State Treasurer Tobias Read wants the Oregon Public Employees Retirement Fund, a pension serving about 160,000 people and valued at about $90 billion, to stop investing in companies that emit planet-warming greenhouse gases by 2050.
On Wednesday, Read unveiled the framework for a plan he hopes the Oregon Investment Council will ultimately embrace, leading to 50% decarbonization of the state’s assets by 2035 and net zero greenhouse gas emissions by 2050.
Read emphasized that the treasury’s primary responsibility of the fund, which is to maximize financial returns, would remain intact.
“Nothing supersedes our responsibility to our beneficiaries,” Read said. “We’re not going to do anything to put that at risk.”
But Read, who recently ran for governor, said he’s convinced divesting in companies that cause the planet to warm will be good for investors.
“We’re thinking about the returns over decades, over generations and the balance that comes into that frame is to not be distracted by shorter-term ups and downs,” he said.
There is a larger movement among investors in government and beyond to shift away from polluting companies in an effort to curb climate change. Officials overseeing New York State’s pension fund, one of the largest state investments, promised the fund would no longer have fossil fuel stocks or shares of companies that increase climate change by 2040.
But reaching the point of net zero emissions will not be easy.
“If you ask, how much do you have invested in Chevron? That’s a relatively easy answer,” Read said. “But if you said, ‘What’s our investment in Berkshire Hathaway, that’s about $158 million … but there are tons of subsidiaries of Berkshire Hathaway.”
Drilling down into who Berkshire Hathaway is investing in becomes more complicated.
Divest Oregon, a relatively new statewide coalition made up of a group of racial, climate justice, youth leaders and faith communities, among others, issued a report in April stating the state treasury has at least $5.3 billion invested in fossil fuel companies.
That figure is likely larger since it’s difficult to determine how private equity investments are made. Currently, those investments are not subject to public disclosure. The Divest Oregon group is pushing legislation for the 2023 session for full public disclosure of those investments.
“Although Divest Oregon welcomes (the treasurer’s) steps toward decarbonizing its investments, and addressing the serious risks to its portfolio, this framework is a missed opportunity given the immediacy of the world’s climate breakdown,” Divest Oregon’s Susan Palmiter said in a statement. “It is too little, too late: crucially, the framework does not end new investments in fossil fuels or remove the worst emitters. The OST is required to make long-term investments, and continued fossil fuel investment locks us into financial and climate risk. The plan’s 2050 deadline does not reflect the urgency of our time, which is the reason many voters showed up in the recent election. The OST (Oregon State Treasury) should have explicitly stated like New York State has done, that it will divest from energy companies that present too much of a financial risk.”
Andrew Bogrand, with Divest Oregon, said he’s pleased to hear the treasury is moving in the direction of decarbonization, but noted how complicated the process can be and how important the details will be.
“We hear decarbonization and a lot of oil companies are decarbonizing because they are installing solar panels on their pipelines,” he said. “Decarbonization can mean a lot of different things to people.”