Four years ago, the Board of Supervisors urged the agency in charge of city retirement funds to cut ties with the dirtiest fossil fuel companies. Today, San Franciscans’ pensions are still invested in these companies, including nine coal companies. Although Retirement Board staff recommended shedding coal holdings in September, the committee that reviews divestment hasn’t met in six months, and no meetings are scheduled.
The Retirement Board’s incompetence turned a landmark environmental resolution into an impotent paper promise. As other cities scrub their pension funds of investments in coal, oil and gas companies, San Francisco has done little to show a dangerously powerful industry that it can’t profit from pollution.
But the battle over the Dakota Access oil pipeline has sparked a renewed desire for The City to take a financial stand against the fossil fuel industry. For months, the Standing Rock Sioux and their allies endured violent confrontations simply because they want to protect drinking water. Their struggle is a stark example of the oil industry’s unquenchable greed.
These Water Protectors shared the horrors they witnessed with the Board of Supervisors in February, as members of the SF Defund DAPL Coalition asked The City to cut its financial ties to the pipeline. Currently, San Francisco invests about $1.3 billion with banks connected to the developer. The City also entrusts Bank of America, another pipeline financer, with between $8 billion and $10 billion in taxpayer money.
The Board of Supervisors quickly responded and unanimously passed a resolution on March 14 urging The City to explore banking options that do not finance crude oil pipelines. They also urged Treasurer Jose Cisneros to screen City investments for ties to the pipeline and to “move with expediency in exploring divestments.” If he grants their request, San Francisco could be the first city to withdraw its investments from the pipeline.
Cisneros has already moved to begin screening investments. While his priority is keeping The City’s money safe, there are options that may allow him to cut financial ties. Sixteen commercial banks have assets of more than $500 million, locations in San Francisco and no connection to the pipeline, according to the DAPL Coalition. Financial giant ING’s decision to sell its $2.5 billion loan in the pipeline last week might also spur other banks to act.
“We are warning financial institutions to take this action seriously,” Amanda Kahn Fried, the treasurer’s policy and legislative manager, told me.
It would be great if The City could wave its magic wallet and make the Dakota Access Pipeline immediately financially unfeasible. Realistically, it’s going to take time and a lot of work to divest. Cisneros can’t stop the Bakken oil expected to flow through the pipeline any day.
But the treasurer’s strong warning could stop future pipelines. Numerous polls show concern over global warming is increasing — no executive orders or misinformation campaigns can cover up the heat waves, massive storms and droughts Americans see. California’s booming clean energy economy has shown the world we don’t need oil and coal to grow. When cities like San Francisco work to divest from pipeline financers, banks will see these projects as even more risky, unnecessary and harmful to support.
“Withdrawing money shows Bank of America and other big banks that this city will not stand for our hard-earned taxpayer money to be used to bankroll the repression of indigenous rights,” Jacqueline Fielder, of the SF Defund DAPL Coalition and Cheyenne River Sioux and Hidatsa ancestry, told me.
It’s vital to keep the pressure on The City to free its investment portfolio of ties to the Dakota Access Pipeline and break up with Bank of America. The Treasurer does not resemble the bureaucratic slugs on the Retirement Board, but The City’s past failure makes a future success even more important.
If San Franciscans want to pressure the Retirement Board to protect pensions and the planet, its next meeting is April 12.
Robyn Purchia is an environmental attorney, environmental blogger and environmental activist who hikes, gardens and tree hugs in her spare time. Check her out at robynpurchia.com.