state workers.

Mark Dunlea, of the Poestenkill-based Green Education and Legal Fund, said the fund contains about $12 billion in fossil fuel investments, a figure that could not be confirmed by the comptroller's office.

"The pension fund should not be invested in companies that contribute to catastrophic climate change that has already inflicted tens of billions of dollars' worth of damage in the state, starting with Hurricane Sandy," said Dunlea, who is also affiliated with 350.org, a movement spearheaded by climate change activist Bill McKibben to reduce global emissions of greenhouse gases caused by fossil fuel combustion.

Part of McKibben's campaign calls for public pension systems, universities and other groups to pull investments from fossil fuels. No state system has done so at this point, and Dunlea added there are no active divestment campaigns under way at any organization in the Capital Region.

The effort drew support from a group that opposes the shipment of Midwestern crude oil into Albany on massive oil tanker trains. "The most idiotic aspect of our continued investment of fossil fuels is that is does not even make good financial sense," said Sandy Steubing, of People of Albany United for Safe Energy. "The high cost of extreme energy extraction such as fracking and mining of tar sands renders these investments moot without taxpayer subsidies."

Elsewhere in the state, the highest-profile divestment case came in September, when the New York City-based Rockefeller Brothers Fund — a charity created by the sons of oil magnate John D. Rockefeller — announced it would sell investments in fossil fuels. The fund had a balance of about $853 million from all investments in December 2014, according to its website.

The fund announced it was immediately selling investments in companies involved with coal and tar sands oil — two energy sources associated with high levels of greenhouse gas emissions. The fund also pledged "a comprehensive analysis of our exposure to any remaining fossil fuel investments and ... to determine an appropriate strategy for further divestment over the next few years."

DiNapoli spokesman Matthew Sweeney said the office is "engaged in an extensive study of its holdings, including fossil fuel holdings, to identify the risks that climate change presents to investments and determine the best way to proceed ... For divestment to be considered, a lengthy examination of risk, returns and legal impacts has to be conducted. Anything less could constitute a breach of fiduciary duty."

Sweeney added, "There is more than one way to accomplish what is a shared goal to influence the industry and bring about changes needed to address climate change."

He pointed to DiNapoli's use of shareholder resolutions — or the promise of such resolutions — to "encourage corporations to improve environmental practices and address climate change." During the last five years, DiNapoli has persuaded more than two dozen portfolio companies to publicly pledge steps toward reduced greenhouse gas emissions.

Dunlea's efforts drew attention from the Washington, D.C.-based Environmental Policy Alliance, which is part of a group of organizations that lobby against environmental regulations and the veracity of man-made climate change science, as well as to counteract minimum wage campaigns, efforts to limit natural gas hydrofracking and laws on food safety, secondhand cigarette smoke, and drunken driving, according to the website Sourcewatch.

"The so-called green divestment crowd's philosophy seems to be that we should live like 17th century peasants," according to a statement by Will Coggin, alliance director of research. "Fossil fuels account for about 80 percent of all U.S. energy production, create millions of American jobs and are found in thousands of different consumer goods that make modern life convenient and enjoyable."

bnearing@timesunion.com • 518-454-5094 • @Bnearing10

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Activists urge state to sell fossil fuel stocks
PAUSE, People of Albany United for Safe Energy
PAUSE is a grassroots group of individuals who have come together to promote safe, sustainable energy and fight for environmental justice. We engage the greater public to stop the fossil fuel industry’s assault on the people of Albany and our environment.