Avalos to call on SF retirement system to divest from fossil fuels

Photo by Cherrylynx via Flickr

San Francisco’s city pension fund may have as much as $1 billion tied up in companies that control fossil fuel reserves, such as Exxon, BP, Shell and Chevron. At the Board of Supervisor’s meeting this afternoon, Sup. John Avalos plans to introduce a resolution calling on the San Francisco Employees Retirement System (SFERS) to divest from leading fossil fuel giants. 

The resolution, which urges the San Francisco Retirement Board to stop investing in stocks and and mutual funds with shares in coal, oil and gas companies, was created with input from nationwide environmental organization 350.org. Last year, 350.org launched a campaign calling on universities to divest from 200 targeted fossil fuel companies as a way to tackle global climate change.

“They’re the companies that own the vast majority of the world’s fossil fuel reserves – who actually own the carbon that’s sitting in the ground,” explains Jamie Henn, cofounder and communications director of 350.org. When these fossil fuel reserves are extracted and burned to generate power, they'll emit greenhouse gases such as carbon dioxide, worsening the impact of global climate change.

Scientists have calculated that from here on out, a total of 565 gigatons of carbon dioxide can be emitted into the atmosphere before the planet’s global average temperature increases by two degrees Celsius. Despite widespread international consensus that crossing this threshold would bring unacceptable consequences, says Henn, the 200 targeted companies can access enough oil and gas reserves to eventually emit five times as much CO2 into the atmosphere.

“Their share prices are based on their ability to burn those reserves,” Henn said. “The only way we can tackle climate change in this country is if we weaken the fossil fuel industry.”

To that end, Avalos is acting locally.

“San Francisco has aggressive goals to address climate change,” the District 11 supervisor noted. “It’s important that we apply these same values when we decide how to invest our funds, so we can limit our financial contributions to fossil fuels and instead promote renewable alternatives.”

Supervisors do not have control over the investment decisions of the San Francisco Retirement Board, which controls the city's $16 billion pension fund, so Avalos' resolution would not impose a legal obligation to divest. Yet a Budget & Finance Committee hearing about the proposed resolution could help raise awareness of the issue, noted Jeremy Pollock, a legislative aide to Avalos. The idea is to start a conversation about “what our social investment policy is, with regard to retirement funding,”  he explained.

If Avalos' resolution to divest in fossil fuels is ultimately approved by the full board, San Francisco would become the second city in the nation to take such a step. Seattle Mayor Mike McGinn called on city retirement funds to abandon stocks in coal, oil and gas companies last December.

In addition to the resolution calling for divestment from fossil fuels, Avalos also plans to introduce a resolution urging the San Francisco Retirement Board to divest from publicly traded manufacturers of firearms and ammunition.