Fossil Fuel Divestment II

In a January 1, 2018, post we discussed the news release from Governor Andrew Cuomo’s office announcing that New York was going to divest its vast pension-fund investments in fossil fuels and an almost simultaneous statement from the comptroller of the city of New York that the city was actively investigating methods for “ceasing additional investments in fossil fuels, divesting current holdings in fossil-fuel companies, and increasing investments in clean energy.” The NY state pension fund totals two hundred billion dollars, making it one of the twenty largest pools of money on Earth, and the city’s pension funds add up to a hundred and ninety billion dollars, also in the top twenty.

On January 11, 2018, The Guardian reported that on January 10 New York City leaders, “at a press conference in a neighborhood damaged over five years ago by Hurricane Sandy, announced that the city was divesting its massive pension fund from fossil fuels, and added for good measure that they were suing the five biggest oil companies for damages. Our planet’s most important city was now at war with its richest industry. And overnight, the battle to save the planet shifted from largely political to largely financial. …. Smart money has been pouring into renewables; dumb money has stuck with fossil fuel, even as it underperformed markets for the last half-decade. Just two months ago Norway’s vast sovereign wealth fund began to divest, which was a pretty good signal: if even an oil industry stalwart thought the game was up, they were probably right.”

In addition to divesting $5 billion in their funds from fossil fuels, Mayor Bill de Blasio announced that the city had just filed a lawsuit against major five fossil fuel firms – BP, Exxon Mobil, Chevron, ConocoPhillips and Shell – for their contributions to climate change, saying they “knew about its effects and intentionally misled the public to protect their profits.”

According to a January 10 Guardian article, “Court documents state that New York has suffered from flooding and erosion due to climate change and because of looming future threats it is seeking to ‘shift the costs of protecting the city from climate change impacts back on to the companies that have done nearly all they could to create this existential threat.’ The court filing claims that just 100 fossil fuel producers are responsible for nearly two-thirds of all greenhouse gas emissions since the industrial revolution, with the five targeted companies the largest contributors. The case will also point to evidence that firms such as Exxon knew of the impact of climate change for decades, only to downplay and even deny this in public. New York’s attorney general, Eric Schneiderman, is investigating Exxon over this alleged deception.”

Writing in The Intercept on January 11, 2018, Naomi Klein says, “Now, with New York City’s lawsuit for climate damages, the market is confronting the prospect of a cascade of similar legal actions — cities, towns, and countries all suing the industry for billions or even (combined) trillions of dollars in damages caused by sea-level rise and extreme weather events. The more suits that get filed, the more the market will have to factor in the possibility of fossil fuel companies having to pay out huge settlements in the near to medium term, much as the tobacco companies were forced to in past decades. As that threat becomes more credible, with more players taking New York City’s lead, the investor case for dumping these stocks as overly high risk will be strengthened, thereby lending a potent new tool to the fossil fuel divestment movement. A virtuous cycle. Oh, and the more we are able to hit the industry in the pocketbook, the less likely costly new drilling and pipeline projects will be to go ahead….”