Calling climate change “truly an existential threat to the entire planet,” Council member Roger Berliner (D-1) introduced a bill last week to divest County worker’s pension funds from fossil fuel companies.
Bill 44-16, also sponsored by Nancy Navarro (D-4) and co-sponsored by Marc Elrich (D-At large), would require the County Board of Investment Trustees (BIT) and the Consolidated Retiree Health Benefits Trust (CHRBT) to gradually divest from coal, oil and gas companies during a five-year period.
According to Berliner, the County has $65 million invested into coal, oil and gas stocks.
“So to have oil, gas and coal stocks which literally are the basis on which we are struggling with climate change as part of our portfolio, in my judgment, is hypocritical, if you will. It is contrary to the values and goals and objectives that we’ve set forth,” said Berliner.
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The bill would not divest the County retirement fund from any index, private equity, real estate, mutual funds or any other type of joint or passive funds.
Berliner said he believes divesting from fossil fuel stocks won’t negatively impact the County employees’ benefits.
He noted the trustees who manage the County workers benefits have the discretion to avoid divesting from fossil fuel stock for five years if they believe it would hurt workers’ pensions and health benefits.
“So we can indeed reconcile our values and the returns of our retirees in this manner,” Berliner said.
Berliner said he took language for the bill from a similar law passed in the California state legislature that divested the state’s employee’s pensions from fossil fuel companies.
The BIT is responsible for managing the County employees’ pensions while the CHRBT is responsible for managing the County’s health benefits.
If passed, Bill 44-16 would be the third time the County has divested from certain companies based on moral or ethical objections.
In 1986, the Council voted to divest from South Africa over objection to the apartheid government and in 2008 voted the Council voted to divest from Sudan over the government’s atrocities in Darfur.
Council member George Leventhal (D-At large) said he supported the idea of the County reducing its reliance on fossil fuels but was skeptical if it elected officials should be making decision on the County’s investment portfolio.
“If we are now going to make the effort, which surely will arise, of going through every single investment and determining if they pass some sort of moral or environmental or ecological test,” Leventhal said.
“I suspect it will open up a lot of conversations, the Council Vice President mentioned Wells Fargo, I think that is precisely why investment decision ought to be made by the Board of Investment Trustees and not by elected officials.”
Leventhal suggested the Council members look instead at the County’s bus fleet, which runs on gas, rather than the County’s pension funds.
He also said he regretted the Council’s decision in 2008 to divest from Sudan.
“I think it was a political gesture that I regret now,” said Leventhal.
Support for the bill comes from 350 MoCo, an environmental activist group that has pushed the County to divest from fossil fuel.
Steve Farber, the council’s representative of the retirement fund board, said he has concerns about the bill, but was sympathetic to the issue of climate change, not saying whether he supports the bill.
A public hearing for Bill 44-16 is scheduled for Nov. 22 at 1:30 p.m.