By Ramona du Houx

September 12, 2020

On the day before the anniversary of September 11, a letter signed by 1,100+ academics was made public. In the letter scientists, researchers, analysts, professors, and academics demanded New York State fully divest fossil fuel investments from the state’s pension fund.

The nation’s third-largest public pension system is The New York State Common Retirement Fund (CRF) which issues more than $1 billion in benefits to retirees each month. The fund’s investment portfolio is worth more than $210 billion but part of it is in jeopardy, according the signatories and to a group of elected officials.

This bipartisan organization, Elected Officials to Protect New York (EOPNY) want the retirement fund to divest from fossil fuel industries in order to affirm New York’s policy goals of transitioning and supporting renewable forms of energy.

Close to 300 of these EOPNY elected officials signed a divestment letter in 2017.

“New York enacted our nation’s most ambitious actionable plan to mitigate the climate crisis. But in order for the Climate Leadership and Community Protection Act to succeed, we need to limit greenhouse gasses rapidly. This includes shifting investment capital away from fossil fuels and towards clean renewable energy sources. The New York State’s Common Retirement Fund should be a part of this effort, not stand in its way. With over 1,100 academics sitting scientific evidence to divest, the Comptroller needs to take note,” said Manlius Council-member Katelyn M. Kriesel.

Hundreds of EOPNY’s elected officials signed a letter that demanded the New York State pension fund’s divestment from the fossil fuel industry by 2020. But the EOPNY deadline came and went with little action on the part of Comptroller Thomas DiNapoli, the fund’s sole trustee. Back in 2017, Governor Andrew Cuomo stated he wanted the pension fund to be divested. He still does.

The New York legislature has gained momentum on the divestment issue and is taking legislative action.

“Tomorrow it will be 19 years since September 11th. Our world was turned upside down. I remember how New Yorkers and people across the country came together to rebuild our city. The humanity, the compassion, and common purpose was all encompassing. That American spirit lifted us up, uniting us as a nation. That spirit is what we need from Comptroller DiNapoli, assembly members and state senators who don’t want to divest — to understand. They need to remember, and be reminded that there are issues bigger than oil and gas companies, like climate change. It’s the enemy we all need to fight, not add to the problem by continued investments in fossil fuel companies,” said New York Assistant Speaker Assemblyman Felix Ortiz, Elected Officials to Protect America Council Member and army veteran. “I stand proudly with the 98 other sponsors from the Assembly and Senate calling on New York to pass the Fossil Fuel Divestment Act (A.1536-A/S.2126-B). Delaying divestment is reckless, and blatantly counter to the interests of those we are sworn to represent.”

The oil/gas industry causes the majority of greenhouse gas emissions.

“New York State pensions are intended to provide secure futures. The state should never gamble with them. Comptroller DiNapoli has already lost at least 25 billion dollars, from the CRF. That’s unconscionable,” said Albany County Legislator William Reinhard. “I hope this overwhelming number of experts signing the academic letter will have an impact. In addition over 100 highly respected economist published their letter in the Guardian saying the carbon economy amplifies racial, social and economic inequities, creating a system that is fundamentally incompatible with a stable future, thereby they conclude that we must end the carbon economy.”

While the financial risk in continuing on this path are increasingly obvious with stock losses and pipeline closures, what’s hidden are the tragedies the industry causes by locating operations mainly in Black and Brown communities in the state — over 4,000 deaths annually.

The oil and gas industries are not doing well financially.

Shell and BP had to write off $40 billion of their assets as unrecoverable. BP also announced a 40 percent cut back in oil/gas operations and an increase in their renewable sector. Recently, Exxon Mobil was booted off the stock market as a tech company took its place. Big news for the oil and gas industry since Exxon was the world’s largest company in 2011.

Back in 2012, EOPNY pushed DiNapoli to divest New York pensions from FF corps, warning of the impending risk.

“Currently, companies involved in the fossil fuel industry are at an even greater risk of losing value,” said New York Assistant Speaker Assemblyman Felix Ortiz, EOPA Council Member and army veteran. “In combination with the negative impact fossil fuels have on climate, it’s time to divest now. New York can’t afford to wait.”

Years of expert analysis support divesting the Common Retirement Fund from fossil fuels. 2008 research shows pensioners would have earned $22 billion more by 2018, rather than incurring the current losses.

Tom Sanzillo, first deputy comptroller of New York State, was one of the earliest public investment experts to suggest that fossil fuel stocks are in jeopardy. He argues that fossil fuel stocks are over-valued due to oversupply and that capital spending in the sector has dropped largely indicating that oil companies themselves see a limited future. Fossil fuel stock values have declined over the seven years compared with the general stock indices, which makes them a bad investment.

Elected Officials to Protect New York’s work successfully helped New York ban fracking, making history in 2015.