Climate Change Is Becoming A Bigger Deal For State Retirement Funds

Stacks and burn-off from the Exxon Mobil refinery, Louisiana, Climate Change
Stacks and burn-off from the Exxon Mobil refinery are seen at dusk in St. Bernard Parish, La., Friday, Feb. 13, 2015.

An effort to require oil giants Chevron and Exxon Mobil to determine the risk climate change poses to them narrowly failed Wednesday.

But several state retirement funds—including Colorado’s– supported the effort.

Colorado Public Employee’s Retirement Association, or PERA, voted in favor of stress test resolutions that would provide more information about the economic risks posed by a warming planet. As of March 31 2016, Colorado PERA owned 1.6 million shares of Chevron and more than 923,000 shares of Exxon Mobil. Colorado PERA invests on behalf of more than 500,000 current and former state employees.

“We need more disclosure on some issues than we’ve had in the past,” said Colorado PERA Executive Director Greg Smith.

The call for more information was led by New York state Comptroller Thomas DiNapoli, a trustee of the New York State Common Retirement Fund. The move was supported by state retirement systems in Vermont and California.

Interest in the topic of climate change has been heightened since the 2015 climate summit in Paris, where 200 countries including the United States agreed to hold the planet’s rise in temperatures below 2 degrees Celsius.

“If there are limitations that impact one geographic area, one country more than another, what is that going to do to their holdings [compared to] a company that has a different geographic dispersion of its holdings?” said Smith. “Those types of things are what we hope comes out of these disclosures."

In the past, Colorado PERA has voted in favor of similar climate change reporting proposals with other holdings it owns including Anadarko Petroleum, Noble Energy, AES Corporation, Hess Corporation and Dominion Resources.

Diverse Interests Driving Climate Change Resolution Support

While Colorado PERA is seeking more investing data, it’s staying away from making any political statements on climate change. PERA voted against a shareholder proposal that would have required Exxon Mobil to make climate change policy commitment. It also voted against a proposal prompting Chevron to reduce its greenhouse gas emissions.

“We’re not in the business of telling Exxon or Chevron what work they should be doing, or what their business model should be,” said Smith.

Socially responsible investing firm First Affirmative Financial Network, based in Colorado Springs, supported all of the climate change resolutions put forth by the two oil giants. The company owns minimal shares of both Chevron and Exxon Mobil.

"We have been heartened by the strong support that has been exhibited by a broad range of investors pressing Exxon in particular on their complete lack of preparation for the coming lower carbon economy," said First Affirmative Director of Shareowner Engagement Holly Testa via e-mail.

Exxon Mobil is currently under investigation by New York's Attorney General to determine if the company lied to the public about the risks of climate change.

"Exxon clearly invested a lot of shareholder resources blocking shareholder requests for disclosure and action on climate change. They should instead be investing in the diversification of their energy business away from the past that is fossil fuel and towards the future that is renewable energy," said Testa.

Chevron and Exxon opposed all the climate change resolutions and attempted to block them from getting a vote this week. The Securities and Exchange Commission ruled against the move last March.

Despite defeat, environmental groups declared victory on Wednesday. They said the stress test resolutions drew more support than any contested climate-change proposals in recent history.

The growing group of supporters is a diverse mix of activists and investors that simply want full disclosure from companies on the financial impact of climate change.

“That’s the reason you’re seeing what might appear to be a shift. But I think it’s an evolution,” said PERA's Greg Smith.