Matt Driscoll

Tacoma should disinvest from fossil fuels, and the reasons go beyond progressive politics

This April 2, 2010 photo shows a Tesoro Corp. refinery, including a gas flare flame that is part of normal plant operations, in Anacortes.
This April 2, 2010 photo shows a Tesoro Corp. refinery, including a gas flare flame that is part of normal plant operations, in Anacortes. AP

It would be a statement of values and priorities — something progressives could high five about and millennials could crow about over avocado toast.

Stereotypes aside, it also would be much more, which is precisely why it’s worth doing.

This week, the Tacoma Government Performance and Finance Committee is gearing up for a frank discussion about the Tacoma Employees’ Retirement System.

Specifically, on Tuesday the committee wants to start taking a hard look at the system’s investment in fossil fuels — with one potential outcome being a recommendation that it disinvest from them.

That would be a big deal. The system is responsible for protecting a $1.7 billion investment portfolio that provides the financial backing for thousands of city retirees, and, as of the first quarter of 2018, it’s estimated to have some 4-percent exposed to some of the largest oil and gas production companies in the world.

The committee thinks that might be a very bad idea … you know, with climate change and all.

Given what we know about climate change and its man-made causes, it’s hard to argue with the logic.

Put another way, provided the city can disinvest from fossil fuels without jeopardizing the long-term financial outlook of its retirement system, which is rightfully the primary concern, it should heed such a recommendation, and fast.

Ultimately, the decision will rest with the Tacoma Employee’s Retirement System’s board of administration, a body insulated from politics.

But, again, this decision is about more than politics.

“These are volatile energy sources that have no economic future several decades from now,” said Anders Ibsen, chairman of the city’s Government Performance and Finance Committee. “I think this isn’t just about values. It’s not just about making a statement.

“There are very credible voices in the investment community … that are genuinely worried about the economic volatility of fossil fuels.”

The councilman is stating the obvious, but sometimes the obvious is exactly what needs to be said.

The next step, of course, is doing.

Truth is, there are a multitude of reasons why divesting from fossil fuel companies makes sense for the Tacoma Employees’ Retirement System.

The Fourth National Climate Assessment, released just before Thanksgiving and predictably buried by the Trump Administration, makes some of the most compelling arguments.

Amongst a laundry list of harrowing revelations, the report notes that by the end of the century climate change could result in the country’s economy losing more than 10-percent of its GDP, global temperature increasing, and farming — including the production of corn and dairy — being ravaged.

That’s in addition to the likely spike in premature deaths, wildfires, sea levels and carbon dioxide and methane released thanks to the thawing of permafrost.

Then there’s the financial argument, which doesn’t quite carry the apocalyptic tenor but is no less compelling.

While the outlook for fossil fuel investments vary depending on the source, there’s a reason countries, cities, and philanthropic organizations have recently moved toward fossil fuel disinvestment — not all of them are purely ideological.

“Over the past three and five years, respectively, global stock indexes without fossil fuel holdings have outperformed otherwise identical indexes that include fossil fuel companies,” concluded a 2018 report from Sightline and the Institute for Energy Economics and Financial Analysis.

“The decline of the fossil fuel sector requires a response from trustees of investment funds big and small,” the report continues. “While a decision on divestment will be driven by the particular goals and standards of each fund, it is clear that every fund must now consider fossil fuel divestment.”

Which brings us back to Tacoma, the city’s retirees and the prudent move forward.

Yes, there’s some irony involved in this. Work proceeds in the Tacoma Tideflats on a liquefied natural gas plant. The hypocrisy of welcoming a massive fossil fuel project in our port while simultaneously shunning it from the city’s investment portfolio is rich.

Still, that blaring contradiction doesn’t change the reality confronting Tacoma and the opportunity to get this one right.

“It’s really straightforward,” Ibsen said. “Climate change is real, and fossil fuels cause it.”

That’s true.

And that’s exactly why divesting from fossil fuels isn’t just the right move for Tacoma and progressive politicians, it’s the right move for the city’s retirees — past, present and future.

Matt Driscoll is a reporter and The News Tribune’s metro news columnist. A McClatchy President’s Award winner, Driscoll lives in Central Tacoma with his wife and three children. He’s passionate about the City of Destiny and strives to tell stories that might otherwise go untold.
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