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GA changes will delay divestment recommendations, but corporate engagement will continue


PC(USA) responsible investment committee recommended three companies for divestment in January

by Rich Copley | Presbyterian News Service

Rob Fohr, director of Faith-Based Investing and Corporate Engagement for the PC(USA), and Joseph Kinard, chair of the Committee on Mission Responsibility Through Investment. (Photo by Rich Copley)

LEXINGTON, Kentucky — One of the higher profile decisions set to come out of the 224th General Assembly in June was to be a vote on adding three fossil fuel companies to the General Assembly Divestment/ Proscription list.

The vote to add ExxonMobil, Marathon Petroleum and Valero Energy to the list followed an extensive process of discernment and engagement by the Presbyterian Committee on Mission Responsibility Through Investment (MRTI) and the Presbyterian Mission Agency Board’s vote to send the recommendation to the General Assembly.

But due to the COVID19 pandemic, GA will now be vastly different from how it was planned: a three-day virtual session June 19, 26, and 27 tending to critical business only. The MRTI recommendation will not be on the agenda, and those companies will not be added to the list this GA.

“While we are disappointed the work of the Committee on Mission Responsibility Through Investment (MRTI) will not be considered this year, we trust the guidance of the Holy Spirit and (the Committee on the General Assembly) during this global crisis,” MRTI chair Joseph Kinard said in a statement posted to the committee’s website. “This pandemic is a traumatic and devasting time for the world and has unveiled preexisting unjust disparities — most especially in the communities whose voices MRTI has made the priority to engage over the past couple of years.”

Rob Fohr, Director of Faith-Based Investing and Corporate Engagement for the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.), said that while it is disappointing the committee’s work could not come to fruition, it can simply continue working the way it has been.

“Substantively, we don’t anticipate the GA decision will change our work in the coming years,” Fohr said. “We will continue to monitor and score companies per the General Assembly-approved Guideline Metrics and maintain our participation in corporate engagements through the Climate Action 100+ initiative.”

The Guideline Metrics were the result of a mandate from the 222nd General Assembly in 2016 to develop a set of standards that companies would be evaluated on for their response to climate change. The more than 40 measures were approved at the 223rd General Assembly and include criteria such as “efforts made to limit temperature increase to 1.5 degrees Celsius” and “evidence of more rapid integration of new technologies designed to reduce the company’s overall carbon footprint.”

The MRTI committee is part of the Climate Action 100+, an “investor initiative to ensure the world’s largest corporate greenhouse gas emitters take necessary action on climate change,” according to its website. The group represents more than $40 trillion of assets under management or one-third of the world’s investment capital.

The MRTI committee has long contended that engagement with leaders and boards of corporations is its most important tool in advocating for the church’s position on issues such as the environment. A divestment recommendation is essentially an acknowledgement that engagement or attempts at engagement were not producing desired results.

Since the three companies recommended for divestment will not be placed on the GA Divestment/Proscription list this year, Fohr said that the committee “will continue to make efforts to engage these companies through the Climate Action 100+ and monitor them through our Guideline Metrics.”

And there is a chance that MRTI could change its recommendations, if it sees improvement.

MRTI’s statement on the GA decision noted that the committee’s January divestment/proscription decision, based on environmental criteria and not financial performance, had attracted international attention. It noted a Valero Energy statement that said, “the company faces increasing investor pressure related to climate change and potential divestment. If we are unable to meet the sustainability standards set by these investors, we may lose investors, our stock price may be negatively impacted and our reputation may be negatively affected.”

The Rev. Kerri Allen, MRTI chair-elect, said the committee will keep the pressure on.

The Rev. Kerri Allen addresses the 223rd General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) in St. Louis on June 22, 2018. (Photo by Michael Whitman)

“Because the 223rd General Assembly approved such clear policy language in its directive to MRTI, we plan to continue with our process,” she said. “This pandemic makes plain that the status quo is unacceptable, and if any company is taking seriously the environmental, social and governance standards of their investors, they will put their policies where their mouth is and take substantive action.”

In the GA statement, she continued, “In a new way, this pandemic exposes the pernicious disparities that exist throughout our communities. While they have always been present, the pandemic reveals them for a broader public sphere. MRTI will continue to prioritize engaging those impacted by the climate crisis and environmental racism as circumstances allow in the coming years.”

The Presbyterian Committee on Mission Responsibility Through Investment is one of the Compassion, Peace & Justice ministries of the Presbyterian Mission Agency.

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