Presbyterians turn back move to divest from fossil-fuel firms

Opponents say maintaining investments gives church more clout

Posted Jun 27, 2016

[Presbyterian News Service] The Presbyterian Church (U.SA.) will continue its investment in fossil-fuel companies after overwhelmingly turning back an overture June 24 to begin divestment immediately. Instead, it will continue the process of selective, phased, divestment that begins with full corporate engagement. Bill Somplatsky-Jarman, the denomination’s associate for Mission Responsibility Through Investment (MRTI), told commissioners that divestment could well reduce Presbyterians’ ability to persuade energy companies to act in environmentally responsible ways – one of the purposes of MRTI.

“In the real world of corporate engagement, the more stock you own the more power you have,” Somplatsky-Jarman said. “You are treated much more seriously by companies that are skeptical of what you are asking for.”

By a 31-25 vote, the 222nd General Assembly (2016)’s Immigration and Environmental Issues Committee had recommended divestment. Commissioners wound up voting for a substitute, 460-91.

MRTI Chair Elizabeth (Terry) Dunning told commissioners that the committee’s corporate-engagement approach has been effective.

In  recent  years ConocoPhillips has reduced its carbon dioxide emissions by 6.8 million tons, she said, adding: “But for our engagement, that may well not have happened.”

MRTI member Joseph Kinard said corporate engagement has helped the PC(USA) establish partnerships with a broad range of institutions, including environmental and human- rights groups and other churches. “We get access to senior leaders and decision makers,” he said. “We believe categorical divestment will take away our leverage.”

Divesting, said David Green of Presbytery of New Covenant, who helped bring forward the minority report for selective divestment (the one the assembly endorsed), said divestment would be “perceived as vilifying people who have worked hard in the energy sector,” including roughnecks, pipefitters, electricians, truck drivers and mechanics. “We have a pastoral responsibility to care for and love all God’s children,” he said.

His partner in bringing forward the minority report, Max Reddick of the Presbytery of East Tennessee, said its supporters were asking the assembly “to speak with a voice both prophetic and pastoral, one that speaks with accountability and welcome.”

Supporters of divestment argued that more immediate action was required.

“Why do so many of our habits perpetrate our addiction to fossil fuels?” asked Sarah Cleeland of the Presbytery of Giddings-Lovejoy.

Under an amendment approved by Susan Sytsma Bratt of Grace Presbytery, MRTI must report back to the 223rd General Assembly in 2018 with recommendations, possibly including divestment if significant changes in corporate practices are not being  implemented.

More on assembly actions on the overtures presented  by the Immigration and Environmental Issues Committe is here.