GA turns back move to divest from fossil-fuel firms

Opponents say maintaining investments gives PC(USA) more clout

June 25, 2016

GA attendees line up at a microphone during plenary.

GA attendees line up at a microphone during plenary. —Michael Whitman

Portland

The Presbyterian Church (U.SA.) will continue its investment in fossil-fuel companies after overwhelmingly turning back an overture Friday to begin divestment immediately. Instead, it will continue the process of selective, phased, divestment that begins with full corporate engagement. Bill Somplatsky-Jarman, the denomination’s associate for Mission Responsibility Through Investment (MRTI), told commissioners that divestment could well reduce Presbyterians’ ability to persuade energy companies to act in environmentally responsible ways – one of the purposes of MRTI.

“In the real world of corporate engagement, the more stock you own the more power you have,” Somplatsky-Jarman said. “You are treated much more seriously by companies that are skeptical of what you are asking for.”

By a 31-25 vote, the assembly’s Immigration and Environmental Issues Committee had recommended divestment. Commissioners wound up voting for a substitute, 460-91.

MRTI Chair Elizabeth (Terry) Dunning told commissioners that the committee’s corporate-engagement approach has been effective.

In  recent  years ConocoPhillips has reduced its carbon dioxide emissions by 6.8 million tons, she said, adding: “But for our engagement, that may well not have happened.”

MRTI member Joseph Kinard said corporate engagement has helped the PC(USA) establish partnerships with a broad range of institutions, including environmental and human- rights groups and other churches. “We get access to senior leaders and decision makers,” he said. “We believe categorical divestment will take away our leverage.”

Divesting, said David Green of Presbytery of New Covenant, who helped bring forward the minority report for selective divestment (the one the assembly endorsed), said divestment would be “perceived as vilifying people who have worked hard in the energy sector,” including roughnecks, pipefitters, electricians, truck drivers and mechanics. “We have a pastoral responsibility to care for and love all God’s children,” he said.

His partner in bringing forward the minority report, Max Reddick of the Presbytery of East Tennessee, said its supporters were asking the assembly “to speak with a voice both prophetic and pastoral, one that speaks with accountability and welcome.”

Supporters of divestment argued that more immediate action was required.

“Why do so many of our habits perpetrate our addiction to fossil fuels?” asked Sarah Cleeland of the Presbytery of Giddings-Lovejoy.

Under an amendment approved by Susan Sytsma Bratt of Grace Presbytery, MRTI must report back to the 223rd General Assembly in 2018 with recommendations, possibly including divestment if significant changes in corporate practices are not being  implemented.

For more on assembly actions on the overtures presented  by the Immigration and Environmental Issues Committee, visit www.pc-biz.org/#/committee/569/business.

  1. As a GA commissioner, I too was dismayed by the lack of support given for the majority report on the floor. Those backing it did not stand up and demand time to explain the committee report and recommendation. It's easy to see the result and blame the moderators or others, but those speaking FOR the majority report did not push hard enough pre-perfection to state the case. There was a widely held idea that it may easily pass plenary but the committee was tightly split on the recommendation that came to the GA. While an 18% concurrence rate is definitely high (and higher might I add than the Foothills overtures requested for Book of Order changes), the fact that only 55% of committee members backed the recommendation shows that debate was necessary. The process of the minority report skewed the debate for sure, but someone from the committee or very closely aligned with the movement needed to request equal time to get it.

    by DVB

    June 27, 2016

  2. In reading the description of the debate over divestment it sounds like the fossil fuel industry won. All hail Caesar. The false dichotomy between jobs and the environment seems to have held sway. God's earth needs our full devotion NOW!

    by Brian Rhinesmith

    June 26, 2016

  3. I was deeply disappointed that the minority report and MRTI received 20 minutes of privilege, and the committee's majority report, responding to a historic wave of overtures from 31 presbyteries, received no attention at all from the platform. This determined the outcome, since three or four minutes from the floor, in one minute increments, cannot respond sufficiently to this complex issue. The discussion dwelt on optimism that the PCUSA could change the business plan of fossil fuel companies, and the possibilities that we might contribute to job loss for those who work in these industries. The platform never asked whether it is moral for the church to profit from actions that inflict suffering--including not only job loss but also loss of homes and lives--on those the climate crisis is already afflicting. The moral failure here is not that we struggle with the best way to address the climate crisis, but that powerful interests didn't allow the strong voice of presbyteries, committee members, and of 9 previous GA moderators, to be heard. Dirty politics like this disillusion and discourage the young people we say we want to nurture. I am amazed.

    by Trisha Tull

    June 26, 2016

  4. I am deeply disappointed our GA for both the parliamentary process that led to this vote (i.e. neglecting the voice of committee 9), and the misinformation that accompanied it. Even this article contains misinformation that was not in 09-01 (i.e. there was never any proposal for "immediate divestment" - it called for a phased divestment over the next 3 years / and categorical divestment was never on the table - the overture called for keeping minimal shares). And without a doubt, we as a church would have far more "power" were we to have made the clear moral choice to divest and begin walking the talk so that we were no longer profiting off companies who core business model hurts our planet and the poorest among us. The climate justice movement will continue, I just am deeply brokenhearted our denomination was swayed by MRTI and a minority voice to neglect to take this prophetic, faithful and moral choice.

    by Rev. Rob Mark

    June 25, 2016

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