Presbyterian committee recommends denominational divestment from five energy companies

The Committee on Mission Responsibility Through Investment zoom on Jan. 19. Screenshot by Leslie Scanlon.

A committee concerned about climate change and socially responsible investing is recommending that the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) divest from five energy companies that church officials say are not making sufficient progress in their work to protect the planet from global warming.

The Committee on Mission Responsibility Through Investment (MRTI) voted unanimously Jan. 19 to ask the 2022 General Assembly to authorize PC(USA) divestment from five companies – Chevron, ExxonMobil, Marathon Petroleum, Phillips 66, and Valero Energy.

Kerri Allen, a minister who chairs MRTI, said this is the greatest number of companies being recommended for divestment since the apartheid movement in the 1980s.

Two of those companies – Chevron and Phillips 66 – are new to the list. In 2020, MRTI recommended divestment from the other three firms, but the assembly never had the chance to vote on that recommendation. Because of the COVID-19 pandemic, the 2020 General Assembly met virtually and considered only essential business, referring everything else on to the assembly this year.

The MRTI vote sets the stage for debate at the 2022 General Assembly on what is the best way to respond to the urgency of climate change. An overture calling for the PC(USA) to divest completely from the fossil fuel industry also is coming to the assembly, and the co-moderator of Fossil Free PC(USA), abby mohaupt, said in an interview that “we think it’s possible the assembly can vote in favor of both” the MRTI recommendation to divest from five companies and the overture seeking full divestiture.

“We think the MRTI recommendation recognizes the urgency of climate change, which has only gotten worse in the last four years and holds the worst actors accountable,” mohaupt said. She hopes the assembly could see the proposals “not as odds with each other, but see them as both things the General Assembly could do.”

Corporate engagement

Kerri Allen, a minister from the Presbytery of Milwaukee, serves as chair of the Committee on Mission Responsibility Through Investment. Screenshot by Leslie Scanlon.

For some years now, MRTI has followed a strategy of corporate engagement — working as part of a coalition of more than 600 investors known as the Climate Action 100+ Initiative to try to influence companies to support the commitment of the Paris Agreement, an international treaty on climate change, to work to limit global warming to below two degrees Celsius, preferably below 1.5 degrees. Their techniques include written correspondence with the companies, meetings or other conversations, voting shareholder proxies and more.

The 2018 General Assembly approved a set of metrics for measuring progress in the corporate engagement process, and identified nine firms with which MRTI was to pursue focused engagement. Using those metrics – which take into account environmental, social and governance factors – MRTI now has determined that five of the nine companies fall in what it calls the “red zone,” meaning they have a poor record of shareholder engagement or a poor record on the metrics being measured, or the “orange zone,” the second-worst rating.

“None of them have business plans aligned with the Paris goal of being well below 2 degrees” Celsius in global warming, said Katie Carter, associate for research, policy and information with the PC(USA)’s Office of Faith-Based Investing and Corporate Engagement. And MRTI has found negative community impacts associated with those firms, she said.

MRTI did adjust the score of Exxon upward at the meeting, acknowledging that the company on Jan. 17 announced its “ambition” for reaching zero net greenhouse gas emissions by 2050. With that announcement, “their score did go up a few points,” Carter said, but not enough to move Exxon out of the red zone.

After failing through corporate engagement to nudge these five companies to improve, MRTI now is recommending that the PC(USA) divest its holdings in those firms. To go to the assembly, that recommendation still needs approval from the Presbyterian Mission Agency Board, which is scheduled to meet Feb. 9-11.

The Presbyterian Foundation and Board of Pensions also act in accordance with General Assembly actions regarding MRTI recommendations.

MRTI also is asking the assembly to expand the list of companies with which it will have focused engagement, to include American Airlines, Delta Airlines, Enbridge, Kinder Morgan, Occidental Petroleum, PPL Corporation, and United Airlines. Already on the list: ConocoPhillips, Duke Energy, Ford, and General Motors.

Environmental justice at GA

Rob Fohr is the PC(USA)’s director of Faith-Based Investing and Corporate Engagement. Screenshot by Leslie Scanlon.

Climate change is likely to be a hot issue at the 2022 General Assembly — the preliminary plan is to have an assembly committee dedicated to issues of environmental justice.

With the impact of global warming incontrovertible around the world – evidenced by wildfires, storms, extremes of hot and cold, rising sea levels, and more – climate change is likely to be a matter of deep concern for commissioners at the 2022 General Assembly, which will convene June 18. Previous assemblies have fiercely debated the best way for Presbyterians to make a faithful impact on an issue with such profound implications. Another factor in the discussions: the views of Presbyterians from parts of the country where jobs depend on the fossil fuel industry.

Among the questions: Is the strategy of corporate engagement as part of a broad, alliance the best way to pressure companies for change? MRTI says the Climate Action Coalition 100+ represents over $60 trillion in assets, and is working to put pressure on the largest 167 corporate greenhouse gas emitters.

Or is corporate engagement too slow an approach, not forceful enough given the urgency of global warming and its impact on the planet?

An overture from Hudson River Presbytery calls for the PC(USA) to divest completely from the fossil fuel industry — a request that’s been presented repeatedly and unsuccessfully to previous General Assemblies. The overture has concurrences from at least 24 presbyteries, — a sign of the strength of the movement surrounding divesture in the secular world, where climate activists have convinced universities, religious groups, public employee pension plans and other entities to divest.

Other recommendations involving climate change are coming to the 2022 assembly as well. Among them:

  • An overture from Seattle Presbytery asking the assembly to affirm the PC(USA)’s support of the Paris Agreement and to continue advocacy to mitigate global warming.
  • An overture from the Presbytery of Arkansas asking the assembly to encourage all PC(USA) presbyteries and congregations to learn about and start the process of fossil fuel divestment.
  • An overture from the Presbytery of Des Moines calling on the PC(USA) to reduce its carbon footprint by 25% in the next four years.
  • An overture from the Presbytery of Scioto Valley to establish a Presbyterian Tree Fund, for tree-planting and environmental projects.
  • A report from the Advisory Committee on Social Witness Policy on investing in a green future.

During the meeting, mohaupt commended MRTI for “the magnitude of the divestment” it is recommending, and said she’s “looking forward to being at General Assembly in a way that is supportive of this report.”

Allen said Fossil Free PC(USA) and MRTI hold each other mutually accountable. “You push us,” she said. “We are in agreement about what the crisis is, and we have different ways of how we respond to that.”

It’s only getting worse

abby mohaupt

In the rationale for its recommendation, MRTI speaks of the urgency necessary to confront global warming.

“We recognize that climate change is undeniable, and is one of the most pressing moral and theological problems of our time,” that rationale states. “Human action and corporate degradation of creation threatens the survival of the planet upon which we live and depend for our sustenance. People in the poorest regions of the world are more significantly impacted and live in vulnerable and precarious circumstances because of the rapidly changing climate. In the United States, this disproportionately manifests in communities of color.”

MRTI has followed the guidance of the General Assembly in shaping its work — in part by crafting the specific metrics it now uses, and by being in conversation in local communities about environmental racism, meeting with those whose lives and livelihoods are most affected by environmental degradation, often people of color and those living in poverty.

In Michigan, for example, MRTI met in 2019 with residents of a predominantly Black neighborhood near the Marathon Petroleum refinery in southwest Detroit, who told of living in the shadow of the smells and smoke from the refinery. In the bayou region of southern Louisiana, they spoke with Native American leaders who described the impact of coastal erosion.

“What the committee has heard consistently throughout this process is a collective call for just transition that will faithfully address climate change as quickly as possible and attend carefully to the needs of workers and communities most directly affected by the corporations in which we have investments,” the MRTI rationale states.

“With the long-term threats to planetary survival that climate change represents, our Reformed Christian witness demands we act with urgency, prudence, and a measured understanding of the complexities of the social structures that exist today. Issues of systemic and structural sin, the most egregious acts of environmental racism, ecological devastation, and worker exploitation not only define how we respond but inform our next steps. “

Companies in the red zone score 0 to 100 out of a possible 240 points on MRTI’s metrics scale. Those in the orange zone score from 101 to 135. MRTI placed ExxonMobil and Valero Energy in the red zone (“Does not adequately acknowledge importance of environmental, social and governance [ESG] issues”) and Chevron, Marathon Petroleum and Phillips 66 in the orange (“Acknowledges importance of ESG issues, may not adopt policies to address issues”).

What’s next?

“The folks around my session table have a hard time not taking it personally,” said Jessica Commeret, pastor of First Presbyterian Church in Findlay, Ohio, where Marathon Petroleum has its headquarters. Screenshot by Leslie Scanlon.

Allen said MRTI has been in communication with presbyteries in areas where Presbyterians work in the fossil fuel industry. “This is not a personal thing,” she said of the recommendation to divest. “And it’s definitely not an indictment of our Presbyterians who work in these communities.”

Jessica Commeret is pastor of First Presbyterian Church in Findlay, Ohio, where Marathon Petroleum has its headquarters. She thanked MRTI for its work but said “the hard work now begins for those of us on the ground. You made the statement that it’s not personal. The folks around my session table have a hard time not taking it personally.”

Commeret asked for prayer for Presbyterians in communities like hers, where people work for the companies from which the PC(USA) is seeking divestment, and for resources to help explain the process MRTI uses in making its recommendations.

Rob Fohr, the PC(USA)’s director of faith-based investment and corporate engagement, already has visited Maumee Presbytery in Ohio. There and in other places, “we will make ourselves available to have those difficult conversations,” Allen said.

It’s been four years now since the General Assembly has had the chance to act on climate change. MRTI member Holly Haile Thompson said there’s an urgency to act because global warming is affecting people’s lives now, pushing more vulnerable people into poverty, and imperiling the future of the planet.

This is a big deal,” Allen said of the MRTI vote — but “the work does not end with this. This is one step in what this church has a responsibility to do, that we as Christians have to do” to address climate change and environmental racism.

The last four years have given MRTI more time to engage with the nine target companies, and all have made progress, Fohr said. “The question is, ‘Has it gone far enough fast enough?’” — and for these five firms, MRTI thinks the answer is no.

“We’re starting to see a differentiation in these companies” — between those making a good-faith effort to comply with the Paris agreement and those that are not moving quickly enough, Fohr said. If companies refuse to change and try to stick with their old business models, it will have “massive consequences for the planet.”