Fossil fuel divestment not recommended by MRTI


The Mission Responsibility Through Investment (MRTI ) committee is recommending that the 2016 General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) call on companies to conduct their business in a way consistent with international efforts to limit global warming to no more than 2 degrees Celsius.

Photo by CIFOR. CC 2.0.
Photo by CIFOR. CC 2.0.

But MRTI, which oversees the denomination’s socially responsible investment efforts, is not recommending that the PC(USA) divest yet its holdings from fossil fuel companies – the 200 publicly traded oil and gas companies from the Carbon Underground list. That position is sure to disappoint advocates of fossil fuel divestment, yet please those who think divestment is the wrong way to go. Already, overtures are heading towards the 2016 General Assembly in Portland advocating both for and against divestment, a clear indication that Presbyterians don’t agree on what’s the most effective way for people of faith to respond to the dangers of global warming.

With some contending that climate change is both an environmental and a moral issue, this assembly will be asked to consider what role Presbyterians should play individually in trying to limit global warming – and what the denomination’s corporate witness should be.

The Presbyterian Mission Agency Board will consider the MRTI recommendation when it meets in Louisville Feb. 3-5. What’s being recommended in the MRTI report could change if the board doesn’t agree with it.

The PC(USA) recommendations come on the heels of a historic international accord that 195 nations reached at the United Nations Paris climate summit in December to lower greenhouse gas emissions.

The MRTI proposed recommendations to the 2016 General Assembly don’t seek divestment from the denomination’s holdings in oil and gas companies, but call on “all corporations to increase their efforts to address climate change through vigorous action” on a number of fronts. For example, the assembly would ask businesses to:

  • Integrate management of climate change risks and opportunities into their business strategies. That strategy would include a commitment “to manage operations in a manner consistent with the internationally agreed upon goal of limiting warming to 2 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels and to pursue efforts to limit the temperature increase to 1.5 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels.”
  • In making business and investment decisions, set goals for reducing greenhouse gas emissions, use renewable energy sources and choose new technologies capable of reducing the company’s carbon footprint. Work in support of “cost-effective policy measures to mitigate climate change risks and support low carbon investments,” and be transparent about the company’s lobbying efforts and political spending.

The recommendations also commend a number of PC(USA) entities for their initiatives, including:

  • The Presbyterian Foundation for providing to congregations, institutions and individual clients the option of selecting fossil free investment portfolios;
  • The Presbyterian Investment and Loan Program (PILP) for creating “restoring creation loans” for congregations trying to reduce their carbon footprints; and
  • The Board of Pensions for investigating a fossil free options for plan members participating in retirement savings plans.

The MRTI recommendations encourage individuals, congregations and the PC(USA) to continue working together to reduce their carbon footprint.

And the recommendations ask the assembly to direct MRTI to continue its process of engagement with all corporations, particularly with oil, gas and coal firms, and to report back to the 2018 assembly with divestment as a possible outcome if “significant changes” aren’t made through the process of engagement with MRTI and its ecumenical partners. In other words, don’t divest now – but maybe, if progress isn’t made, consider it down the road.

MRTI is making recommendations now on climate change because the 2014 General Assembly referred to it an overture from the Presbytery of Boston seeking divestment. That overture – with concurrences from 11 other presbyteries and support from the advocacy group Fossil Free PCUSA– asked the General Assembly to instruct the Board of Pensions and the Presbyterian Foundation to stop investing in fossil fuel companies and to liquidate any investments it already held in those companies within five years. Instead of doing that, the assembly voted 469-110 to refer the overture to MRTI – and in response, MRTI now is making these recommendations.

For the 2016 assembly, the Presbytery of San Francisco has submitted an overture seeking divestment from fossil fuel companies, and the Presbytery of New Covenant an overture calling for an alternative to divestment.

The MRTI report states that it has continued to be involved in discussions with companies on climate change issues, participating in dialogues with companies and filing or co-filing shareholder resolutions. The companies involved included ExxonMobil, Chevron, Marathon Oil, Marathon Petroleum, Noble Energy, ConocoPhillips, Phillips 66, Ultra Petroleum and Hess Corporation, the report states.

MRTI states that it works on these initiatives with ecumenical partners, including some which support divestment and others which do not.

“We all agree that we must do something,” the report states. “The disagreement comes around this question: What is the most effective way to witness and accomplish change to the threat posed by climate change and our dependence on fossil fuels?”