SF should step up efforts to divest from fossil fuels

Retirement fund continues to include big oil companies


It’s almost spring in San Francisco, and some good news is blooming. Last week, the Board of Supervisors breathed more life into the long-fought effort to divest city employees’ pensions from fossil fuels. Their unanimous vote urges Mayor London Breed to appoint a new member to the employees’ retirement system board who is friendly to the cause.

“My intention is to ensure that we have an aggressive plan to phase out the entire fossil fuel portfolio,” Supervisor Ahsha Safai, who co-sponsored the resolution and also serves as a board member for the San Francisco Employees Retirement System (SFERS), told me. “Our planet demands immediate action and fossil fuels are not making money that they once were.”

Supervisor Safai is right. Fossil fuels have failed to deliver their historic returns for years and, for years, the Board of Supervisors, city employees and advocates have called on the retirement system to divest. But the recalcitrant retirement board continues to hold on to coal and oil companies, including Chevron, which has spilled oil in our Bay and polluted our air.

Things may be changing, though. The Board of Supervisors’ resolution last week is bolstered by the support of Mayor Breed and the second largest union representing San Francisco city employees, the International Federation of Professional and Technical Engineers Local 21. The City is also looking for a new executive director to head the retirement board. After all this time, the divestment movement may bear some real fruit.

In April 2013, former Supervisor John Avalos called on SFERS to divest its holdings from fossil fuels. The Board of Supervisors passed Avalos’s resolution unanimously, as well as a 2017 resolution authored by Supervisor Aaron Peskin. But the retirement board hardly budged.

“Progress has been frustratingly slow,” Jeremy Pollock, former aide to Supervisor Avalos, told me. “I thought at some point the retirement board would have moved more aggressively because of its fiduciary responsibility.”

Movement at the retirement board only really began recently. In 2018, SFERS hired a director of environmental, social and governance investing and started to move away from dinosaurs toward a healthier, updated portfolio. As of June 2020, it held $89 million in oil companies, compared to $408 million in June 2015. Last year, the retirement board also became the second municipal pension to announce an ambition to be a net zero greenhouse gas emissions asset owner by 2050.

It’s progress, but 2050 is decades away. City employees would like to see the retirement board move faster. Since 2018, it has only divested 0.4% to 1.6% of its fossil fuel holdings annually, according to IFPTE Local 21. The board also continues to hold investments in Exxon and Chevron. Local 21 found that between June 2019 and November 2020, Exxon’s performance was -52.39% and Chevron’s was -33.74%.

“The continued investment in Chevron stings,” Bianca Polovina, with Local 21, told me. “Chevron is the same corporation that has been polluting Richmond and surrounding areas for decades and our members in Richmond have not had a single cost of living increase in six years.”

It’s hard to believe that San Francisco, an environmental leader, continues to invest in the health of Chevron, Exxon and other fossil fuel companies. This is why Local 21 voted last week to call on SFERS to divest. Local 21 will reach out to other unions representing city workers with the goal to get San Francisco Labor Council’s support this year.

Thankfully, city workers have the mayor’s support too. Her office told me that she is looking for an experienced candidate who will support “an aggressive transition of our city investment portfolios away from fossil fuel companies.”

“The mayor believes that The City should only be investing in transparent companies with strong, long-term climate policies that are aligned with San Francisco’s own bold climate goals,” her office said.

SFERS is also looking for a new executive director after the current director, Jay Huish, announced his intent to retire last July. A change in leadership may also spur more action.

It’s possible that 2021 could be the year San Francisco finally announces an aggressive plan to divest from fossil fuels. Environmental advocates take note: with enough effort even the most stubborn seeds may sprout.

Robyn Purchia is an environmental attorney, environmental blogger and environmental activist who hikes, gardens and tree hugs in her spare time. She is a guest opinion columnist and her point of view is not necessarily that of the Examiner. Check her out at robynpurchia.com.

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