San Francisco has a lot of money tied up in fossil fuels

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Screen grab from "Exxon - Energy Everywhere" produced by Mike Damanskis.

The San Francisco Employees Retirement System has more than $113 million in holdings in Exxon Mobil. It’s a lucrative investment in a dirty business. On March 29, Exxon’s Pegasus Pipeline ruptured, spilling as much as 7,000 barrels of oil in a toxic slick that coated a residential Arkansas neighborhood and prompted the evacuation of 21 homes.

SFERS also has $60 million invested in Chevron, which has its own checkered history. Environmentalists have long shamed the oil giant for its “toxic legacy” in Ecuador, but closer to home it was recently fined nearly $1 million for workplace violations arising from last year’s Richmond Refinery blaze. That incident sent a column of toxic smoke skyward, and resulted in about 200 hospital visits for respiratory problems from the fumes.

Further down the list of SFERS’ public equities holdings in fossil fuels is $28 million in Royal Dutch Shell, a company whose name, in some circles, is synonymous with human rights abuses in Nigeria. (Shell was also tapped to administer San Francisco’s CleanPower SF program, but that’s another story.)

The retirement system also has about $18 million tied up in Occidental Petroleum, a major player in the fracking industry that was responsible for drilling 675 new oil wells in California in 2011 alone, according to industry data. The retirement system portfolio includes about $5.4 million in BP, the company responsible for the infamous Deepwater Horizon explosion and epic oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico three years ago.

And the city's retirement portfolio includes more than $1.2 million in Arch Coal, one of the largest coal suppliers in the U.S., which has faced millions in fines for Clean Water Act violations and was sued for firing a miner who complained about unsafe working conditions.

SFERS provided the Guardian with details of its energy company holdings in response to a public records request.

Earlier today, the Budget and Finance Subcommittee of the San Francisco Board of Supervisors took up a resolution, introduced by Sup. John Avalos, to urge SFERS to divest from fossil fuel companies.

The resolution is nonbinding; even if it unanimously passes at the full Board in a couple weeks, SFERS is under no legal obligation to tweak its investment portfolio. But support for such a strategy is gaining momentum as major environmental organizations seek to bring the issue of climate change to the forefront.

Avalos’ resolution was inspired in part by 350.org, an organization that has sowed the seeds for divestment campaigns at 260 colleges and universities nationwide. Celebrated 350.org founder and environmental writer Bill McKibben is betting that the kids are going to win. His campaign hinges on the idea that the planet can only sustain combustion of another 565 gigatons of carbon before things really go off the rails climate-wise; the industry has five times as much in reserve.

Despite San Francisco's green reputation, change is likely to happen slowly, if at all. According to numbers shared by Retirement Board executive director Jay Huish at the April 10 hearing, SFERS has a total of some $500 million tied up in companies that deal in dirty energy. That's substantial, and there could be more on the private asset side. “We gave them a list of 200 fossil fuel companies” targeted by environmentalists because they hold underground carbon reserves, noted Avalos aide Jeremy Pollock. “They had stock in 81.”

Avalos' divestment resolution cleared the way to proceed to the full board, but only after Sup. Mark Farrell requested a couple amendments.

Farrell asked to add language making it clear that the retirement board could receive a lower return on investment if went through with divestment, and inserted another clause to underscore the point that the Board resolution shouldn't infringe upon SFERS’ “fiduciary responsibility.”

The resolution is expected to go to the full Board on April 23.

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