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#GA226 reverses course, commits to working for a fossil-free future without full divestment

On Tuesday, the assembly approved and then disapproved categorical divestment from the fossil fuel industry, choosing to engage companies instead.

YAAD Drew Hill addresses the assembly. Photo by Jonathan Watson for Presbyterian Outlook.

Salt Lake City – After a protracted debate on alternative recommendations for aligning the values of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) with its investments in fossil fuels, the denomination’s 226th General Assembly (GA) meeting in Salt Lake City, Utah, on Tuesday, initially approved overture ENV-02 encouraging categorical divestment in fossil fuels and other efforts to respond to climate change.

Following a lunch break, in a historic turnabout, the assembly reconsidered the recommendations and reversed its decision, disapproving ENV-02 and approving ENV-06, which directs further engagement with greenhouse gas emitters and the fossil fuel industry. 

Chair of the Committee on Mission Responsibility Through Investment (MRTI) Kerri Allen, responding to questions from commissioners, noted the approved advice of ENV-02 conflicted with the policies by which the denomination advocates for those impacted by climate change and the fossil fuel companies, bypassing the processes by which MRTI has engaged as a shareholder to influence corporate behavior.

The PC(USA) has a long history of investor engagement to bring about desired corporate behaviors. Going back to the 1976 assembly of PCUS, one of the PC(USA)’s predecessor denominations, and continuing through the reunion of PCUS and UPCUSA at the 1984 PC(USA) GA, guidelines for socially responsible investing and a divestment strategy were established whereby MRTI is directed to engage corporations in a seven-step process to influence them toward complying with policies advocated by the General Assembly. 

The actions of the 225th General Assembly in 2022 resulted in a targeted divestment from fossil fuel companies Chevron, ExxonMobil, Marathon Petroleum, Phillips 66 and Valero Energy until such time that “their actions comply with the General Assembly’s established criteria.” These companies were added to the denomination’s 2023 prohibited securities list alongside 118 other corporations.

Commissioners line up to speak on resolutions regarding Committee on Environmental and Climate Justice overtures. Photo by Jonathan Watson for Presbyterian Outlook.

While ENV-02 asked PC(USA) agencies and individuals to completely divest from fossil fuel companies, substitute language was proposed on the floor that would allow MRTI to continue its work while fast-tracking divestment in companies engaged in development of oil and gas resources. This substitution was rejected at the insistence of Young Adult Advisory Delegates (YAADs), who urged immediate action.

As the assembly considered the impacts of their investments in fossil fuels, co-Moderator of the Assembly CeCe Armstrong, brought news of Hurricane Beryl’s imminent landfall in Jamaica as a Category 5 storm, praying for those affected by this storm and other climate change-related events. It was noted this is the earliest a Category 5 storm has been recorded in the annual Atlantic hurricane season.

TEC Joanna Hipp speaks on the resolution brought by the Committee on Environmental & Climate Justice. Photo by Jonathan Watson for Presbyterian Outlook.

During the lunch break, before ENV-02 was reconsidered, Frank Spencer, president of the Presbyterian Board of Pensions, said the board understood the decision of the assembly and would continue to work with MRTI as directed to align their investments with the prohibited securities list. 

When ENV-06 was brought forward for discussion after lunch, the conflict between complete divestment (ENV-02) and continued engagement (ENV-06) was questioned and whether ENV-02, as approved, would allow continued engagement. 

“I knew that we had brought forward two things that were incompatible, and I apologize for that,” said Environmental and Climate Justice Committee member Jeffrey Richards. “I do believe God is talking to us. I want us to remember we’re taking a pause.”

“I knew that we (the Environmental and Climate Justice Committee) had brought forward two things that were incompatible, and I apologize for that … I do believe God is talking to us.” — Jeffrey Richards

The assembly, with a vote of 264 to 146, agreed to scuttle ENV-02 and later approved the amended recommendations of ENV-06 by a margin of 375 to 49.

“Today, the GA commissioners discerned together and listened for the movement and voice of the Holy Spirit,” said Allen following the conclusion of the Environment and Climate Justice Committee report. “I believe this compromise was the assembly recognizing the spiritual and emotional distress of climate change while also really hearing the voices of communities that are both impacted and have asked us to stay at the table.”

Bruce Gillette, moderator of Presbyterians for Earth Care, expressed his disappointment in the result of the vote.

“Presbyterians for Earth Care members are heartbroken that the GA voted by a 2-to-1 margin for the ENV-02 overture on Tuesday morning and then voted it down later in the day.” — Bruce Gillette

“Presbyterians for Earth Care members are heartbroken that the GA voted by a 2-to-1 margin for the ENV-02 overture on Tuesday morning and then voted it down later in the day,” he said. “We have come closer than ever to our goal and will continue to work towards it … We encourage church members to support divestment efforts personally, as well as in their churches, governing bodies and educational institutions now.”

Co-Moderator CeCe Armstrong moderates the Tuesday morning plenary. Photo by Jonathan Watson for Presbyterian Outlook.

In addition to recommending alignment with the Paris Agreement and commending the denomination’s investing agencies to work toward a fossil-free future, a recommendation in ENV-06 added Ameren Corporation to the previously identified list of companies named for focused engagement by MRTI. This list includes, but is not limited to, American Airlines, Delta, ConocoPhillips, Duke Energy, Ford, General Motors, Occidental Petroleum, PPL Corporation and United Airlines.

For now, the work of MRTI will continue with the directed imperatives of ENV-06. Allen acknowledged the efforts of MRTI will continue with this emphasis.

“We’re not celebrating this action because there is a lot of work that we have before us in the fight for climate justice, and Mission Responsibility Through Investment is ready to do this work,” she said.