NYC looks to divest pension funds of fossil fuels

New York City officials will announce Wednesday plans to divest the city's five pension funds of approximately $5 billion in fossil fuel investments, citing climate change as their motivation. 

Martin Meissner/AP/File
A man looks over a BP refinery in Gelsenkirchen, Germany on Jan. 19, 2016. New York City officials will begin divesting around $5 billion in pension fund investments in fossil fuel companies, including BP.

New York City officials are citing climate change as their motivation to join a growing number of investors ridding themselves of financial interest in fossil fuels.

Democratic New York Mayor Bill de Blasio and Comptroller Scott Stringer are set to announce plans on Wednesday to divest the city's five pension funds of roughly $5 billion in fossil fuel investments out of its total of $189 billion. They say the divestment is the largest of any municipality in the United States to date.

"Safeguarding the retirement of our city's police officers, teachers, and firefighters is our top priority, and we believe that their financial future is linked to the sustainability of the planet," Mr. Stringer said.

Clara Vondrich of the DivestInvest campaign says the city joins a movement that started about six years ago. She says hundreds of institutional investors managing assets of over $5.5 trillion have taken their money out of fossil fuel investments.

Last month, Democratic New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo announced plans to have the state pension funds also divest from fossil fuel investments. He and state Comptroller Thomas DiNapoli are creating an advisory committee to examine the way to proceed with divestment.

In November, Norway's central bank urged the Norwegian government to consider divesting oil and gas company shares held in the $1 trillion oil fund.

Vondrich said other cities and entities divesting of fossil fuel interests have included Washington, D.C.; Berlin; and Cape Town, South Africa; insurance companies Swiss Re, Axa, and Allianz; and educational institutions such as the University of Oxford in England, Stanford University in California, and Trinity College in Ireland.

Philanthropies have included the Wallace Global Fund and the Rockefeller Brothers Fund, notable because the late John D. Rockefeller grew his wealth as an oil baron.

"The Rockefeller Brothers Fund is proud to stand alongside Mayor de Blasio and Comptroller Stringer in their historic commitment to divest the NYC pension funds from fossil fuels," Stephen Heintz, president of the Rockefeller Brothers Fund, said in a statement.

Brian Youngberg, a senior energy analyst at Edward Jones Investments, noted divestment is not entirely altruistic over the issue of climate change. Fossil fuel securities are underperforming and officials say the outlook for fossil fuel investments continues to be negative.

"One issue facing the industry is peak oil demand," Mr. Youngberg said. "Growth will slow over the next several years."

Kyle Isakower, vice president of the American Petroleum Institute, has previously said that divestment is a "tactic of misinformed activists" that is incompatible with "job creation, affordable energy, and economic prosperity."

"Millions of retirees and pension holders depend on income from oil and natural gas investments to live," he said." Government pension fund managers have a fiduciary responsibility to ensure the greatest return for their investors. Divestment from energy stocks is likely to reduce investment returns and is therefore not in agreement with their fiduciary responsibility."

New York's two largest pension funds, New York City Employees' Retirement System and Teachers' Retirement System, will immediately pursue divesting by 2022, officials said, "consistent with prudent practice and in line with their fiduciary responsibilities." The other three major pension funds will be encouraged to begin divestment as quickly as practical.

Fund trustees also will seek a legal opinion to confirm that carrying out divestment actions would be consistent with trustees' fiduciary duties to beneficiaries.

Mr. De Blasio also is expected to announce a lawsuit against five major oil companies, seeking damages for the costs of infrastructure improvements to contend with the effects of climate change.

This was reported by The Associated Press.

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