If you filled up your car in California this week, you probably noticed it didn't cost much. Gasoline is a bargain, on average just $3.06 a gallon across the state. Even in high-priced San Francisco, it's cheap: $3.24, and falling fast. Compare this to the statewide average of $4.26 a gallon six months ago, and it's no wonder you noticed.
Supply and demand
There are lots of reasons for this surprising development, but it boils down mainly to a simple matter of supply and demand. The market is awash in new sources of oil, from the fracking boom in North Dakota to production increases in Russia, Iraq, and Libya. Also, the OPEC cartel was unable to agree on production cuts last week, so its large share of world output remains large.
But increasing supply is only half the story. Demand is down, too. The global economy is still ailing. Vehicle efficiency continues to improve. Some hedge-fund managers have pulled back from their too-optimistic investments in oil. Japan is moving back to nuclear power and needs less oil.
So gas is cheap in California, and the oil companies are suffering—a bit. They will suffer more in the future, since this mismatch of supply and demand is likely to recur, though not for precisely the same reasons. If you buy oil company stock now, you're buying high, and you will eventually have to sell low. That's reason enough to divest.
Not as cheap as it seems
But there are even more compelling reasons to sell your shares in oil companies—and to encourage CalPERS and CalSTRS to sell too.
Jane Vosburg is a member of the California State Teachers' Retirement System who campaigns for divestment with 350 Sonoma County and Educators for Fossil Free Divestment. On November 7, she spoke to the CalSTRS Investment Committee meeting in West Sacramento.
Thank you for allowing me this time to comment, and thank you, Sharon Hendricks and Paul Rosenstiel, for requesting educational guest speakers to be a part of CalSTRS' focus this year on sustainability. Finally, thank you, Jack Ehnes, for inviting Al Gore, David Blood, and Tom Steyer to February’s meeting.
We are living in unprecedented times. Last week the Intergovernmental Panel for Climate Change issued its fifth report, laying out the dire, irreversible consequences of global warming if we fail to reduce carbon emissions now. This September, the $860 million Rockefeller Foundation—who owes its very existence to oil—announced its divestment from fossil fuel, and last week UN Secretary General Ban Ki-Moon stated that he has "been urging companies like pension funds or insurance companies to reduce their investments in a fossil-fuel based economy [and shift] to renewable sources of energy." And all this takes place while humanity stays on course for raising the global temperature by 6 degrees Celsius, which would make the planet uninhabitable. These are indeed unprecedented times.
We CalSTRS investors urge you, the Investment Committee, to support a reasonable resolution to immediately freeze any new investments in the fossil fuel industry and sell all other such funds over a period of five years.
This post is by Elise Miller of San Mateo, a CalPERS member. To join Elise in petitioning the CalPERS board to divest, click here.
In 1998, I retired from San Diego State University and as a state employee for 16 years, became a proud member of CalPERS, the California Public Employees' Retirement System—at $301 billion, one of the largest such funds in the nation. Today, I was stunned and saddened to find out that my pension money is funding oil, gas, and coal and blocking the transition to renewable energy.
I recently read in the CalPERS newsletter that my retirement fund has a set of "investment beliefs." I was pleased to see that environmental and climate issues were among its concerns.
Why was I especially pleased? When my children were in elementary school, I began to write letters to corporations and elected officials about preserving the environment. In those days, we talked about "pollution"—air, water, land. The most global we got was the Rainforest Action Network and anti-nuclear protests in the 1970s and 1980s. That was working for the future—my children’s future.
Suddenly, it is the future. As my children and their friends meet the challenges of their thirties, all our environmental issues are global and the last calendar page has been torn off.
Climate change is the most pressing issue of our time, bar none. War? Racism? Income inequality? All urgent, but I am learning that climate change does not affect everyone equally, and so it is also a social justice issue. Problems bundled together are easier to attack, and my own attack now begins against unethical, dangerous fossil fuel investment, and climate change.
Bloomberg News reports that companies serious about climate change have outperformed the wider market by 10 percent over the last five years. CDP, a UK nonprofit, tracks hundreds of companies and grades them "based on how aggressively they are setting and meeting carbon goals, and on how forthcoming they are about this work":
CDP's Carbon Performance Leadership Index (CPLI) is composed of companies that lead their peers in managing and reporting the carbon pollution from their own operations and supply chains.... In the five years since the CPLI first launched, the index beat both the Bloomberg World Index, which tracks the largest companies across sectors by market value, and the Dow Jones Sustainability World Index.
In short, reducing the use of carbon is good business, and many companies are helping their bottom line while helping the planet. CDP calculates that the return on investment of carbon reduction activities is 33 percent, providing a complete payback for green costs in just three years.
Many businesspeople mistakenly believe that spending money to move from carbon-based to renewable energy hurts their profits. CDP demonstrates that the reverse is true: green business is profitable business.
It might seem, on the basis of this report, that those of us in the climate movement would do better to encourage Chevron and Peabody Coal to diversify and reduce their carbon footprint rather than to work for divestment. Nothing could be further from the truth.
Join us as we sound the alarm for divestment from oil companies — and from coal and natural gas too! We call for institutions and individuals to stop buying stocks and bonds of companies that are destroying the climate with CO2 — and to get rid of any current fossil fuel investments within five years.
Divestment campaigns were instrumental in fighting South African apartheid and tobacco addiction. They will be effective fighting fossil fuel addiction, too.
✔︎ Click here to join the campaign.
✔︎ Click here for more information and resources.
Bill McKibben, co-founder of 350.org, will speak at the Climate Action Forum next week in San Francisco, and fossil fuel divestment is on the agenda. The Forum, cosponsored by 350 Bay Area, is at San Francisco State University.
McKibben's talk will be at 2:00 pm on Thursday, October 16, and student-led breakout sessions will follow to encourage involvement with climate activism, including divestment. Three climate films will also be screened earlier in the week, on October 13, 14, and 15. You can find more information and RSVP to these events here.
The University of Glasgow is divesting from fossil fuels. In a dramatic decision, the university court voted today to become the first European institution of higher education to cease "profiting from the wreckage of the climate," as Bill McKibben puts it. Glasgow will "begin divesting £18m [$29 million] from the fossil fuel industry and freeze new investments across its entire endowment of £128m."
Glasgow joins thirteen US colleges and universities that have already made this commitment. Five of those institutions are in California, but the two statewide educational research systems are not yet included — the University of California and California State University. And Stanford University has begun divestment from coal stocks only. There is much more to be done in the state, and 350 Bay Area is supporting students and alumni working to change their institutions' policies.
McKibben called today's decision “a dramatic beachhead for the divestment movement,” pointing out the centrality of Glasgow to the birth of the industrial revolution. Naomi Klein added that students are "sending an unequivocal message that fossil fuel profits are illegitimate – on par with tobacco and arms profits."
The moral arguments for divestment are clear. As Bill McKibben sums it up: "If it’s wrong to wreck the climate, then it’s wrong to profit from that wreckage."
The financial arguments are, admittedly, more speculative, as is the nature of any financial prediction. Nevertheless, there is much evidence for the likelihood that investments in fossil-fuel companies will become increasingly risky over the next few years. The logic is this:
- The current valuation of fossil-fuel companies is based, in large part, on the prospective market value of the coal, oil, and gas reserves which they own and plan to sell.
- If catastrophic climate change is to be averted, a large percentage of those reserves (an estimated 70-80%) must remain in the ground, unsold and unburned.
- As the effects of climate change become ever clearer, governments will increasingly implement policies to reduce the burning of fossil fuels, in the form of regulations, carbon taxes, mandatory cap-and-trade regimes, and subsidies for renewable energy.
- As the associated costs increase and renewables become less expensive, fossil-fuel supply will eventually outstrip demand, and it will become uneconomical to extract the reserves, beginning with the dirtiest and the most expensive.
- These unextracted reserves will become stranded assets; valuation of fossil-fuel companies will be reduced; and the carbon bubble will deflate.