UPDATE: The Presbyterian Church has once again rejected divestment. From the Pittsburgh Post Gazette:
“The legislative body of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) voted decisively Friday to maintain church investments in fossil-fuel corporations while aggressively advocating for reductions in actions causing climate-warming emissions. The biennial General Assembly, after lengthy debate during its meeting in St. Louis, defeated a proposal that would have shed all the denomination’s investments in the fossil-fuel industry. The final vote of 409-106 was a formality after a previous procedural vote of 332-178.”
(Original post, June 15, 2018) – This weekend in St. Louis, the Presbyterian Church will begin its biennial conference, known as the General Assembly. Every two years, commissioners from presbyteries (an administrative body that represents a group of congregations) from around the nation gather to worship together, discuss business matters, and plan for the future of the church. And as in years past, divestment is back on the subject list.
The General Assembly is organized in a way that allows members from any congregation to bring matters of concern before the entire church, in the form of overtures. At this year’s meeting, like the two previous General Assemblies, there is an overture calling for the church to divest its oil and gas holdings. The church has reviewed divestment overtures in the past, and multiple times its members decided that keeping oil and gas investments is the best way to make environmental progress.
Despite these facts, activist groups have linked up with members of the church community to oppose oil and gas development and investments. Fossil Free, a project of keep-it-in-the-ground proponent 350.org, has created a special campaign to make amplify this issue within the church and was a co-author of the divestment overture that will be debated at this year’s meeting.
At the 2016 General Assembly, for instance, commissioners voted down a measure that called for immediate divestment. The leader of the church’s Mission Responsibility Through Investment (MRTI) committee explained the decision saying:
“In the real world of corporate engagement, the more stock you own the more power you have; You are treated much more seriously by companies that are skeptical of what you are asking for.”
The commissioners instead decided to take a deeper look at the strategic engagement of divestment as it relates to their investments and report back at this year’s meeting in the form of a minority report.
In 2014 the church also voted to refer the overture that called for divestment to the MRTI committee , who responded with recommendations to work with companies to mitigate the risk of climate change. The committee did not believe that divesting from oil and gas companies was an effective method of engagement.
Despite these past rejections, activist groups have linked up with members of the church community to oppose oil and gas development and investments at the 2018 meeting. Fossil Free, a project of keep-it-in-the-ground proponent 350.org, has created a special campaign to make amplify this issue within the church and was a co-author of the divestment overture that will be debated at this year’s meeting.
If previous years are any indication, we can expect the assembly’s decision will mirror previous rejections. The MRTI has already submitted its recommendations for the overtures related to oil and gas divestment, and has once again discouraged the church from divesting. Instead, the committee recommends its leaders:
“Encourage continued respectful discussion and engagement in the church and civil society on the critical issue of climate change, and how it should be addressed, not only through the responsible use of investments, but also as individuals, churches, and the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) working together to reduce our carbon footprint.”
These recommendations will now come before the assembly’s Environmental Issues Committee as they debate a variety overtures related to environmental and social issues this weekend. If the oil and gas divestment overture makes it out of the committee, it will then be voted on by the entire assembly (who shot down a similar overture in 2016).
In addition to the MRTI committee, other church agencies have stated that divestment from oil and gas would make it harder for the church to advocate for environmental goals. The Advisory Committee on Social Witness Policy (ACSWP), Advocacy Committee for Women’s Concerns and Advisory Committee on Racial Ethnic Concerns all disapprove of the oil and gas divestment overtures that are being brought before this year’s General Assembly.
A church elder from a Texas-based church also pointed job-creating power of the energy industry and cautioned divestment as he reminded members that:
“A lot of faithful Presbyterians who work in the energy sector,” people who felt “calling their life’s worth morally reprehensible is problematic for a lot of reasons.”
Based on the recommendations and comments that have been released ahead of this year’s General Assembly, it appears that the Presbyterian Church is poised to once again reject oil and gas divestment, and instead opt for active engagement with their investments. We’ll be watching to see if the commissioners at the meeting heed the advice of the church’s advisory committees and elders from around the country.