Fossil Fuel Divestment

By Richie Unterberger

Fossil fuel divestment—sometimes called fossil-free investment, to put a more positive spin on the concept—is the most rapidly expanding movement within socially responsible investing. Compared to SRI pillars like screens for companies involved in weaponry, tobacco, and human rights abuses, going fossil-free is a bit of a latecomer to the game. But according to, by now nearly 60,000 individuals have divested more than $5 billion from fossil fuels. And almost a thousand institutions have divested about $6 trillion.


Chart from
Chart from


Despite its explosive growth, many committed socially responsible investors—and certainly much of the general public—don’t know much about going fossil free with their finances. How did fossil fuel divestment start, and grow so quickly? And what’s the most effective way to adjust your portfolio if you want to get in on the movement?

Like many progressive causes—from anti-war protest during the Vietnam era to sweatshop-free clothing in the 21st century—fossil fuel divestment got off the ground in college campuses. About a half dozen years ago, students started pressuring several such institutions to divest from fossil fuels. Just as crucially, administrations were called upon to proactively invest in clean energy and environmentally sustainable practices.

By spring 2012, the movement had spread from about half a dozen campuses to more than fifty. Today, according to, more than 850 institutions have divested or committed to doing so. This includes lots of colleges, but also plenty of faith-based organizations, philanthropic foundations, and city governments, including major metropolises like San Francisco, Seattle, and Stockholm. Even some pension funds, NGOs (non-governmental organizations), and for-profit corporations have joined the campaign.

The main motivation to go fossil-free, of course, is to both combat climate change and develop safer, more sustainable energy production. But there are pretty sound financial reasons to do so too. With markets around the globe and here in the US shifting investments to greener technologies (even at a time when the current administration is often hostile to such innovations), fossil fuel companies might be overvalued, and poor risks for investing even part of your assets.

This “carbon bubble,” as it’s sometimes termed within the industry, has according to the DivestInvest site “already burst for the coal sector, leading to billions of dollars in losses” and bankruptcies. According to the same site, more than 75% of fossil fuel reserves will have to stay where they are—as “stranded assets”—to alleviate global warming. That would cost $33 trillion in lost revenue. It’s another factor in devaluing such companies, but also another force driving markets toward more renewable sources like solar power, whose companies could well increase in value as fossil fuel fortunes decline.

As DivestInvest global director Clara Vondrich tells Effective Assets, “The clean energy transition is well underway. There is a synergy now between the falling costs of renewables and the rising costs of new fossil fuel exploration in hard to reach places, such as deepwater, the Arctic, and oil sands.

“These market forces are being assisted by the mother of all market signals, the Paris Climate Agreement. As countries and subnational governments continue to make good on their Paris promise, passing policies to price carbon and otherwise limit emissions, renewable energy is the clear winner.

“Investors who divest and invest now are protecting their assets from carbon bubble, while positioning themselves to capture the upside of the transition. There are a growing suite of fossil-free investment vehicles available to retail and institutional investors alike, with competitive and often superior financial performance. The time when investors had to choose between profit and values is past.”


Chart form divest
Projected growth in renewable energy investment, from


Early this year, one divestment in particular took going fossil-free from the financial section into front-page headlines. On January 10, New York mayor Bill de Blasio announced the city’s pension funds would divest an astonishing $5 billion from companies involved in fossil fuel. Washington, DC had been the largest US city to divest its pension fund, as it did in 2016. But New York’s fund (totaling $189 billion in value) is, like most things in the Big Apple, yet bigger and more significant.

“Bill de Blasio and NYC Comptroller Scott Stringer are taking their leadership on divestment to the next level,” enthuses Vondrich. “We just hosted a webinar for city officials around the world. Mayor de Blasio’s commitment is remarkable, and he already used his influence to help bring London over the line. There’s no question that when the financial heartbeats of the world – London and New York City – pledge to divest, they send a market signal that climate risk is a material financial risk, which pension fund fiduciaries can no longer ignore.”

For good measure, de Blasio also announced a lawsuit against fossil fuel giants BP Exxon Mobil, Chevron, ConocoPhillips, and Shell for the billions of dollars in damages the city has spent fighting the effects of climate change. In doing so, New York became the eighth city to sue the fossil fuel industry in a trend that’s largely rooted in Northern California, the list also including San Francisco, Oakland, Marin, San Mateo, and Santa Cruz.

Outside the US, in July 2018, the Republic of Ireland became the first country to in effect divest from fossil fuels. The Irish parliament passed a bill requiring the state’s national investment fund to sell its investments in coal, oil, gas, and peat—amounting to more than 300 million pounds—“as soon as is practicable.” Elsewhere in Europe, Norway trillion-dollar sovereign wealth fund has partially divested from fossil fuels, targeting some coal companies in particular, though it’s still considering whether to sell its oil and gas holdings.

But is it more effective, as some argue, to “engage” with the fossil fuel industry, via shareholder actions or other ways, to change or at least modify their policies? Or is divestment from fossil fuels the more effective strategy, or indeed the only reasonable one? The debate’s gotten big enough to leap from the financial section to the heart of the mass media. In Rolling Stone, for instance, renowned environmentalist, author, and co-founder Bill McKibben recently criticized New York State’s controller for pushing for engagement instead of divestment.

The SRI community has to grapple with these pros and cons as well. To take one example, Green Century Capital Management is a mutual fund advisory company founded, managed, and owned by a partnership of non-profit environmental organizations. How does Green Century view the dilemma, considering it’s worked for engagement on some issues, but advocates divestment from fossil fuels?

“Company engagement through shareholder advocacy can be successful when working with companies to adopt more sustainable business practices,” observes Green Century president Leslie Samuelrich. “Green Century has led successful shareholder engagements with over a hundred companies to stop rainforest destruction, protect water supplies, reduce carbon footprints and stop the misuse of antibiotics and mistreatment of animals. 

“But engagement is not a viable avenue when trying to inherently change a company’s core business, as with fossil fuel companies. For example, shareholder resolutions that oppose oil drilling and fracking are not permitted with oil and gas companies. Furthermore, shareholders have filed more than 100 climate-related resolutions with fossil fuel companies since 1990, and despite these efforts, none have directly reduced production of fossil fuels. Engagement with the fossil fuel industry will yield too little, too late, which is why we have championed the fossil fuel divestment movement since its founding in 2012.”

It’s great that cities and institutions have divested trillions, yet there’s a big gap—three zeros at the end of the number, pretty much—between that amount and the $5 billion individuals have divested. $5 billion is still a big sum, obviously. But what are the most important specific impacts individuals can make that might be different than the larger institutional ones?

“The fossil fuel divestment movement needs individuals as well as institutions,” urges Samuelrich. “It is individuals that have successfully organized to get any institution to take action since administrators at universities or pension funds have been at the vanguard. For many years, the New York City Pension Fund was adamantly opposed to divesting from fossil fuels – in fact, I debated them on this very topic about one and half years ago in NYC. But it was the persistence of individuals who kept pressing until they changed.”

As another incentive for individual divestment, she adds, “It is usually easier and faster for individuals to move away from supporting fossil fuel companies and into sustainable investments – and that helps build the divestment movement quickly. Individuals can do it themselves or can work with a financial advisor who is well versed in fossil fuel free options and can put them into the appropriate mutual funds and community investments.”

Fossil Free UC Berkeley logo
One of many fossil free movement logos, from the University of California at Berkeley.

Where do you begin if you’re an individual investor — or, you could say, individual divestor?’s fossil free action toolkit has some basic resources to get you on your way. For a start, it can check whether your portfolio has funds connected to fossil fuels. Click on the “Menu” icon on the top right of its home page, and you get links to a wealth of info about where fossil fuels are invested.

Especially alarming is the section spelling out exactly how much major mutual fund managers have invested in fossil fuel stocks. Vanguard, for instance, has $319 billion, and American Funds $136 billion. If other managers like Franklin Templeton aren’t as waist deep in the big muddy, its $29 billion is hardly chump change.

Should you consider working with a financial advisor to steer your money in the right direction, Effective Assets in Berkeley, California has been offering fossil-free portfolios since 2012. “Our goal is to make 100% of the firm fossil-fuel free, and we’re well on our way to being there,” notes principal financial planner Justin Martello. “The majority of our accounts are fossil-free.”

“We recognize that this is the fastest-growing movement in the history of socially responsible investing — even faster than the one to end apartheid,” he continues. “Climate change is the most important issue in our lifetimes. So it’s important to us to be able to offer investors fossil-free portfolios.”

Effective Assets, he emphasizes, offers portfolios that are both socially responsible and fossil-fuel free. If it seems like socially responsible portfolios should by definition avoid fossil fuels, that’s not always the case. One fossil-free option, for instance, “is sponsored by an environmental group, but has investments with companies that wouldn’t pass environmental screens. Fossil fuels are the only issue they’re looking at, and their overall strategy wouldn’t appeal to social investors.”

“We’ve seen exchange traded funds marketed as low carbon with weapons and tobacco holdings. It’s important to get under the hood and know what’s really inside of these funds that are claiming to be fossil-fuel free. And we don’t just guide investors away from these places. We also help them use their assets for solutions to the climate crisis, often with colleagues like the First Affirmative financial network, and the numerous portfolio managers and mutual funds that we partner with.”

“In our thirty-year history, we’ve never been as excited to be as involved in a movement as critically important as this. When we’re helping our clients, this is truly a way to make a difference and change the world.”

– –

Based in Berkeley, California, Effective Assets helps clients integrate their personal, social, and environmental values with their financial objectives. In 2018 B Lab, the non-profit that certifies companies using the power of business to solve social and environmental problems, put Effective Assets on its Best of the World List of “companies leading the way to a shared and durable prosperity for all.” For more information, go to

Shareholders Unite: The Financial Choice Act’s Threat to Shareholder Activism


To file a shareholder resolution pressuring corporations to be more socially responsible, you need to own just $2,000 of stock in the company. Imagine, however, if you suddenly needed to own $2 billion — or even more. Shareholder activism would nearly grind to a halt. It might even get wiped out altogether.

That’s the scenario we face if the Financial Choice Act of 2017 passes Congress. Section 844(b) would get rid of the $2,000 threshold. Instead, investors would have to hold at least 1% of the issuer’s voting securities over a three-year period.

What does that mean in layperson’s terms? To file a resolution with Apple, for instance, you’d need $7.4 billion worth of stock. Filing with Wells Fargo ($2.7 billion) and AT&T ($2.5 billion) wouldn’t be chump change, either.

proposed requirements financial choice act
The cost of filing resolutions will skyrocket if the Financial Choice Act passes, especially with the megacompanies who need to be pressured the most.

“It’s saying that only billionaires have good ideas,” feels Andy Behar, CEO of As You Sow, which promotes environmental and social corporate responsibility through shareholder advocacy. “All of the work [by] these small shareholders that has actually improved companies over the last seventy years — it’s saying that hasn’t been working, when it actually is incredibly well-working. The win-win scenarios that shareholders have brought to companies…there’s too many to even list. To have that suddenly become excluded would be a disservice.

“It’s really taking away our democratic rights and our rights to the property that we own,” he adds. “There are inherent rights to the property of owning a stock. And we don’t even know that it’s constitutional to take that away.”

Why are organizations like Business Roundtable, a lobbying group of nearly two hundred CEOs, so determined to strip these rights away? “I think they’re frightened,” observes Behar. “In the last few years, proxy access is now allowing shareholders to run board candidates. Last week Occidental Petroleum got a 67% vote on [a resolution calling for] two-degree climate scenario planning”—a landslide in a movement where getting 10-20% of the vote is often considered a major success (more details at “More and more shareholders are paying attention and voting.

“The people on the board feel threatened. And what they’re threatened by is actually doing their jobs, which is to serve the shareholders in the company, who want the company to go in a different direction. They want the company to become sustainable. Companies are looking at this and going, ‘Oh, the people who we’re supposed to be working for actually care. So let’s throttle back their rights.’”

Graphic: Increase in companies subjected to activist campaigns (US, Europe, Asia) financial choice act
Shareholder activism is still on the rise in the US. Its position as a global leader in the movement could be crippled if the Financial Choice Act becomes law.

The section of the Financial Choice Act affecting shareholder rights is just a small part of the legislation. It would also roll back provisions of the 2010 Dodd-Frank Wall Street Reform and Consumer Protection Act. The Consumer Financial Protection Bureau that Senator Elizabeth Warren established would be removed, to cite just one of its alarm bells.

Nonetheless, it was passed by the House Committee on Financial Services in early May by a 34-26 vote along strict party lines. The House isn’t expected to vote on it until after Memorial Day, after which it moves on to the Senate, where activists such as Andy Behar think it’s likely to get debated.

According to Holly Testa, director of shareowner engagement at First Affirmative Financial Network, “Consensus is that this bill has no chance in the Senate, but that it will be broken into pieces to get some of it passed into law.” But even if the changes to shareholder resolution thresholds are removed from the legislation, that doesn’t mean those thresholds are protected. As Testa points out, “If Section 844 is not legislated, proponents at the Securities and Exchange Commission are likely to try to achieve its intentions through the rulemaking process.”

If the bill does reach the Senate, one next step for those opposed to the measure is approaching members of the Senate Banking Committee. First Affirmative is urging affiliated financial advisors, clients, and other contacts who have connections with those senators (listed in the box below) to get in touch to assist with outreach:

majority minority

As it happens, a few of the minority members (Sherrod Brown, Elizabeth Warren, and Mark Warner) have been among the names tossed around as possible Democratic candidates in the next presidential election. They’ll have a lot of on their plate if they run, but it won’t hurt to make them aware of the issue’s importance now.

What can citizens do to make their voice heard, whether or not they have such connections? Aside from stressing your concerns to representatives in Congress (and especially the Senate), the links below offer some other resources. True, many Effective Assets clients are Bay Area-based and represented by officials likely to already be in opposition to the Financial Choice Act. So it’s important to note that if you do business in one or more Republican states or districts, your voice is likely to be heard on the issue even if you don’t live there.

As You Sow’s Choice Act: Step-By-Step Action Guide ( has specific info, and links to other sites, for using social media, making calls, attending town hall meetings, and joining the Indivisible group to make your feelings known about the implications of the Financial Choice Act.


A good easy first step is signing As You Sow’s petition “Protect Shareholders. Strike the Financial Choice Act 2.0,” at

5Calls has a script for callers who want their representatives to “Defend Dodd-Frank Banking Regulations” at

The Indivisible Explainer on the Financial Choice Act ( also has more details on the legislation, as well as sample town hall questions about the act to ask your representatives. Indivisible also has a call script ( if you contact their offices by phone.

This letter from our colleagues at Newground Social Investment provides more detail on the threat to shareholder ownership and governance rightsin the proposed legislation.

Do shareholder resolutions make a difference? Check page 3 of the Newground Social Investment letter for several examples. Shareholder resolutions were instrumental in Starbucks introducing Fair Trade coffee, for example, and DuPont making the largest land conservation gift in history. They’re crucial to making a difference, and it’s crucial to make sure they can be made by many stockholders, not just an elite few. – Richie Unterberger

B Corp - Asset Management Company

Effective Assets, Inc. is an Independent Registered Investment Advisor registered with the State of California. Justin Martello's California Insurance License is #0D55551

This website and its content is copyright of Effective Assets, Inc. - © Effective Assets, Inc. 2010. All rights reserved. | Privacy Policy