A major Christian denomination plans to divest five oil companies it says are not doing enough to tackle climate change.
The vote to sell Chevron, Exxon Mobil, Marathon Petroleum, Phillips 66 and Valero Energy comes after years of debate within the Presbyterian Church (USA).
On July 6, the PCUSA General Assembly Commissioners voted 340 to 41 to add these companies to the denomination assignment list. They join 85 other companies on the list – most with ties to the military or arms industry.
The decision “gives teeth to selective divestment,” said Aaron Ochart, vice chair of the environmental justice committee, which presented the divestment recommendation to the general meeting, which voted online.
Since the 1980s, Presbyterians have called for moving away from fossil fuels, including oil. More recently, they have debated whether to divest or use their investments to pressure companies to change their ways. In 2016 and 2018, divestment votes failed in favor of increased engagement.
Rob Fohr, director of faith-based investment and corporate engagement for PCUSA, said the church’s “Responsibility through Investment Mission” committee had hoped to see more change in the five oil companies.
But their engagement efforts failed to make headway, he said.
“Divestment is never the goal,” he said in an email. “Corporate change is the goal. MRTI has determined, after engagement with these five companies, that continued engagement is not likely to produce meaningful change. Meanwhile, the climate crisis is only winning urgently. We hope this divestment will be received as a clear signal that significant change is needed.”
The next step in the process will be for the MRTI committee to compile a new version of the divestiture list. This list will then be sent to the denomination’s pension board and the Presbyterian Foundation for approval. Both groups have already said they would endorse the new slate, Fohr said.
During the discussion of the divestment recommendation, Tom Taylor, president of the Presbyterian Foundation, was asked about the financial impact of the divestment. He said the impact was “impossible to know” and would depend on future market conditions. He also said the foundation would move quickly to divest.
“As soon as possible we will get through this,” he said.
The commissioners, who are made up of local Presbyterian church leaders, also approved a recommendation to add seven more companies, including three airlines, for more direct engagement. These companies are on a list compiled by environmental group Climate Action 100, according to the denomination’s environmental justice committee.
These commissioners also approved a proposal, known as Overture, to create a “Presbyterian Tree Fund” to purchase carbon offsets for work-related air travel by church staff, as well as a proposal entitled “Investing in a green future”.
Last week a group of three dozen religious groups from seven countries have announced that they have gotten rid of fossil fuels. The groups include five Church of England dioceses, two Catholic dioceses in the UK, 11 Catholic religious orders, two Jesuit universities in the US and the United Methodist Church in Ireland.
Darren Dochuk, author of “Anointed With Oil,” a history of religion and the oil industry in the United States, said religious groups of the past viewed oil and other fossil fuels as a blessing. Some early oil magnates, such as the Pew family and Lyman Stewart, who helped fund the fundamentalist movement, were Presbyterian, and many church institutions in the United States were funded by oil money.
Fossil fuel divestment, Dochuk said, is complicated for both denominations and local congregations, especially those in areas where the local economy depends on the fossil fuel industry.
“Today’s generation probably doesn’t realize this is a relationship in the making,” he said. “So all of a sudden, untangling it or taking it apart, it’s complicated.”
Fletcher Harper, Episcopal priest and executive director of GreenFaith, an environmental group, said the growing threat of climate change makes divestment from fossil fuels a critical priority for churches. In the past, he says, there were fears that this would cost churches money.
This is no longer the case, he says.
“Research has shown you can get out of oil and gas and outperform the market,” he said.
Along with divestment, he said, faith groups can work with other activists to pressure financial companies to stop investing in fossil fuels. That’s the biggest goal, he says.
“The goal of the climate movement is not just to make certain small sectors of the economy fossil fuel free,” he said. “We need an economy without fossil fuels, period.”
Fohr told Religion News Service in an interview that the MRTI committee will continue to engage with businesses and work with church leaders to turn their values into action. The work remains complicated, he says, adding that “the divine is in the details”.
Still, he sees the divestment vote as a step towards progress.
“Fossil fuel divestment has been one of the most contentious and contentious issues at recent general meetings,” he said in an email. “This year it got almost 90% of the vote. I think that’s something the PCUSA has to offer the wider culture – through robust and transparent processes, different parties can come together to make meaningful changes.”