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Exxon, Keystone, and the Turn Against Fossil Fuels

Repost from The New Yorker
[Editor:  Significant quote: “No one’s argued with the math, and that math indicates that the business plans of the fossil-fuel giants are no longer sane. Word is spreading: portfolios and endowments worth a total of $2.6 trillion in assets have begun to divest from fossil fuels. The smart money is heading elsewhere.”  – RS]

Exxon, Keystone, and the Turn Against Fossil Fuels

By Bill McKibben, November 6, 2015
Protesters, in 2014, urging President Obama to reject the Keystone pipeline, which he did this week.
Protesters, in 2014, urging President Obama to reject the Keystone pipeline, which he did this week. Credit Photograph by Laura Kleinhenz / Redux

The fossil-fuel industry—which, for two centuries, underwrote our civilization and then became its greatest threat—has started to take serious hits. At noon today, President Obama rejected the Keystone Pipeline, becoming the first world leader to turn down a major project on climate grounds. Eighteen hours earlier, New York’s Attorney General Eric Schneiderman announced that he’d issued subpoenas to Exxon, the richest and most profitable energy company in history, after substantial evidence emerged that it had deceived the world about climate change.

These moves don’t come out of the blue. They result from three things.

The first is a global movement that has multiplied many times in the past six years. Battling Keystone seemed utterly quixotic at first—when activists first launched a civil-disobedience campaign against the project, in the summer of 2011, more than ninety per cent of “energy insiders” in D.C. told a National Journal survey that they believed that President Obama would grant Transcanada a permit for the construction. But the conventional wisdom was upended by a relentless campaign carried on by hundreds of groups and millions of individual people (including 350.org, the international climate-advocacy group I founded). It seemed that the President didn’t give a speech in those years without at least a small group waiting outside the hall to greet him with banners demanding that he reject the pipeline. And the Keystone rallying cry quickly spread to protests against other fossil-fuel projects. One industry executive summed it up nicely this spring, when he told a conference of his peers that they had to figure out how to stop the “Keystone-ization” of all their plans.

The second, related, cause is the relentless spread of a new logic about the planet—that we have five times as much carbon in our reserves as we can safely burn. While President Obama said today that Keystone was not “the express lane to climate disaster,” he also said that “we’re going to have to keep some fossil fuels in the ground rather than burn them.” This reflects an idea I wrote about in Rolling Stone three years ago; back then, it was new and a little bit fringe. But, this fall, the governor of the Bank of England, Mark Carney, speaking to members of the insurance industry at Lloyds of London, used precisely the same language to tell them that they faced a “huge risk” from “unburnable carbon” that would become “stranded assets.” No one’s argued with the math, and that math indicates that the business plans of the fossil-fuel giants are no longer sane. Word is spreading: portfolios and endowments worth a total of $2.6 trillion in assets have begun to divest from fossil fuels. The smart money is heading elsewhere.

Which brings us to the third cause. There is, now, an elsewhere to head. In the past six years, the price of a solar panel has fallen by eighty per cent. For years, the fossil-fuel industry has labored to sell the idea that a transition to renewable energy would necessarily be painfully slow—that it would take decades before anything fundamental started to shift. Inevitability was their shield, but no longer. If we wanted to transform our energy supply, we clearly could, though it would require an enormous global effort.

The fossil-fuel industry will, of course, do everything it can to slow that effort down; even if the tide has begun to turn, that industry remains an enormously powerful force, armed with the almost infinite cash that has accumulated in its centuries of growth. The Koch brothers will spend nine hundred million dollars on the next election; the coal-fired utilities are scurrying to make it hard to put solar panels on roofs; a new Republican President would likely resurrect Keystone. Even now, Congress contemplates lifting the oil-export ban, which would result in another spasm of new drilling. We’ll need a much larger citizen’s movement yet, if we’re going to catch up with the physics of the climate.

We won’t close that gap between politics and physics at the global climate talks next month in Paris. The proposed agreement for the talks reflects some of the political shift that’s happened in years since the failed negotiations at Copenhagen, but it doesn’t fully register the latest developments—almost no nation is stretching. So Paris will be a way station in this fight, not a terminus.

In many ways, the developments of the past two days are more important than any pledges and promises for the future, because they show the ways in which political and economic power has already started to shift. If we can accelerate that shift, we have a chance. It’s impossible, in the hottest year that humans have ever measured, to feel optimistic. But it’s also impossible to miss the real shift in this battle.

Bill McKibben, a former New Yorker staff writer, is the founder of the grassroots climate campaign 350.org and the Schumann Distinguished Scholar in environmental studies at Middlebury College.
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    Investor Q&A: Why the Rockefeller Brothers Fund is divesting from fossil fuels

    Repost from GreenBiz
    [Editor: See also ABC News: Fossil Fuel Divestment Effort Comes to Energy-Rich Colorado – “A campaign to get universities to stop investing in greenhouse gas-producing fuels came deep into energy country Friday as activists asked the University of Colorado to divest from coal and petroleum companies.”  – RS]

    Investor Q&A: Why the Rockefeller Brothers Fund is divesting from fossil fuels

    IFC SUSTAIN Magazine, Thursday, February 26, 2015 – 2:00am 
    Rockefeller Brothers Fund divest fossil fuels
    Here’s why a foundation built upon oil is pulling its funds from fossil fuels. Shutterstock/

    Rockefeller and oil go together like Starbucks and coffee.

    So it took most people by surprise when the Rockefeller Brothers Fund (RBF) announced in September that it would divest from fossil fuels and invest in cleaner alternatives.

    In a recent Q&A, Rockefeller Brothers Fund President Stephen Heintz explained what led to the decision, how the foundation is restructuring its investments and how he expects others to react.

    Stephen Heintz Rockefeller Brothers Fund
    Stephen Heintz, president of the Rockefeller Brothers Fund.
    IFC SUSTAIN: Can you explain what led to your decision to divest from fossil fuels?

    Stephen Heintz: Combatting climate change with grant dollars alone is no longer sufficient.

    Since 2010, the RBF has been working to invest a portion of our endowment (10 percent) in companies that are advancing sustainable practices and clean energy technologies. During Climate Week in September, we announced that the RBF has launched a two-step process of fossil fuel divestment.

    IFC SUSTAIN: Can you describe how you are divesting?

    Heintz: Our first step was to exit from investments in coal and tar sands oil, two of the most carbon-intensive fossil fuels. The second step of our process has been to undertake a detailed analysis of our remaining fossil fuel exposure (oil and gas) and to develop a plan for further divestment.

    We are working to balance our deep concern over fossil fuels with the Fund’s longstanding mandate that our assets be invested with the goal of achieving financial returns that will maintain the purchasing power of our endowment, so that future generations will also benefit from the foundation’s charitable giving.

    IFC SUSTAIN: Do you think other investors will follow your lead?

    Heintz: Yes, we are very confident others will join this effort. Globally, we need greenhouse gas emissions reductions of at least 80 percent by 2050. We can only get there by leaving the bulk of coal, oil and gasin the ground and by transitioning to clean energy without delay.

    Yet the stock price of a fossil fuel company is linked to its reserves. These are stranded and unburnable assets whose economic value is diminished — a reality that investors now understand and are starting to consider in their investment decisions.

    Clear evidence of the increasing number of investors recognizing the urgency of this issue and acting on it can be seen in the growing numbers of institutions and individuals who have signed onto the Divest/Invest Philanthropy pledge.

    IFC SUSTAIN: How do you think this pressure from investors will affect extractive companies?

    Heintz: The pressure from this movement of investors is, we feel, adding weight to the critical conversation about policy — national, international and corporate — on addressing climate change with an urgency that is proportionate to the challenge.

    Capital market and regulatory conditions are uniquely material to the viability of extractive businesses. Investor pressure on companies is a part of a larger discussion that will increasingly influence commodity prices, the cost of capital, and global regulatory agendas, which will have an impact on the operations of these companies.

    By putting our money where our mouth is, we have been part of an effort that has taken the question of stranded assets from a hypothesis of activists to a mainstream consideration within capital markets and even central banks (see, for example, recent Bank of England statement).

    IFC SUSTAIN: What specific changes can extractive companies reasonably make to address climate change and continue to attract investors?

    Heintz: Concretely, companies can look at how to be good stewards of shareholder capital and commit to a candid assessment of how to best use their resources. Borrowing to invest in long-term risky projects that require $140 per barrel of oil to break even is difficult to justify.

    Responsive companies will focus on returning capital to shareholders instead and migrate from a growth-at-all-costs (regardless of future profits) mindset. Extractive companies can begin to redeploy CAPEX from searching for more reserves to diversifying their businesses by investing more aggressively in renewable energy.

    IFC SUSTAIN: Looking into the future, how do you think your energy investment portfolio will evolve?

    Heintz: The window of opportunity to avoid catastrophic climate change narrows with each day.

    Clean energy technologies and other business strategies that advance energy efficiency, decrease dependence on fossil fuels, and mitigate the effects of climate change are the way forward. Our investments in these sectors will continue to grow as more and more economically attractive opportunities open up.

    This article first appeared at SUSTAIN, a magazine produced by the International Finance Corporation, a member of the World Bank Group.

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