On February 17, Sen. Lena Gonzalez (D-Long Beach) introduced a bill in the California Legislature that would mandate that California’s public pension funds stop investing in fossil fuel companies.
SB1173, the Fossil Fuel Divestment Act, would require these state pension funds to make no new investments in fossil fuel companies and to divest existing fossil fuel investments by June 2027. Senator Scott Weiner (D-Sacramento), is co-sponsoring the bill.
The California State Teachers’ Retirement System (CalSTRS) and the California Public Employees’ Retirement System (CalPERS), the largest non-federal pension funds in the country, have over $9 billion invested in fossil fuel companies and related energy sector industries. CalSTRS has about $469 billion in assets, while CalPERS has $327 billion in assets.
For decades, predominately black and brown, low income communities have suffered from the harmful health effects of living in communities surrounded by oil and gas wells in California, a state that styles itself as a “green” and “progressive” leader but still does not have setbacks from oil and gas wells like other states like Colorado, Pennsylvania, North Dakota and even Texas do.
For Nalleli Cobo of Los Angeles, the need for divestment from fossil fuel companies is very personal. When the California State Teachers’ Retirement System (CalSTRS) met publicly with advocates of fossil fuel divestment at a virtual Sustainability Symposium on February 9, Cobo shared her experience growing up near an oil well.
“My health declined,” she testified. “I started getting body spasms so severe I couldn’t move. My mom would have to carry me from one place to another. At the age of 19, I was diagnosed with stage 2 cancer.”
“It’s important that teachers’ money doesn’t go to killing kids, it doesn’t go to damaging their organs or their health; it goes to protecting them and guaranteeing a beautiful life for them,” Cobo said.
Likewise, Lizbeth Ibarra, a 17 year old climate activist who grew up near the Chevron refinery in Richmond, asked CalSTRS, “How much more does my community have to suffer, how much does my future have to be in question for you to decide that your moral responsibility is to pull support from those causing the suffering?”
Accompanying the introduction of the bill, Gonzalez held a press conference Thursday that featured Miriam Eide, Coordinating Director, Fossil Free California; Carlos Davidson, Professor Emeritus, San Francisco State University and California Faculty Association member; Raven Fonseca Jensen, Member, Youth vs Apocalypse;
Senator Gonzalez, who as a mother of three and a resident of a district where residents suffer from exposure to toxics, knows first hand about the impacts of fossil fuel corporations on frontline communities.
“Investing billions in the fossil fuel companies that are polluting our environment while at the same time trying to meet ambitious emissions reduction goals is contradictory and incongruous,” she said. “SB 1173 will ensure we remain true to our values and honor our commitment as a State to protecting the environment and the health and future of all Californians, including historically disadvantaged communities of color that are disproportionately impacted by the hazardous pollutants released into our communities by these companies.”
In response to my question about how divestment bill proponents will overcome the grip that the oil industry lobby has on the Legislature, she said the Legislature passed a similar bill in 2015 requiring CalPERS and CalSTRS to divest from coal companies.
She also noted that since then, the University of California and California State University systems, the states of Maine and New York, New York City, the province of Quebec, the Vatican, Unitarian Church, and World Council of Churches have made similar announcements.
“I think the political appetite is out there now for this bill,” she said.
Miriam Eide, Coordinating Director at Fossil Free California, said after eight years of CalSTRS and CalPERS ignoring the calls of students, teachers, and state workers to divest their pensions, her group is “grateful to Senator Gonzalez for leading the way in today’s legislative push for pension divestment.”
“Divestment is the right thing to do for climate change and is a smart financial move for our pensions,” echoed Carlos Davidson, CFA Peace & Justice Committee member and retired San Francisco State professor. “We have to stop pretending that fossil fuel companies are good corporate citizens. CFA wields a powerful credential in California, and we can best serve our principles of social and racial justice by taking a lead in climate justice for future generations of students, families and communities.”
Another CFA member, Anne Luna-Gordinier, a sociology professor at Sacramento State who is of Cherokee and Choctaw ancestry, emphasized SB 1173 is urgently needed now, since “we are facing an existential crisis.”
She cited a recent scientific journal article revealing that the drought in the Western states that started in 2000 represents the driest two decades in 1200 years, in addition to citing a NOAA report stating that coastal areas in the U.S. will see frequent flooding due to climate change.
Finally, Anaya Sayal, a member of Youth Vs Apocalypse, also urged support for SB 1173.
“Divestment is essential to the wellbeing of the large community of people of color being affected by fossil fuel investments, along with the entirety of the planet, which is being greatly harmed,” stated Sayal. “Fossil fuels are heavily contributing to the climate crisis, placing future generations in a horrible situation, even though the current generation could make great strides towards solving this issue so the burden does not completely fall on them.”
Background: Big Oil’s Grip on Sacramento
The Western States Petroleum Association (WSPA), the largest and most powerful corporate lobbying group in Sacramento, has spent over $17.5 million alone lobbying the California Legislature and other state officials over the past three years.
In 2021, WSPA spent $4,397,004 lobbying legislators and state officials to serve Big Oil’s agenda, according to data filed with California Secretary of State’s Office.
The association spent $957,137 on lobbying in the fourth quarter of 2021. The money went to an array of in-house lobbyists and outside lobbying firms, topped by Ramball Environ in Philadelphia that received $116,981 in the fourth quarter and $366,864 in 2021.
WSPA spent a total of $8.8 million in 2019 and $4,267,181 in 2020 on lobbying California legislators and officials as thousands of oil and gas drilling permits were approved by CalGEM, the state’s oil and gas regulatory agency: www.citywatchla.com/…
In 2020, even a weak bill recommending health and safety setbacks around oil and gas failed to get through the oil industry-friendly California Legislature.
Then in 2021, another stronger bill, SB 467, failed to pass throughout the legislature because of heavy oil industry lobbying of legislators, including those who had received big campaign contributions from the oil and gas industry. The bill would have banned fracking by 2023 eliminating fracking and instituting mandatory health and safety zones between oil and gas extraction and places where Californians live, work, and study.
The inordinate influence by Big Oil on California politicians and regulators is most dramatically evidenced by the approval of thousands of new and reworked onshore oil and gas well permits by CalGEM, the state’s oil and gas regulatory agency, since Newsom took office in January 2019.
On the same day the LA City Council voted to ban oil and gas wells in city limits, Consumer Watchdog and FracTracker Alliance reported at www.NewsomWellWatch.org that Governor Newsom has approved 10,212 oil drilling permits since he assumed office in 2019. The total is nearly identical to the number of permits Governor Jerry Brown approved in his first three years.
Lobbying is just one of the seven methods that Big Oil uses in California to exercise inordinate influence over California regulators. WSPA and Big Oil wield their power in 7 major ways: through (1) lobbying; (2) campaign spending; (3) serving on and putting shills on regulatory panels; (4) creating Astroturf groups; (5) working in collaboration with media; (6) creating alliances with labor unions; and (7) contributing to non profit organizations.
In one glaring example of oil and gas industry officials serving on regulatory panels, Catherine Reheis-Boyd, President of the Western States Petroleum Association, chaired the Marine Life Protection Act (MLPA) Initiative Blue Ribbon Task Force to create “marine protected areas” in Southern California from 2009 to 2012, as well as serving on the task forces to create “marine protected areas” on the Central Coast, North Central Coast and North Coast from 2004 to 2012.