Analyze

Fossil Fuel Divestment: A Call for Conversation

To date, the General Convention of the Episcopal Church has not adopted any resolution explicitly recommending that the Church Pension Fund or dioceses divest from fossil fuels.  However, the pressure is on.

Resolutions B023 and D055, adopted by General Convention in 2012, have served as the guiding principles for the Episcopal Church’s environmental policies over the last triennium. Resolution B023 calls upon TEC “to work for the just transformation of the world’s energy beyond and away from fossil fuels (including all forms of oil, coal, and natural gas) and toward safe, sustainable, renewable, community controlled energy” and “to resist the development and expansion of ever more unconventional, dangerous, and environmentally destructive sources of fossil fuel and move toward conversion to more sustainable sources.” Resolution D055 is a public policy-oriented resolution to urge the US government to incentivize movement away from fossil fuel dependence. Bishop Marc Andrus of California has suggested through public media that divestment from fossil fuels might be a logical implication of B023.

Pressures to have a church-wide discussion about divestment from fossil fuels come from both the local and global level.  Dioceses that have made steps toward fossil fuel divestment include the Episcopal dioceses of Nebraska, Massachusetts, Western Massachusetts, California, Oregon, Newark, and Los Angeles. Divestment strategies among these dioceses vary. Some dioceses pursuing divestment strategies have experienced setbacks. For example, although the Diocese of Olympia voted in 2013 to divest in 5 years from ExxonMobil and Chevron stocks, advancement in this initiative was delayed indefinitely in 2015. In advance of General Convention, the following dioceses have passed resolutions urging TEC to divest: Diocese of Western Massachusetts, Diocese of Newark, Diocese of Nebraska.

Nationally, other denominations that have adopted divestment strategies include the United Methodist Church Pension Fund (coal only), the Unitarian Church, and the UCC. Some conversations about divestment have taken place within the Committee on Corporate Social Responsibility (CCSR) of the Executive Council and the Church Pension Fund. In January 2015, the Executive Council voted to receive a report on Corporate Responsibility and Climate Change. The Executive Council directed the CCSR to continue shareholder activism and coordination with the Episcopal Church’s Office of Government Relations and the Interfaith Center on Corporate Responsibility, to study further options for witness (including divestment), and to report back to Executive Council in fall 2016.

Globally, the Central Committee of the World Council of Churches endorsed fossil fuel divestment in July 2014. In March 2015, the Anglican Communion Environmental Network published The World is our Host: A Call to Urgent Action for Climate Justice. This document calls for “a review of our churches’ investment practices with a view to supporting environmental stability and justice by divesting from industries involved primarily in the extraction or distribution of fossil fuels” and the strengthening of “ethical investment guidelines.” In April 2015, the Church Commissioners and the Church of England Pension Board announced that neither body would make direct investments in companies where more than 10% of the revenues come from the extraction of thermal coal or the production of oil from tar sands. This restriction accompanied an expanded commitment to active engagement with other energy companies to push for the development of sustainable and cleaner energy technologies.  The Church of England’s new multi-faceted strategy of promoting personal and communal disciplines of conservation, limiting direct investment in particular types of energy sources, and ramping up advocacy efforts in favor of the development of cleaner technologies might serve as a helpful model for the Episcopal Church.

The pressure is on to have a church-wide conversation about fossil fuel divestment, both as a strategy for ethical action and as a way of making the Church’s voice heard.  This is potentially a significant moment for a conversation around divestment, but divestment strategies need to be incorporated into a larger conversation about communal disciplines around conservation and advocacy efforts in favor of the development of cleaner technologies.  If the Episcopal Church focuses on divestment strategies alone, targeting the largest dealers in fossil fuels and ignoring the demand side of the equation, it is likely to have about as much success in making a dent in the problem as the US government has had in the war on drugs.  The truth is that we, as individuals and as church communities, are addicted to fossil fuel consumption.  And so, we can tell the Church Pension Fund to divest, but we will still be complicit and those shares will still be valuable enough to be bought up by others who may not have a Committee on Corporate Social Responsibility to submit shareholder resolutions advocating for good things like board diversity and worker rights.

A church-wide conversation needs to be multi-faceted, considering various strategies.  It also needs to be truly church-wide.  So far, conversations have been taking place in the CCSR and in various dioceses who have instituted task forces on ethical investment.  These are good places to start, but as one looks at the CCSR roster, one notices a lack of geographic diversity.  There is nary a representative of Province VII, i.e. oil country, or from coal country in Pennsylvania and West Virginia. That being said, it is surely time for those who have qualms about divestment to enter the conversation arena with reasons and alternative ways for pushing for sustainable alternatives.  As Scott Gunn and others have pointed out, a revised version of the third resolve of Resolution C013 might help jumpstart this conversation.  It is about time.