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Five companies recommended for General Assembly divestment list

‘This is a big deal’ committee chair says of largest divestment vote since apartheid

by Rich Copley | Presbyterian News Service

A portion of the Marathon Petroleum Refinery in Southwest Detroit. Marathon is one of five fossil fuel companies the Presbyterian Committee on Mission Responsibility Through Investment is recommending be placed on the General Assembly’s Divestment/Proscription List. (Photo by Rich Copley)

LEXINGTON, Kentucky — The Presbyterian Committee on Mission Responsibility Through Investment (MRTI) recommended Wednesday afternoon that five energy companies be added to the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.)’s  Divestment/Proscription List.

“This is a big deal,” Committee Chair the Rev. Kerri Allen said during the meeting, noting this was the biggest divestment recommendation by the committee, based on company conduct, since the 1980s when its chief concern was apartheid in South Africa.

The companies recommended in the committee’s report for the list are Chevron, ExxonMobil, Marathon Petroleum, Phillips 66 and Valero Energy. They account for more than half of the nine companies MRTI was originally directed to engage with by the 223rd General Assembly in 2018.

Rob Fohr, director of Faith-Based Investing and Corporate Engagement for the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.), speaks during a 2019 meeting of the Presbyterian Committee on Mission Responsibility Through Investment in Romulus, Michigan. (Photo by Rich Copley)

“MRTI has worked to engage these companies and encourage them to adopt better environmental and human rights policies and practices for years,” said Rob Fohr, Director of Faith-Based Investing and Corporate Engagement, the PC(USA) office that staffs MRTI. “The committee’s recommendations today indicate that we do not believe that meaningful progress will occur through our continued shareholder engagement at this time. We will continue to monitor them to see if they make substantive changes that align with the standards the General Assembly has set.”

The vote was the culmination of a process set in motion by the 222nd General Assembly (2016), when MRTI was directed to engage with companies on environmental criteria based on the 2015 Paris Agreement, including keeping global warming well below 2 degrees Celsius. The committee subsequently set up a guideline metrics framework to evaluate companies that was approved by the 223rd GA. The committee had voted in 2020 to recommend divestment from three companies at the 224th General Assembly, but the motion never came up for a vote as that GA was shortened by the COVID-19 pandemic.

The new recommendation will go to the board of the Presbyterian Mission Agency, which meets Feb. 9-11. If approved by the board, it will be sent to the 225th General Assembly, which meets June 18 through July 9. If the General Assembly approves the MRTI report, the investing agencies related to the denomination would be able to implement the recommendations per their own policies.

MRTI was an early member and one of the few faith-based leaders within the Climate Action 100+, an initiative of 617 institutional investors representing over $60 trillion in assets under management.

Committee engagement and divestment recommendations date back to the 1980s, when MRTI was part of efforts to abolish apartheid in South Africa. The current divestment/proscription list includes companies selected for their involvement in military-related production, tobacco, human rights violations, and for-profit prisons. If approved, the five newly recommended companies will be the first put on the list for environmental issues.

Some voices in the PC(USA) have called for MRTI to categorically divest from all fossil fuel companies. MRTI contends selective divestment is more effective in that continued engagement with companies that are not divested may result in progress toward climate goals, and that divestment recommendations single out particularly bad actors.

Wednesday afternoon, several members of Fossil Free PC(USA) were present at the MRTI meeting.

“Thank you for this process and for this report,” said the Rev. abby mohaupt, co-moderator of Fossil Free PC(USA). “For the magnitude of the divestment that this report is calling for, we commend you. And we’re looking forward to being at General Assembly in a way that is supportive of this report.”

In contrast, some Presbyterians in parts of the United States that are particularly involved in the fossil fuel industry did not welcome the news.

The Rev. Jessica Commeret, pastor of First Presbyterian Church in Findlay, Ohio, where Marathon Petroleum is based, said, “The hard work now begins for those of us on the ground. You made the statement that it’s not personal, but the folks around my session table have a hard time not making it personal. And so I plead for your prayers as we teach about this process, as we lay it out, as we remind and continue to teach that justice is an important part of our faithfulness.”

Activist Emma Lockridge talked to members of the Presbyterian Committee on Mission Responsibility Through Investment about the impact of a Marathon Refinery on her Detroit community in June 2019. (Photo by Rich Copley)

Allen emphasized in the meeting that in addition to the guideline metrics framework and engagement with corporations, the MRTI committee has also engaged with people negatively impacted by the oil and gas industry as well as Presbyterians who work in or benefit from the industry. Fohr said that engaging with stakeholders and learning multiple perspectives is an important part of the MRTI process when considering phased selective divestment recommendations.

The MRTI Committee will continue engagement with companies that were not recommended for divestment, including Ford and General Motors, as well as recommend adding Enbridge, Kinder Morgan, Occidental Petroleum, and PPL Corporation to the list of companies the committee monitors and engages with. Since the 223rd GA, MRTI also began focused engagement with the three largest airlines in the U.S.: American, Delta and United.

The Rev. Kerri Allen chairs the Presbyterian Committee on Mission Responsibility Through Investment (MRTI). (Contributed photo)

Allen emphasized that while Wednesday’s vote was a huge step for MRTI, it was by no means a final act.

“The work that we have to do … does not end with this,” she said. “This is one step in what this church has a responsibility to do, that we as Christians have to do in order to address both climate change, environmental racism, and to support the communities that are disproportionately impacted by those things.”

The Presbyterian Committee on Mission Responsibility Through Investment/Office of Faith-Based Investing and Corporate Engagement is one of the Compassion, Peace & Justice ministries of the Presbyterian Mission Agency.

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