Immigration and Environmental Issues Committee requests fossil fuel overture be sent to MRTI

June 17, 2014

By the narrowest of margins, the 221st General Assembly’s Immigration and Environmental Issues Committee has recommended the Assembly refer an overture urging divestment from fossil fuel companies to its Mission Responsibility Through Investment Committee.

In a show of hands vote Tuesday, a motion to refer the matter passed by a margin of 30 to 29. Most commissioners speaking against referral cited urgent environmental threats and the need for the Assembly to take action quickly.

“We as a church need to show moral leadership on these issues,” said Helen DeLeon, a commissioner from the Presbytery of New Covenant.

Those favoring referral noted the expertise of MRTI and their confidence in the church’s process for socially responsible investment.  Speaking in favor of referral, Scott Phillips, a commissioner from the Presbytery of Plains and Peaks, said, “I am torn because I understand the urgency, but I also know that we want to make decisions responsibly.”

The overture, submitted by the Presbytery of Boston, calls for the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.)’s  Board of Pensions and Foundation to immediately stop new investments in fossil fuel companies and to remove all investments in coal, oil and gas companies within five years. “If fossil fuel companies simply fulfill their business model, the earth will become irreversibly inhospitable to life as we know it,” the overture warns.

MRTI, a standing committee of the General Assembly, implements GA policy regarding socially responsible investing. It engages in practices such as correspondence, dialogues, voting shareholder proxies and shareholder resolutions when corporate behavior is in conflict with church policies. If engagement with a corporation is unsuccessful, the committee may recommend divestment to the General Assembly.

In their comments on the overture prior to the Assembly, the Board of Pensions and the Foundation expressed concerns about the overture and asked that it be referred to MRTI.  Representatives from the groups repeated that recommendation to committee members.

Andy Browne, vice president and corporate secretary for the Board of Pensions, told the committee that the board has seen the corporate engagement process work many times.

“We don’t believe corporations by definition are bad,” Browne said. “People don’t go to work every day wanting to work for the evil empire. They want to do the right thing. They need help from people like the Presbyterian Church to show them what the right thing is.”

The Foundation shares the overture’s goal of a better environment, said Rob Bullock, the organization’s vice president for marketing and communications. However, he stressed that immediate divestment would have serious consequences for its work.

One of the major concerns, he said, is the limitations that it would place on the Foundation’s options for investment in commingled funds, investments in assets from several accounts that are blended together. Commingled fund investors benefit from lower trading costs and diversification. Most commingled funds have fossil fuel stocks in their portfolios, Bullock said.

Judy Freyer, chief investment officer for the Board of Pensions, said the church would lose its ability to influence fossil fuel companies if the church divests from them.

“If you don’t own shares, you give up your seat at the table and you won’t be able to dialogue with these companies anymore,” she said.  By referring the matter to MRTI, the PC(USA) would also have the opportunity to invite ecumenical partners to join the church in its engagement with fossil fuel companies.

Thus far, only one U.S. denomination has committed itself to divestment from fossil fuel companies. The United Church of Christ’s General Synod during its gathering last summer approved a plan for fossil fuel divestment.

In an action taken late Monday, the committee voted to send an amended version of an overture from the Presbytery of Southern New England to the full Assembly that affirms “sustainable development through faithful stewardship of natural resources and the ‘Precautionary Principle.’” The Precautionary Principle is a precept that holds an action shouldn’t be taken if scientific evidence suggests the results could be dangerous.

The recommendation requests the Assembly to direct the Advisory Committee on Social Witness Policy to commission a study group to review the Precautionary Principle. The group would be asked to examine the principle’s relationship to “emerging biotechnical developments and existing Presbyterian social witness policy on environmental ethics.” The group would also be directed to prepare a study paper for congregations that would inform their advocacy efforts.

  1. I have deep respect for the MRTI process and believe that it is an important part of Christian witness. But it is evident just looking at Exxon that corporate engagement is not enough. Exxon has ignored shareholder resolutions about greenhouse gas emissions for million of their shares that have voted for this resolution. How much impact can the Presbyterian Church make on its own when it has far less shares. MRTI needs the support of voices on the ground while they work with the boardrooms. This overture would provide the church with a prophetic voice, which it needs to be relevant in today's society.

    by Sue Smith

    June 19, 2014

  2. How many of these people walked to the meetings? I would venture to say fossil fuel carried them all.

    by Mike Megee

    June 18, 2014

  3. Seems as if this is a non-response to a well researched overture. The MRTI & investment advisors don't seem to have a stellar record of influencing companies by vocally holding shares of their stock. Passing of the original overture will probably not affect the divested companies' bottom lines, but it should send a message to others about how seriously Presbyterians are taking climate change. A vote for the original overture is needed now. Please, No more protracted committee study of divestment.

    by Robert McVety

    June 18, 2014

  4. How much does it cost to form a study group and disseminate a study paper to congregations?

    by jcm

    June 18, 2014

  5. I am an Overture Advocate from the Presbytery of Boston, originating presbytery of this overture, and deeply concerned with the process of what took place yesterday. I was at this committee discussion and the biggest concern we have is that this incredibly important moral issue for our church and world was not debated by the committee, thanks to a parliamentary move that was inspired by the Board of Pensions to refer this motion along without any debate. The other major issue we have is that during the discussion of this motion to refer, 3 out of the 4 "voices" representing MRTI were from active members of the Board of Pensions. Our denomination deserves the chance to openly discuss and discern this issue while here in Detroit. We pray the minority report is brought to the floor of plenary tomorrow night.

    by Rev Rob Mark

    June 18, 2014

  6. The either/or of divestment vs. shareholder engagement is disingenuous and a false dichotomy put forward by the BOP and Foundation. A simple amendment to the original overture 15-01 could have provided the opportunity for substantive divestment while still retaining the small number of shares required to keep our “seat at the table.” That discussion never happened. The motion to refer used Robert’s Rules as a blunt weapon to prevent reasoned discussion of the merits of this overture. I hope that can be corrected in plenary.

    by Dan Terpstra

    June 18, 2014

  7. The ultimate goal of the fossil fuel divestment overture is to educate our leaders about the urgent need to lower our carbon emissions in order to avoid a dangerous rise in temperatures. Time is perilously short to do this, perhaps as short as a few years. The MRTI process is slow and after years of working with fossil fuel companies it has not persuaded a single company to reduce its emissions much less change its core business practices. The motion that passed out of committee sends the overture to MRTI and doesn't even mention the word divestment or describe the urgency of the situation. Approval of this motion is a vote for the status quo. Folks, we have an opportunity to make a real difference and to be leaders in the world wide divestment movement. Movements are powerful and have worked to abolish slavery, apartheid, provide civil rights and stop wars. I ask you if not the church who will right the wrong and injustice of a single industry wrecking the planet and causing untold harm to the poor and vulnerable ? We can change the course of history by agreeing to divest our church's fossil fuel holdings over the next five years and if MRTI wants to study the issue and engage the companies it can do that too. Both are possible and let's see which really changes the dangerous direction we are headed.

    by Pam McVety

    June 18, 2014

  8. I'm aware that a very wise financial expert was in the Immigration and Environment committee room as a potential resource person yesterday and that at least two commissioners tried to call on him to provide information but were not allowed to do so. He had something very important to say about the issue of fossil fuel divestment. Here is a quote from him and his credentials: "The committee struggled in a mighty way to deal with this issue. Many commenters wanted to deal with divestment. They didn’t have enough information. They voted without full appreciation of what it takes to do engagement. A shareholder resolution can be done with as little as $2000. The Denomination does not need to keep millions in these funds to be effective; plus the risk of stranded assets will be decreased by selling the majority of fossil fuel holdings." -Thomas W. Van Dyck, CIMA; Sr. Vice President, Financial Advisor, RBC Wealth Management

    by Robin Blakeman

    June 18, 2014

  9. While i am concerned about global warming...the reality of the PCUSA divesting will simply mean that we are no longer a player at the table. The fossil fuel company stocks will be sold to others and the corporations will no longer have any reason to listen to us. By holding shares we can help influence their actions. A second though is that until something radically changes in this world, fossil fuels are here to stay for at least another century. A cessation of the use of fossil fuels would utterly destroy the world's economy.

    by john judson

    June 18, 2014

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