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San Francisco’s Pension will make Divestment History

Sometimes, an exciting divestment campaign—full of political scandal, expert testimony, and passionate union support—lands in a five-hour board meeting. Although these tedious tests of activist aplomb can seem lacking in movement magic, sometimes big zeitgeist-shifting decisions happen in the unsexiest of ways.

Last week, I found myself three hours into the San Francisco pension fund board meeting. The board members of the $20 billion fund were discussing their almost $550 million invested in fossil fuels, and—as they went back and forth on the topic for quite some time—I gleaned a few very inspiring comments. See this short video in which a board member says she supports full divestment and wants to see a Fossil Free SF!

In the end, the board voted to begin active engagement with fossil fuel companies. But there is much more to the story, and the things that weren’t reported could make divestment history.

Here’s what you need to know about SF pension divestment that is not in the news:

  1. The board will vote on an engagement timeline at the next board meeting, April 8th. Many of the board members seem to be aligned with a tight timeline, maybe one proxy season, or between a year and 18 months! At the end of the timeline, the board would be faced with a full divestment.
  2. At the end of the engagement period, they will determine if they have achieved their goals. The only goal for engagement that was mentioned during the discussion was to ask companies to “ameliorate stranded asset risk”—that is, fix that whole unburnable carbon thing. Sounds like a pretty heavy ask that would go nowhere anytime soon! This is also something that will likely be settled in the next meeting on April 8th.
  3. The board was presented information regarding moving $100 million into a fossil free index fund. They are looking at the MSCI All Country World Index without fossil fuels. This index has outperformed the market over the 1, 3, and 5 year timelines. Again, an April 8th consideration.
  4. And finally, the board is looking at divesting some portion of their fossil fuel holdings while engagement proceeds. A few suggestions were made, including divesting from a “worst offenders” list and following in the footsteps of billionaire investor Jeremy Grantham, who divested from a list of coal and tar sands companies.

A few interesting stats about the San Francisco pension fund that campaigners might find interesting or helpful:

  • The total size of the SFERS portfolio is around $20 billion
  • SFERS holds 2.7% in fossil fuels—or around $541 million—down from 3.3% last year
  • Over the course of last year, the fund lost almost $50 million on their fossil fuel holdings, while losing out on earnings of over $60 million in a fossil free index (opportunity costs)
  • The Fossil Free San Francisco campaign has been going for two years

Between now and the next board meeting, the Fossil Free SF crew will be working hard to push the board toward big bold votes. Stay tuned for the first full US public pension divestment in history!