Fifteen state financial officers sent a letter to U.S. banks last week noting $600 billion in assets they pledge to take elsewhere if the financial institutions embrace corporate wokeism and prohibit financing to the fossil fuel industry.
Led by West Virginia Republican Treasurer Riley Moore, the group promised “collective action” in the form of an “economic boycott.”
Signatories to the letter putting banks on notice include chief financial officers from Arizona, Arkansas, Idaho, Louisiana, Missouri, Nebraska, North Dakota, South Carolina, South Dakota, Utah, Wyoming, Alabama, Texas and Kentucky, in addition to West Virginia.
Not One of 60 Major Commercial Banks Has ‘Leadership Position on Decarbonizing’
Yet the trend line of bank finance for fossil fuels is rising not declining, and not a single big commercial bank has released a plan to stop financing new fossil fuels.
It’s striking that unlike any of other sectors implicated in speeding global warming, not a single one of the 60 major commercial banks has staked out a leadership position on decarbonizing.
On the other labelled days of COP, there were all kinds of interesting mash-ups of governments, private sector actors, and think tanks offering a web of creative announcements about their determination to set ambition on one thing or another. By contrast, on Private Finance Day, the one and only announcement was relating to GFANZ. Banks and investors didn’t even try to push out additional good ideas. Everyone covered themselves in the GFANZ penumbra and then went quiet.
Over the past two weeks, activist hedge fund investor Engine No. 1 scored a victory for the climate change movement by wresting three board seats at ExxonMobil with the support of the “Big Three” institutional investment firms BlackRock, Vanguard, and State Street. But the episode also marks a failure in ExxonMobil’s “corporate diplomacy” because of its inability to convincingly demonstrate that it is committed to mitigating climate risks and protecting its long-term business value, according to Wharton management professor Witold Henisz.
Engine No. 1 has only a 0.02% stake in ExxonMobil, but the climate risk issues it pushed for were sufficient to get the three big investment firms on its side. In explaining its stance, BlackRock stated that the energy major needs “to further assess the company’s strategy and board expertise against the possibility that demand for fossil fuels may decline rapidly in the coming decades.” BlackRock CEO Larry Fink had reiterated his company’s commitment to combating climate change in his 2021 annual letter to CEOs; in his 2020 letter to CEOs, he had said that “climate risk is investment risk.”
A proposed mandate to shutter the $5 billion Prairie State coal energy campus and a Springfield, Illinois? plant by 2035 would hit local ratepayers with the double burden of funding new energy sources while still paying down project bonds, a bipartisan group of state lawmakers warn.
Gov. J.B. Pritzker backs a state mandate to end coal generation by 2035 to meet de-carbonation targets included in pending energy legislation. The package stalled during the General Assembly?s spring session that ended last week, but Pritzker said he expects lawmakers will return in the coming weeks for a vote.
Retiring Prairie State early would mark the latest headache for some of the nine public utilities in Illinois, Indiana, Kentucky, Missouri, and Ohio that issued $4.5 billion of debt, some it under the federal Build America Bond program, to finance their ownership in project.
Peabody Energy Inc. initially sponsored the project in Washington County promoting it as an affordable source of energy with an adjacent mine and a cleaner one given its state-of-the-art technology at the time. Bechtel Power Corp. built it. It initially carried a $2 billion price tag that rose to a $4 billion fixed cost under the 2010 contract with utilities but cost overruns drove the price tag up to $5 billion.
An activist investor is likely to pick up a third seat on the board of Exxon Mobil Corp., giving it additional leverage to press the oil giant to address investor discontent about diminished profits and its fossil-fuel focused strategy amid concerns about climate change.
Exxon said Wednesday that an updated vote count showed shareholders backed a third nominee of Engine No. 1, an upstart hedge fund that had already won two board seats at Exxon’s annual shareholder meeting last week. The final vote hasn’t been certified, Exxon said, and could take days or weeks to be finalized, according to people familiar with the matter.
Engine No. 1, which owns a tiny fraction of Exxon’s stock, had sought four seats on the board and argued the Texas oil giant should commit to carbon neutrality, effectively bringing its emissions to zero—both from the company and its products—by 2050, as some peers have. If the preliminary voting results hold, it will control a quarter of Exxon’s 12-person board.
Shareholders representing nearly 56% of shares that were eligible to vote supported a proposal calling for Exxon to disclose more about direct and indirect lobbying spending and policies, while about 64% voted for Exxon to release a report on how its lobbying aligns with Paris climate accords.
Sticking around and backing dissident board candidates worked. Instead of divesting from Exxon Mobil, the US’s biggest oil company, the nation’s three largest public pension funds pursued a successful strategy of advocating for change, and they just helped elect a pair of outside directors. Expect more of this tack against fossil fuel outfits.
Running counter to the trend of pension programs dumping fossil fuel stocks, these giant retirement systems—the California Public Employees’ Retirement System (CalPERS), the California State Teachers’ Retirement System (CalSTRS), and the New York State Common Retirement Fund—believe that, in most cases, working from within is the better way to promote change.
They were key players in electing the two outside directors (a third is still up in the air as proxy ballots are counted), along with huge asset managers BlackRock and Vanguard, plus other pension entities such as the Church of England’s program.
New York’s state pension fund is restricting investment in six Canadian oil sands companies because they have not shown they are prepared for a transition to a low-carbon future, the fund’s Comptroller Thomas DiNapoli said on Monday.
The New York State Common Retirement Fund will divest more than $7 million in securities already held in the companies, and not make any further investments in them, DiNapoli said in a statement.
Canada’s oil sands hold the world’s third-largest crude reserves and have some of the highest emissions intensity per barrel, due to the carbon-intensive production process of extracting tar-like bitumen from the ground.
Democratic lawmakers have called on U.S. insurers including American International Group Inc., Berkshire Hathaway, Chubb Ltd., Liberty Mutual Insurance Co., MetLife Inc. and Travelers Cos. Inc. to explain how their fossil fuel underwriting policies align with their commitments to sustainability.
In a letter dated March 24, Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse, D-Rhode Island, and Senators Jeffrey A. Merkley, D-Oregon, Elizabeth Warren, D-Massachusetts, and Chris Van Hollen, D-Maryland, request information on each insurer’s fossil fuel underwriting and investment policies.
“An increasing number of your competitors have stopped underwriting coal and other fossil fuel projects and/or restricted their investments in coal and certain dirty and environmentally damaging oil and gas projects such as tar sands,” the letter said.
In places, BlackRock’s findings are redacted, so as not to show the size of particular holdings, but the conclusions are clear: after examining “divestment actions by hundreds of funds worldwide,” the BlackRock analysts concluded that the portfolios “experienced no negative financial impacts from divesting from fossil fuels. In fact, they found evidence of modest improvement in fund return.” The report’s executive summary states that “no investors found negative performance from divestment; rather, neutral to positive results.” In the conclusion to the report, the BlackRock team used a phrase beloved by investors: divested portfolios “outperformed their benchmarks.”
In a statement, the investment firm downplayed that language, saying, “BlackRock did not make a recommendation for TRS to divest from fossil fuel reserves. The research was meant to help TRS determine a path forward to meet their stated divestment goals.” But Tom Sanzillo—I.E.E.F.A.’s director of financial analysis, and a former New York State first deputy comptroller who oversaw a hundred-and-fifty-billion-dollar pension fund—said in an interview that BlackRock’s findings were clear. “Any investment fund looking to protect itself against losses from coal, oil, and gas companies now has the largest investment house in the world showing them why, how, and when to protect themselves, the economy, and the planet.” In short, the financial debate about divestment is as settled as the ethical one—you shouldn’t try to profit off the end of the world and, in any event, you won’t.
In late February, the State University of New York Cortland Faculty Senate, which represents instructors at the Southern Tier school, unanimously passed a resolution urging its pension fund manager, Teachers Insurance and Annuity Association, to divest from fossil fuel companies. “Whereas, the Teachers Insurance and Annuity Association of America-College Retirement Equities Fund (TIAA) has $8 billion invested in industries promoting fossil fuel production, distribution and consumption,” reads the resolution, “…Therefore be it resolved, that the SUNY Cortland faculty urges the SUNY Board of Trustees to support and advocate for the divestment of TIAA funds from all fossil fuel holdings….”
In doing so, the SUNY Cortland Faculty Senate became the latest institution to join TIAA Divest, a campaign demanding that TIAA cease investing in fossil fuel projects, businesses involved in deforestation, and other enterprises accelerating climate change. TIAA has thus far refused to take action, but environmentalists hope that the growing pressure from clients like SUNY faculty will force its hand.
Already, over the past few weeks, Biden’s Security and Exchange Commission (SEC) announced that it will update its guidelines on how climate risks should be disclosed to investors, and launched a task force to focus on climate-related compliance and misconduct. The SEC has also refused to help ExxonMobil block a shareholder vote on a climate-change resolution. (Although the commission did just let the company reject a shareholder proposal to force the operation to disclose what it plans to do with its untapped fossil fuel assets.)
This week, the Securities and Exchange Commission sided with ExxonMobil in rejecting a shareholder proposal to require the company to report how it plans to deal with “stranded assets” — untapped fossil fuels that the company is counting as assets but may never be drilled, meaning they will turn into liabilities.
This is one massive system, and the sources that feed it electricity have become increasingly diversified. And while the shortage of natural gas was a big reason for the power outages in Texas, it was certainly not a shortage of gas that caused the blackouts in California last summer during a heatwave. Grid reliability has come to the fore because the decarbonization of electricity generation is not all fun, games, and zero-emission power.
The U.S. grid, as it is now, cannot support the massive shift to low-carbon power generation, Westhaven Power says. Operators need better control of regional grids to be able to anticipate dangerous situations like the ones in Texas and California, but obtaining it would become trickier with more intermittent wind and solar feeding the grid, the utility explains.
“What events in Texas and California demonstrate is the shortcomings of having highly-centralised power systems and the true value of resilience and flexibility in our energy grids, a value that is going to become even more vital as we continue to transition to renewable energy,” says Dr. Toby Gill, the chief executive of UK-based climate tech startup Intelligent Power Generation.