ST. LOUIS – No divestment today. On June 22, the 223rdGeneral Assembly elected (with a vote of 409 in favor and 106 opposed) for Mission Responsibility Through Investment (MRTI) to maintain its investments in the fossil-fuel industry, while continuing to vie for more environmentally friendly business practices, and vetting fossil-fuel companies for selective divestment at the 224th General Assembly in 2020.
The assembly passed a significant amendment to the original item. The amendment directs MRTI to report back to the 224thGeneral Assembly in 2020 with the compiled assessment of every fossil fuel company they maintain in their portfolios. More so, the amendment names specific corporations for MRTI to engage aggressively — including, “but not limited to, Chevron, ExxonMobil, ConocoPhillips, Marathon Petroleum, Valero Energy, Phillips 66, Duke Energy, Ford [and] General Motors.”
According to Rob Fohr, a representative of MRTI, “This amendment is the best possible outcome of this GA in the opinion of MRTI. … This assembly could do no greater thing, in MRTI’s opinion, than naming these companies.” Fohr elaborated on this windfall for MRTI, saying that, in naming these corporations and validating MRTI’s metrics for evaluating fossil fuel corporations, the 2018 General Assembly gives MRTI the opportunity to use their full leverage against obstinate fossil-fuel corporations.
Underlying this assembly’s decision to disapprove of divestment and instruct MRTI to continue corporate engagement are the words of the president of the Board of Pensions, Frank Spencer. Spencer highlighted the legal requirements of the Board of Pensions. As a fiduciary institution, the Board of Pensions holds funds in trust, and exists “for the ‘sole and exclusive benefit of the members of plan.’ ” Thus, if the Board of Pensions acted solely on a directive of divestment, instead of as an independent board acting in the best interests of its beneficiaries: “the entire pension fund would be in danger of losing its tax-exempt status. … [And] the dues paid by each church or presbytery could become taxable to each individual member,” Spencer said. Indeed, this highlights concerns over the authority that the General Assembly has over its largest financial institution – the Board of Pensions.
While these concerns regarding the General Assembly’s ability to direct the Board of Pensions dominated debates over divestment in committee, the overwhelming concern on the Assembly floor was a more familiar one- whether to maintain “a seat at the table” of fossil fuel industries, or whether to walk away.
The initial recommendation of the Environmental Issues Committee was to direct MRTI, the Board of Pensions and Presbyterian Foundation to fully divest from the fossil fuel industry.The minority report, recommending that MRTI continue its policy of corporate engagement, was presented by Jacqueline Cummings, a ruling elder commissioner from The Presbytery of South Louisiana, and Sam McGregor, a minister commissioner from Providence Presbytery. In their presentation, Cummings and McGregor emphasized concerns over alienating Presbyterians, congregations, and educational institutions with deep ties to the fossil-fuel industry. They also highlighted concerns over the broad language used in the call for divestment, and the fear that divesting amounted to little more than an empty gesture. Counter to this, the minority report held that maintaining a seat at the table offered the opportunity for efficacious change from within shareholder meetings, and alongside partners involved in Climate Action 100+.
Closing the presentation of the minority report, Sam McGregor said: “As Presbyterians we speak truth to power. We speak truth to power in the streets, and we speak truth to power in the boardroom.”
The assembly aligned themselves with this sentiment — approving the minority report, disapproving of categorical divestment and directing MRTI to hold the fossil fuel industry as a whole – and specific corporations in particular – accountable for their policies on climate change.
After the vote to continue to “stay at the table” with the fossil fuel industry through the MRTI process, members of the Presbyterian Peace Fellowship (who had advocated for divestment from fossil fuel) participated in a die. Kan Orr-Harter of the Presbyterian Peace Fellowship said, “This is a die in to represent the 10 million people who will die between now and the next General Assembly due to climate change. They will be here all day.”
Orr-Harter added, “Now that this is the third time we have committed to the MRTI process, instead of divestment, we expect to see the leaders of MRTI in the front of calling for divestment if these companies do not abandon their business model, halt their future drilling plans, and leave all fossil fuel assets in the ground.”
Here is the Presbyterian Peace Fellowship’s official response to the General Assembly’s decision to direct MRTI to continue a policy of corporate engagement.