One of the most closely watched debates at the last two Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) General Assemblies concerned whether or not the church should stop investing in fossil fuel companies. In June the 222nd General Assembly (2016) rejected an overture calling for immediate divestment, voting instead to continue a process of corporate engagement with energy companies for at least two more years.
The engagement process could lead to selective, phased divestment from companies that do not show significant progress in adopting environmentally responsible practices between now and the 223rd General Assembly (2018).
As the dust settled from the debate, leaders of PC(USA) bodies overseeing the denomination’s corporate engagement activities and financial investments were busy pursuing strategies to leverage church financial holdings to address environmental concerns.
“Our role is to influence big-picture change,” said Rob Fohr, mission associate for Mission Responsibility Through Investment (MRTI), just before boarding a plane to New York City in mid-July to meet with a group of investors working on engaging corporations on environmental responsibility. Getting companies to make care for the environment a priority in their strategic planning is a primary goal of MRTI, he said.
Fohr was headed for a meeting organized by Ceres, an organization that mobilizes networks of companies, investors, and public interest groups to improve strategies on environmental and social challenges across the global economy. Together, the organizations represented by Ceres represent some $24 trillion in investments—a number large enough to get the attention of major corporations.
MRTI also works in partnership with the Interfaith Center on Corporate Responsibility, a coalition of nearly 300 organizations seeking to promote sustainable practices and leverage their investments as catalysts for social change.
“We have more clout working with a community of faith-based and values-based investors,” Fohr explained.
While Fohr traveled to New York, Joseph Kinard was representing the Board of Pensions, one of the primary investing agencies of the PC(USA), at a conference in Miami. Kinard was part of a panel discussing “Fossil Fuels vs. Renewable Energy.” He also is chair of MRTI’s Environmental Issues Committee.
“MRTI will be meeting with energy companies for the next year and a half, in New York, Texas, and elsewhere, beginning in October,” Kinard said. “What we are doing is continuing a process used by MRTI for over thirty years.”
The process is all about “people, dialogue, change,” he added. “The 222nd General Assembly (2016) has directed MRTI to continue its focused engagement process on climate change issues with all corporations, especially in the oil, gas, and coal sectors. We can fairly assess which companies are contributing to solutions and which are lagging or refusing to do their part. The recalcitrant ones could be candidates for selective divestment if our engagements fail to bear fruit.”
“It’s an incremental process,” Fohr said, but “small changes add up”—especially when you consider the size of the companies involved and the impact small policy shifts in multiple companies could have on the environment.
MRTI filed or co-filed shareholder resolutions related to climate change with five oil and gas companies and one utility company in 2016, Fohr said. “We’re in dialogue with another five or six energy companies on top of that.”
Shareholders have filed a record number of resolutions dealing with climate change in 2016, Fohr said. And the percentage of investments represented by these resolutions increases every year—getting close to 40- or 50-percent of investments in some corporations.
“When those percentages get high enough, companies will make changes,” he said.
For example, at this year’s General Assembly, MRTI Chair Elizabeth (Terry) Dunning told commissioners that ConocoPhillip, one of the companies engaged by the PC(USA), has reduced its carbon dioxide emissions by 6.8 million tons in recent years.
Judith Freyer, chief investment officer for the Board of Pensions, says the Board of Pensions has been an active participant in the work of MRTI for more than thirty years. “We will continue to participate in MRTI corporate engagement with companies in the fossil fuel industry.”
As part of its action on engagement with fossil fuel companies, the assembly requested the Board of Pensions, the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) Foundation, and the Presbyterian Investment and Loan Program, Inc., to “consider an increasingly more diversified energy sector in their overall investment portfolios.”
This is something the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) Foundation is already working on, says Rob Bullock, the Foundation’s vice president for marketing and communications.
Two years ago, at the 221st General Assembly (2014), “we saw how much passion there is in the church” around stewardship of the environment, Bullock says. “It’s a major issue the church wants to address, so we wanted to help address it in positive ways.”
Last year the Foundation’s board of trustees decided to designate 1 percent of its endowments—approximately $7 million—for investments targeting climate change, Bullock says.
“In our investment policy, this is unique,” he added, “because it’s the only place where we’ve said investments would be made around a particular issue.”
Bullock says the Foundation has just placed its first investment in LL Capital Partners, a company that finances solar energy installations. Future investments could include wind, geo-thermal, or bio-energy; storage technologies (batteries); and “smart” grids to distribute power loads more efficiently within a city area.
“We’ve written to all of our investment managers asking them to consider environmental factors in their selection process,” Bullock says.
The Foundation has also developed tools to help congregations and presbyteries align their investment strategies with their commitment to stewardship of the environment. Investments managed by the Foundation’s subsidiary, New Covenant Trust Company, can now be screened by request to eliminate investments in fossil fuel companies.
The Foundation is working with the Presbyterian Investment and Loan Program, Inc., to provide Restoring Creation Loans to congregations to renovate their buildings using energy-efficient products. The loans enable churches to construct buildings that conserve energy, thus saving on costs and reducing carbon emissions.
These tools, Bullock says, are “a really exciting way for churches to do something proactive” about the environment.