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Energy | Environment

Ashland City Council Passes Fossil Fuel Divestment Resolution

File photo of a truck at a Wyoming coal mine.

File photo of a truck at a Wyoming coal mine.

Katie Campbell

ASHLAND, Ore. — Ashland has joined in the nationwide movement to divest from fossil fuel. Tuesday night, the city council became the second in Oregon to pass a divestment resolution.

“I think this is an active step,” said Councilor Greg Lemhouse, who joined the rest of the council to pass the resolution unanimously.

In the past few years, some environmental activists have championed divestment from coal, oil and natural gas as a way to stem the tide of climate change.

Councilors voiced support for this goal. Councilor Michael Morris said more should be done.

“We’re not going to invest, but we’re going to still use fossil fuels?” he asked.

Ashland does not invest directly in fossil fuel interests, but it does pass local funds on to the state, which puts that money in a broad array of investments. The resolution targets two of these funds: PERS, Oregon’s Public Employees Retirement System, and the Local Government Investment Program, which is governed by the Oregon Short Term Fund Board.

The resolution does not have the legal weight to force a change at the state level. Instead, it requires Ashland to send a letter to both state boards urging them to “review and consider divestment” from the fossil fuel industry.

This summer, Eugene became the first city in the Northwest to pass a divestment resolution. Portland Mayor Charlie Hales and former Seattle Mayor Mike McGinn (when he was in office) both came out in favor of divestment. In addition, Olympia Mayor Stephen Buxbaum and Thurston County, Washington, commissioners sent letters to the Washington State Investment Board urging it to pull state money out of fossil fuels.

In August, the Oregon State University Foundation rejected a call to divest. And Oregon State Treasurer Ted Wheeler has said he is not convinced it’s the right thing for the state’s $88 billion portfolio. In a guest column in the Oregonian, Wheeler voiced his support for moving towards a renewable energy future. But he said divesting the state’s funds from the fossil fuel sector “is not the right strategy” and “will not achieve the tangible results we want.”

His statement gets to the one argument about the effectiveness of fossil fuel divestment: Does it actually work to change policy?

Impacts of divestment are a matter of some debate. There’s skepticism that dumping the investments has any effect on the bottom line of the industry. If one investor sells, another would just buy the shares instead. And Wheeler argues that by keeping money in oil, coal and natural gas firms, investors have a voice in how the companies do business.

Instead, any impact of fossil fuel divestment would likely be less tangible.

“Divestment, like other things that are happening now, bring the discussions about climate change and global warming to an audience that maybe hasn’t heard it… it elevates the concern,” said Kathy Conway with Southern Oregon Climate Action Now.

Her group first brought the issue of fossil fuel divestment to the Ashland City Council earlier this year.

Conway said nationally the movement was slow to catch on, with only a handful of small colleges pledging to divest. Conway said the votes in Ashland and Eugene will encourage others.

“Small cities like Ashland can realize that they can have a voice also,” she said.

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