DiNapoli considers the divestment question

Capital New York  |  October 17, 2014  | By David Giambusso

State Comptroller Tom DiNapoli entertained the idea of fuel-based divestment during Wednesday night's debate with Republican challenger Bob Antonacci.

Environmental advocates throughout New York state have been lobbying DiNapoli to dump fossil fuels from the state's $176 billion pension fund, part of a small but growing national trend among public pensions, universities and churches.

Asked about inserting politics into the management of the state's pension fund, DiNapoli said long-term sustainability wasn't a political calculation but rather a financial one, and that corporations' behavior is a major factor in managing the fund.

"If you have companies that are not exhibiting responsible corporate behavior, be it on environmental issues ... on human rights issues ... on worker rights in this country and around the globe ... you go down the long list of the issues that are out there that are all tied to best practices that ensure that your investment is sustainable for the long term," DiNapoli said during the debate at Baruch College.

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He cited British Petroleum and the Deepwater Horizon oil spill in 2010 for which B.P. will have to pay billions in damages.

"If you're invested in a company like B.P. that has a Gulf oil spill and you've raised concerns that they haven't had best practices, [that] they haven't had emergency preparedness [and] now they're liable to all these lawsuits and recoveries and the value of your holding, your stock goes down," DiNapoli said. "Then it does require you to step up and say, 'Hey company, you'd better do more.'"

The national environmental advocacy group 350.org is among those that have been pressuring the state to divest. The group released a statement on Thursday applauding DiNapoli and urging him to go farther.

“Comptroller DiNapoli is absolutely right: maximizing returns on New York State’s pension fund also means ensuring our money is invested responsibly,” said Karthik Ganapathy, a spokesman for the organization. “The only responsible choice now is divestment, which is not only a win for our planet, but also a financially smart decision that weans the pension fund off of profit-bleeding industries like coal, oil, and natural gas."

Antonacci, who is the Onondaga County comptroller, chided DiNapoli as an "activist shareholder," citing a 2012 ethics complaint filed against him by Chevron after DiNapoli criticized the company for polluting the Amazon rainforest.

Chevron claimed DiNapoli received political contributions from lawyers representing the Ecuadorean villages who won a $9 billion settlement against the company in that country.

"I will not be intimidated by a big oil company," DiNapoli said in response.

Despite his comments during Wednesday night's debate, DiNapoli has not indicated any major policy shift, something environmental advocates are eager for him to do. Still, Dinapoli's office said Thursday that climate change and its economic effects would be a factor in managing the fund. 

"Climate change poses significant potential risks to the fund’s investments," said DiNapoli spokesman Matthew Sweeney in an email to Capital. "Consistent with the Comptroller’s fiduciary duty to protect the long-term value of the fund’s investments, these risks have to be factored into our asset allocations and investment practices."

Acknowledging the comments were a "step in the right direction," Heather Leibowitz, director of Environment New York, said she wanted more.

"New Yorkers' health and environment shouldn't be just a minor consideration," she said. "The comptroller has the third largest pension fund in the U.S. and he can divest. It would really be the bold action that New Yorkers are waiting for."

According to a September Siena Poll, DiNapoli has a 29-point lead over Antonacci and has raised $5 million to Antonacci's $172,787.

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commented 2014-10-18 16:34:09 -0400 · Flag
We need someone who’s done this to come present at a PAUSE meeting.
commented 2014-10-18 13:27:55 -0400 · Flag
We must push for divestment across the board. Divestment means selling stock, means the price drops, means losses for the oil barons. Hit the oil barons right in their silk-lined pocketbooks.
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.