It’s time to protect pensions from the rapid decline of the fossil fuel industry in addition to their liability and lack of ethics

In June, 2018 Senate Bill 200 was passed in order to address the massive unfunded liabilities of Colorado’s state pension program, the Public Employees’ Retirement Association (PERA). The state’s public pension system has at least $32 billion in unfunded obligations which are being addressed through cuts to retirement benefits for public sector workers along with increases in contributions from taxpayers and employees in order to rectify the system’s liabilities over the next 30 years, with $225 million annually coming from Colorado taxpayers.


Beyond cuts to retirement benefits and increases in contributions from taxpayers and employees, the Fossil Free PERA Coalition aims to ensure that the PERA Board of Trustees is looking at the long-term soundness of its investments, in particular in the context of fossil fuel investments and long-term climate risk that may pose a threat to the fund’s portfolio.

Other pension funds are moving to divest from fossil fuels for fiduciary reasons, including the U.S’s largest state pension fund, New York City’s. The Fossil Free PERA Coalition calls on PERA to address the investment risks and projected losses around the likelihood of stranded assets, fossil fuels that will become unburnable in the wake of global commitments to curb climate change.

Currently, PERA has upwards of $1.5 Billion invested in over 300 oil, gas and coal companies. PERA has holdings in Extraction LLC, an oil and gas company that lost $500M in 2016 and is proposing some of the most controversial projects in Colorado, such as fracking in close proximity to the Bella Romero 4th-8th grade school in Greeley (which is underway less than 1,000 feet from the school playground), and on Boulder County Open Space lands. We are concerned that our public money is funding projects that compromise the health and safety of Colorado residents, including our children.

Over 1,000 institutions have committed to divest from fossil fuels with a $8 trillion impact to date. As of 2017, 43 US cities and states have committed to some form of divestment from fossil fuels. In the first-quarter of 2018, New York State, New York City and London called on their public pensions to divest. The World Bank is ending its lending to fossil fuel projects. Governments are also looking at fossil fuel divestment, including Ireland and Norway. Colorado can and should follow suit, showing bold leadership in a state that can lead the way in investing in cleaner, renewable energy technology.


“At some point down the road towards the red light of 2 Degrees Centigrade, however, it is entirely plausible, even predictable, that continuing to hold equities in fossil fuel companies will be ruled negligence.” — Bevis Longstreth, former SEC Commissioner

 A recent report from the Institute for Energy Economics and Financial Analysis states, “In the past several years, oil industry financial statements have revealed significant signs of strain: Profits have dropped, cash flow is down, balance sheets are deteriorating and capital spending is falling. The stock market has recognized the sector’s overall weakness, punishing oil and gas shares over the past five years even as the market as a whole has soared.”

Currently the price of fossil fuels companies’ shares is calculated under the assumption that all fossil fuel reserves will be consumed. If they can’t bring reserves up from the ground, their value will go down, exposing institutions to material loss. Stranded asset estimates range from $304 Billion (IEA by 2035) to $100 Trillion (Citi).

Coal, once the titan of the U.S. economy, no longer has even one representative in the S&P 500. Coal’s investors have lost billions, a trend which has been most clearly illustrated by Peabody Energy’s downfall; the company’s 93% drop in share value resulted in a loss of $16 billion for investors, according to IEEFA.

PERA has holdings in the coal industry, which has already undergone a massive wave of bankruptcies. Statistics show that over the next 35 years, the coal industry can expect to see annual returns reduced by 26% to 82%. Similarly experts project that oil and utilities are projected to see expected median returns fall by 38% and 60% respectively over the same time frame (Source: Mercer, Climate Change Investment Risk Management: A Guide for U.S. Public Defined Benefit Plan Trustees, 2016).

PERA also has holdings in Exxon Mobil Corporation, which reflects declining stocks over the past five years. According to Seeking Alpha, shares have delivered a total return of around 1 percent annually over the last five years, falling far short of the S&P 500. At the same time, the company’s return on capital employed has fallen from over 25 percent in 2012 to 9 percent in 2017 (Source: Exxon Stock Not So Slick, May, 2018, Seeking Alpha). Exxon also had to borrow money to pay out dividends and buy back shares (Source: Warning: Exxon Mobil may be in irreversible decline, CNN Money, Oct, 2016). According to the Wall Street Journal, despite billions of dollars in spending cuts and a modest oil-price rebound, Exxon Mobil, Royal Dutch Shell, Chevron, and BP didn’t make enough money in 2016 to cover their costs.

Could these trends continue?

Leading global index provider MSCI found that fossil free funds outperformed conventional ones by 1.2% during 2010-2017. Furthermore, S&P 500 Low Carbon Index returns are steadily increasing since 2012. Lost revenue from oil and gas assets is probable as demand declines and new competitive alternative technologies emerge, like electric vehicles and other renewables with strong potential in Colorado such as wind and solar.

Mercer Investments, a leading adviser of institutional investors including pension funds, evaluated several climate change scenarios and found that climate-related financial risk would affect investment performance. According to Moody’s Investors Service, the oil and natural gas industry faces significant credit risk due to carbon-related global policy initiatives, changing consumer preferences and disruptive technological advancement. New regulations and policies designed to reduce greenhouse gas emissions will increase the operating costs and in turn place downward pressure on the profitability of carbon intensive sectors and industries.

According to The Guardian, New Yorkers could have made an extra $4,500 each if fossil fuel divestment had occurred earlier. In fact, over $5 billion could have been generated if the transition to investing in renewables had happened sooner (Source: The Guardian, 2016). Over the last ten years, CalPERS (California’s state pension fund) lost approximately $16.2 billion or $8,526/beneficiary due to poorly-performing fossil fuel stocks, while CalSTRS lost $24.3 billion or $26,016/beneficiary. And the worst is yet to come: A Cambridge University report suggests that pension funds could suffer permanent losses of more than 25% within five years, in the event of a climate-related market shock (Source: See Unhedgeable Risk, Cambridge University 2015, p. 7).


“There is consensus within the scientific community that increasing global temperature by more than 2 degrees will likely cause devastating and irreversible damage to the planet…At least two-thirds of fossil fuel reserves will not be monetized if we are to stay below 2 degrees C of warming – creating stranded carbon assets.” — Wall Street Journal

Under the Paris Agreement, all countries committed to keep global temperature rise to well below 2 degrees Celsius and to pursue efforts to limit it to 1.5 degrees C.

Fossil fuels are a main driver of climate change – and simply put we need to reduce greenhouse gas emissions as quickly as possible. Fossil fuel divestment can help to preserve a safe climate, fill the renewable energy investment gap. The fossil fuel era is ending, and must be replaced by a cleaner, renewable energy economy.

Fossil fuels are also at play in other major catastrophes such as air pollution, contaminated drinking and groundwater from fracking, negative public health impacts, exposure to toxic chemicals, and accidents including spills, fires and explosions. In Colorado, there have been 13 explosions and fires at oil and gas sites since the tragic Firestone explosion last spring. Furthermore, fracking operations use billions of gallons of freshwater, of particular concern in our state where drought is an ongoing threat.

In 2016, PERA increased its holdings by 1200% in Extraction LLC, an oil and gas company that is proposing some of the most controversial projects in Colorado, such as fracking less than 1,000 feet from the Bella Romero 4th-8th grade school and playground in Greeley. Colorado public money should not be endangering public health and safety.

Furthermore, companies like ExxonMobil (who PERA has investments in) are under investigation for having deliberately misled the public, shareholders and governments over climate change science and climate risk for decades in order to protect their profits.

While it is true that we all live in a fossil fuel era, it needs to come to an end before more irreparable damage is done.