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PC(USA) responsible investment committee expands divestment criteria

MRTI vote means it is likely more companies will be recommended for environmental concerns

by Rich Copley | Presbyterian News Service

Photo by Patrick Weissenberger via Unsplash

LEXINGTON, Kentucky — The Presbyterian Committee on Mission Responsibility Through Investment (MRTI) voted at its Oct. 11 meeting to expand the criteria for recommending companies be placed on the General Assembly’s divestment/proscription list.

The committee voted to include any company that falls into the bottom two categories of its guideline metrics framework for environmental, social, and governance (ESG) issues to the list. Previously, the committee had recommended companies only in the bottom category, due to poor performance in its environmental screen, be placed on the list.

The 222nd General Assembly (2016) directed MRTI to develop criteria for evaluating companies it was engaging with regarding ESG issues. The 223rd General Assembly (2018) approved MRTI’s guideline metrics in 2018. In 2020, the committee recommended three companies in the lowest tier of the metrics be placed on the list. But the recommendation was not voted on at the meeting, which was abbreviated due to the COVID-19 pandemic. The committee is now preparing its report for the 225th GA June 17 through July 9, 2022.

“Since we initially made divestment recommendations in 2020, the climate crisis has only gotten more urgent. MRTI reviewed and updated the Guideline Metrics framework to include more rigorous review of a company’s environmental policies, and added some DEI criteria,” said the Rev. Dr. Gregory Simpson, Chair of MRTI’s subcommittee on Environmental and Climate Change, who served on the taskforce updating the criteria. “It’s also time our recommendations become more rigorous as well and take into account companies that are not improving quickly enough.”

Any company scoring in the red (0-100 out of a possible 240 points) or orange (101-135) categories of the Guideline Metrics framework as of January 15, 2022, will be placed on the 225th General Assembly (2022) Divestment/Proscription list.

At this time, there are two companies in red (ExxonMobil and Valero Energy) and three in orange (Chevron, Marathon Petroleum, and Phillips 66).

One of MRTI’s major endeavors is to engage with companies in which the church owns stock to advance General Assembly policy for socially responsible investing. It communicates with companies through correspondence, dialogue, voting shareholder proxies, recommending similar actions to others, and occasionally filing shareholder resolutions. The Presbyterian Foundation and Board of Pensions follow MRTI recommendations approved by the General Assembly.

According to Rob Fohr, Director of the Office of Faith-Based Investing and Corporate Engagement, “Per the longstanding policy of the General Assembly, divestment is not the goal of the PC(USA)’s shareholder advocacy efforts. Rather, it is to move companies to align more closely with the policies and values as articulated by the General Assembly. However, MRTI may recommend divestment from specific companies if they aren’t moving enough towards alignment with our policies. Those companies, as a result, may suffer reputational risk.”

While the decision to expand criteria for placing companies on the divestment/proscription list conveys an increasing sense of urgency related to the climate crisis, there are people in the Presbyterian community who have been calling for the church to categorically divest from fossil fuel companies.

“We’re excited for the PC(USA) to make a commitment to divestment from fossil fuels through the MRTI process,” the Steering Committee of the grassroots group Fossil Free PC(USA) said in a statement. “Yet, as that measured process plods along, our sibling denominations in Wales and Ireland have chosen categorical divestment from fossil fuels. This last week, our Indigenous siblings here in the U.S. were fighting in the streets for the immediate shutdown of life-ending fossil fuel projects. It pains us to know that our church, the PC(USA), has missed the chance to take bold action on climate justice.”

On the other hand, there are Presbyterians who work in the fossil fuel industry or are in some way associated with it who have objected to MRTI’s divestment recommendations.

“For many people in this synod, any divestment from the fossil fuels industry will likely be seen as a personal affront to many people in this region,” said Valerie Young, Synod Leader and Stated Clerk in the Synod of the Sun, which includes 11 presbyteries in Texas, Oklahoma, Arkansas and Louisiana. “The fossil fuels industry has been the life-blood of families in this region for generations. They have fed their families, put themselves and even their children through college thanks to the industry. There are congregations who continue to serve their communities because of the investments of their parents and grandparents. For some, to divest in the fossil fuels industry will feel like the church has divested in them personally and their community. It might feel different if divestment had any real or lasting impact on the urgent crisis of climate change itself.”

MRTI committee members and staff of the Office of Faith-Based Investing and Corporate Engagement, which staffs the committee, say they understand and consider all points of view regarding these and other decisions.

“MRTI takes any divestment decision very seriously. We have clear policy guidance outlining this process, which includes acting in consultation with faith and values-based partners, showing respect for the dignity and human worth of those communities affected, and providing communication, interpretation and care following recommendations. We’ve been in direct communication with impacted communities since 2019 and plan to continue these efforts,” said the Rev. Kerri Allen, Chair of MRTI.

MRTI will meet next in January to prepare its final report.

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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