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Policy: Environment & Energy

Divestment a profitable option for District of Columbia

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Opinion,DC,Op-Eds,Energy and Environment,Oil

Divesting from fossil fuel companies is an effective, fiscally prudent policy that District of Columbia residents – especially pension holders – should urge the DC Council to carry out.

In his Feb. 1 op-ed, “Divestment from fossil fuel firms will hurt D.C. residents without helping environment,” Norris McDonald makes claims about fossil fuel divestment that do not hold up.

A growing body of expert research and advice makes a compelling case that fossil fuels are poor investments. Coal, oil and gas don’t make Morningstar’s top 20 best-performing stock sectors over the past year (or three, or five). Solar energy, computer systems, pharmaceuticals and apparel manufacturing yielded higher returns than fossil fuel investments. Coal is near the bottom of the list.

Just last week, Oxford and HSBC published a study warning that Australia's biggest mining companies risk losing half their value (about $20 billion) due to slowing coal demand and impending carbon regulations.

At least three financial firms (Aperio, Morgan Stanley and Impax Asset Management) found that if portfolios had screened coal, oil and gas out five to 10 years ago, they would have gotten better returns.

Many organizations have divested from fossil fuels already, and they are doing better than the market average. One such organization, the D.C.-based Wallace Global Fund, recently convinced 16 other foundations collectively worth about $2 billion to commit to divest from fossil fuels.

Additionally, a Carbon Tracker Initiative study demonstrates the threat of the looming “carbon bubble” - the financial fallout from inevitable limits on carbon emissions which experts predict will leave the vast majority of fossil fuel reserves as stranded assets. D.C. Fiscal Policy Institute research shows that African-Americans and low-wage earners in the city are still suffering from the fallout from the housing bubble. Can we afford to ignore signs of an even larger bubble?

McDonald is right in saying that divestment can put pressure on fossil fuel companies to change how they spend their money. What he misses is that it is already happening. Seventy-two investors representing $3 trillion in funds signed on to a letter coordinated by investor network Ceres warning 45 oil and gas companies of the risk of their products' falling demand amid imminent policies to cut carbon emissions. A recent Oxford University study found that the stigmatization spurred by divestment poses a real threat to fossil fuel companies. In fact, Bloomberg just released the Carbon Risk Valuation Tool to help investors analyze the impacts of carbon regulations and oil price fluctuations on companies' portfolios.

McDonald’s dismissal of divestment as a “smokescreen” raises the question: Were D.C.’s decisions to divest from South Africa in 1983, and later in 2009 from Sudan and Iran, also “smokescreens”? Nelson Mandela and Desmond Tutu both referenced divestment as a key strategy in ending the oppressive system of apartheid in their country. And after these divestments, our capital city’s pension fund remains the strongest in the country.

The Fossil Fuel Divestment Act will protect - perhaps even enhance - the nest-eggs of D.C. employees.

Elise Shulman is an organizer for DC Divest. Thinking of submitting an op-ed to the Washington Examiner? Be sure to read our guidelines on submissions for editorials, available at this link.
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