Movement targets fossil fuel divestiture

Religious and liberal groups see environment as a ‘moral issue’

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When she learned of an international campaign to divest from the fossil fuel industry, Wanda Guthrie didn't wait long to join in.

As environmental justice committee chair of the Thomas Merton Center -- a faith-based social activist group in Bloomfield -- she has been urging religious and other groups to use their investment decisions to promote a halt in the burning of carbon-emitting fossil fuels.

"I'‍ve been pushing it everywhere," said Ms. Guthrie. The aim is "to let fossil fuel companies know that this is a moral question," she said.

And she'‍s worried about the cataclysmic effects of global warming: "I have grandchildren and they're going to have children."

A small but growing number of liberal religious groups and other groups are heeding such calls. They'‍ve been voting to shed their investments in the fossil fuel industry -- an effort they acknowledge that can have only token financial impact on a vast industry, but one they say makes a symbolic statement linking carbon emissions to the threat of climate change.

Like many social movements from gay marriage to the anti-apartheid campaign, the effort is seeing its first successes on the left flank of the religious landscape and slowly gaining the notice of more established groups.

The United Church of Christ last year became the first national denomination to take such a stand. In recent weeks, momentum has built.

The Unitarian Universalist Association'‍s national General Assembly voted June 29 to divest over five years from any holdings in 200 fossil fuel companies included on climate activists'‍ Carbon Tracker list, with the option of keeping small amounts of holdings so it could do shareholder resolutions and other activism.

Mark Tomlinson, who was a delegate to that assembly representing Allegheny Unitarian Universalist Church on the North Side, said advocates on both sides made strong arguments, but he supported divesting as in harmony with one of the denomination'‍s core values -- "respect for the interdependent web of all existence."

"Taking this step is one thing, but all of us have our own lives lead, and all of us need to figure out how we figure into that puzzle" of responding to climate change, whether it'‍s to "change our lifestyle, change our consumer choices, put pressure on our government."

Also in June, the University of Dayton in Ohio, affiliated with the Marianist religious order, became the first Roman Catholic university to vote to divest. So did Union Theological Seminary, a historic beacon of Protestant liberalism in New York. Various regional Quaker, Episcopal and United Church of Christ groups have taken similar steps.

Several American cities and college towns have voted to divest. An online petition with nearly 200 signatures is asking Pittsburgh to do so. Mayor Elizabeth Goreham of State College, Pa., neighbor of Penn State University, has also endorsed the effort.

But the General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) last month voted down a proposal for divestment. Instead, it assigned staff to begin discussions on climate issues with fossil-fuel corporations in which it owns shares.

For Ms. Guthrie, an Episcopalian, the effort is a spiritual issue. "For a long time, we'‍ve considered ourselves just stewards of creation, instead of part of creation," she said.

The divestment effort clashes with the current natural-gas drilling boom in the Marcellus and Utica shales, not to mention the Tri-State Region's longstanding ties to the coal industry.

Travis Windle, spokesman for the Marcellus Shale Coalition, said the goals of carbon reduction are being met by the regional boom in extracting natural gas, which burns cleaner than coal or gas.

"Despite what some activists suggest, air quality is sharply improving as more clean-burning American natural gas is safely produced and increasingly used to power our economy, grow local jobs and heat our homes, especially for those on fixed incomes," he said in a statement.

He also cited recent Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection figures showing that pollutants emitted by the natural gas industry stayed relatively flat despite an increase in activity.

Messages left with the Pennsylvania Coal Alliance, which represents the industry, were not immediately returned last week.

Divestment -- even if it amounted to millions of dollars in shares held by religious groups'‍ pensions, foundations and other sources --would hardly register on the bottom line of an industry in which just one corporation, Exxon Mobil, has a market capitalization approaching a half-trillion dollars.

And renewables account only for about one tenth of U.S. energy usage, according to the U.S. Energy Information Administration, far below the capacity to handle a rapid switch from fossil fuels.

"Electric utilities have long been diversifying their sources of fuels from coal," said a recent report issued by Cambridge Associates, an international investment-services firm. "However, projections for significant increases in renewables' share of the larger energy consumption pie span decades in the future."

Divestment proponents, the report noted, aren't aiming for financial impact so much as public opinion so that companies "will lose their social license" to continue extracting fossil fuels.

Area religious groups, meanwhile, have been taking on fossil fuels in other ways. The Sisters of the Humility of Mary, based in Lawrence County, has refused multiple, lucrative offers to sell natural gas rights involving its 761-acre property near the Ohio line.

"It's a political and a financial and a spiritual" issue, said Sister Barbara O'Donnell. "We are one species here [and need to] cooperate with nature, not dominate it."

Last year, two Catholic religious communities in Kentucky refused overtures from developers of a since-canceled plan to build a pipeline sending natural gas liquids from the Marcellus and Utica shale plays to the Gulf Coast for processing. In the wake of that controversy, leaders of numerous religious organizations -- including the Sisters of the Humility of Mary as well as the Sisters of Charity of Nazareth, which is active in Pittsburgh -- signed a statement of environmental ethics that included a pledge to consider divestment and shareholder actions targeting fossil fuels.

On Thursday, the Earth Quaker Action Team -- an environmental group that joined a larger group of Quakers at a national conference at California University of Pennsylvania last week -- traveled to Pittsburgh to protest PNC'‍s continued financing of the environmentally disruptive coal-mining technique of mountaintop removal.

Georgetown University history professor Michael Kazin, who studies social change, said that divestment movements alone have rarely influenced policy. Even the best-known example -- targeting apartheid-era South Africa -- succeeded only by dovetailing with a broad range of boycotts and other political pressure movements, he said.

But the fossil-fuel campaign could succeed in concert with other actions such as the Obama administration'‍s recent release of regulations to reduce carbon emissions.

"It's symbolic, it's about public relations, it's about presenting the image of a cause which is gaining support from people who are articulate and have the ability to put pressure on officials," he said.

A Franklin & Marshall College Poll in January 2014 found Pennsylvanians about evenly divided on the question of whether the environmental costs of natural-gas drilling outweigh the economic benefits.

The survey didn'‍t specify whether the environmental impacts referred to local side-effects of drilling, global warming or other factors.

Peter Smith: psmith@post-gazette.com


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