New York governor, World Bank bring holiday cheer to fossil fuel divestment activists

New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo on December 19, 2017, called for the New York State Common Retirement Fund to cease future pension investments in companies linked to fossil fuels. CREDIT: AP Photo/Mike Groll

Fossil fuel divestment activists must have been successful campaigners in 2017. Instead of finding coal in their stockings, activists are receiving promises from top government and institutional leaders that future holiday seasons will be free from investments in fossil fuels.

One of those commitments came from New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo (D), who over the past few years has taken concrete steps to cut emissions, boost renewables, and promote a clean energy economy. A week after the World Bank announced it would no longer finance upstream oil and gas projects starting in 2020, Cuomo on Tuesday backed a push for the $200 billion New York State Common Retirement Fund to divest from all fossil fuel investments.

Cuomo’s decision came after several years of campaigning by environmental and climate justice groups. Although Cuomo has no control over the fund, which is run by New York State Comptroller Thomas DiNapoli, the governor plans to partner with DiNapoli to form an advisory committee to help the fund achieve his goal.

The fund, known as the Common Fund, remains heavily invested in fossil fuels. In 2017, the Common Fund listed holdings in more than 50 oil and gas companies that have been identified as among the 100 most carbon-intensive in the world. The fund has nearly $1 billion invested in ExxonMobil alone. The Common Fund holds increasingly risky financial investments for New Yorkers as the world backs away from the use of fossil fuel as a primary energy source, according to the governor’s office.

“New York has made incredible strides in securing a clean energy future for this state with our nation-leading clean energy standard, offshore wind development, and aggressive investment in the clean tech economy, yet the Common Fund remains heavily invested in the energy economy of the past. Moving the Common Fund away from fossil fuel investments will protect the retirement savings of New Yorkers,” Cuomo said in a statement.

DiNapoli noted there are no immediate plans to divest its energy holdings from the pension fund. But the state comptroller said he welcomes the opportunity to partner with Cuomo and the proposed advisory council “to identify additional ways to continue our progress in achieving investment returns, while contributing to the emerging low-carbon economy.”

Cuomo and officials in other states are pushing for cleaner energy at the same time President Donald Trump is touting an agenda that the president claims will herald a “new era of American energy dominance” in fossil fuels. Experts counter that the nation’s economic security depends on taking measures to address climate change. The vast majority of fossil fuel reserves in the United States and around the world will have to be left in the ground to prevent catastrophic climate change.

Earlier this month, the World Bank revealed plans to end financial support for oil and gas exploration within the next two years. Because the World Bank already has a commitment in place restricting support for coal-fired power plans and thermal coal mining, the announcement essentially means the bank will cease financing of nearly all fossil fuel projects after 2019.

In a similar move in November, the Norwegian central bank, which runs the country’s sovereign wealth fund — the world’s biggest — told its government it should divest its shares in oil and gas companies. (Not all of the news coming out of Norway has been positive for the climate, however: the country’s plans to ramp up oil and gas production in the Arctic would dramatically increase carbon emissions.)

Aside from investment decisions, nations are making plans to prohibit fossil fuel production. On Tuesday, the French parliament passed into law a ban on issuing new licenses to explore for oil and gas in France, in order to end all production by 2040.

“The World Bank last week demonstrated climate leadership by ending support for fossil fuel expansion. France today has set a precedent by announcing that in line with climate science, they will not allow the expansion of the oil industry,” Stephen Kretzmann, executive director of Oil Change International, said in a statement. “Other institutions and jurisdictions who are still in the Paris Agreement will need to demonstrate that they are out of the business of fossil fuel expansion.”

California Gov. Jerry Brown (D) is also viewed as a climate champion for his role in standing up to Trump in the wake of the president’s announcement in June that he planned to withdraw the United States from the Paris climate agreement. Brown also helped to create the Under2 Coalition, a group of more than 200 nations, states, and provinces that have pledged to reduce carbon emissions and work with each other to meet the goals of the Paris agreement. That includes a commitment to keep global warming below 2°C.

However, some climate activists contend Brown could be doing more. At the United Nations’ climate talks in Bonn, Germany, last month, demonstrators interrupted Brown during a speech and began chanting, “Keep it in the ground!” Given his support for continued oil and gas production in California, some environmental groups have called out Brown for what they view as his “false climate leadership.”

New York, on the other hand, has taken a stronger stand against oil and gas production. This month marks the three-year anniversary of the announcement by Cuomo that New York would ban high-volume fracking, given its serious public health and environmental risks.

Climate action is apparent at the municipal level in the Empire State, as well. New York City Comptroller Scott Stringer said Tuesday that his office will bring a proposal to the trustees of the city’s pension funds to examine the feasibility of stopping additional investments in fossil fuels, divesting current holdings in fossil fuel companies, and increasing investments in clean energy. The state and city’s pension funds are among the largest in the world, representing a combined $390 billion.

“New York’s elected officials are finally recognizing the risk of pouring billions into the likes of ExxonMobil. We commend Comptroller Scott Stringer and Governor Andrew Cuomo for this powerful step in prioritizing the health and safety of New Yorkers,” Betámia Coronel,’s U.S. reinvestment coordinator, said in a statement.