Retirement investment managers for most of the state's government employees landed in the middle of a climate change debate at the Colorado Capitol this week.
It ended the way most climate debates end, with a vague promise to talk about it next year.
The sponsor of House Bill 1246, Denver Democratic Rep. Emily Sirota, tabled it Monday evening, to work on the idea with interested parties and revisit it in 2022, which, coincidentally, is an election year.
"I suspect if we cannot find some other strategies in the interim to talk this through and see how we might make some headway, we will be back here for the same conversation again next year," she told the House Finance Committee, managing to sound tired, threatening and hopeful all at once on the first day of national Climate Action Week with more green message bills on deck.
The legislation would have forced the Public Employees’ Retirement Association to ditch about $1.5 billion in fossil fuel securities from its roughly $60 billion portfolio of mostly globally traded equities and fixed-income securities. Legislative budget analysts said the move would rack up $21.6 million in fees to divest and reinvest.
The strike against climate change, however, would be mostly symbolic, based on what I heard from Amy McGarrity, PERA's chief investment officer.
If Colorado gets rid of its fossil fuel stocks, someone else will just buy them, she said. If the goal is to send a message about cleaning up the air, though, Colorado would have a louder voice as a shareholder than a bystander.
Or you could shake your fist at the Heavens. This just happens to be a $21.6 million shake.
PERA weighs every investment on its risk and potential return, McGarrity said. Some energy companies will adapt and thrive and remain good places to invest.
Market conditions always change over time, and stock values are different than personal values in a diversified portfolio for roughly 600,000 Coloradans. PERA and the industry say that over time, oil and gas stocks have been safe and sound investments.
"Colorado's oil and natural gas industry is a leader in responsible energy development and focused on environmental, social and corporate governance," said Laurie Cipriano, the spokeswoman for Coloradans for Responsible Energy Development, which supports the industry. "As Colorado oil and natural gas production facilities continue to invest in new emission-lowering technologies — the industry is the indispensable link to get to a clean energy future faster and more efficiently."
She maintained that fossil fuels are part of a diverse package of energy sources, alongside renewables. “Our world's escalating energy needs require an all-of-the-above energy solution, including fossil fuels, to reduce greenhouse gas emissions without sacrificing energy reliability or affordability."
Dan Haley, the president of the Colorado Oil and Gas Association, said oil and gas will fuel the economy for decades to come, regardless of how Coloradans heat their homes or power their vehicles.
"It’s in the fertilizer that grows our food, it’s in the asphalt that paves our roads, it’s in the plastics in our cars," he explained to me. "It fuels the furnaces that forge steel, and even provides cold storage for the COVID vaccines being distributed. It’s a core part of our economy and countless businesses.
"Stable investment plans should not be driven by politics, particularly when our state employees rely upon those dollars for their retirement. PERA deserves all the tools it needs to be effective, and that includes the ability to invest in Colorado companies producing some of the cleanest energy molecules in the world.”
The idea of cutting off energy at the bank, however, is another front in the war against climate change.
New York City moved to get rid of $4 billion in fossil fuel-related stocks and bonds from its $226 billion portfolio in January, a month after the state of New York announced it would achieve net-zero carbon emissions by 2040. Last year the Empire State dumped its holdings in 22 coal companies.
Just last month activists at Boston College and Harvard University filed a complaint with the state's attorney general claiming the schools' fossil fuel stocks violate the Massachusetts Uniform Prudent Management of Institutional Funds Act. On April 14, a Maine legislative committee voted to let both sides submit a report. See ya next year, Whoopie Pie State.
"We’re looking at a worldwide movement," Sirota said. "As more and more pension funds and institutional investors go through this divestment process, that can and does have a real impact on the value of those industries."
This is likely to play out with a whimper, not a bang.
"In all honesty it’s a matter of time before they divest, because fossil fuel is going down and green energy is getting cheaper, and someday they’re going to look at this and say, ‘This is not a good investment,’ ” said Rep. Shane Sandridge, a Republican and investment consultant from Colorado Springs who urged patience.
Over time, Sandridge said, energy stocks have been excellent earners.
He is no Warren Buffett, but they speak the same language of money.
“The stock market is designed to transfer money from the active to the patient,” the legend of the marketplace once advised.