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Presbyterians to Divest From 5 Oil Companies, Including Exxon Mobil, After Years of Debate

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The sun sets behind a pumpjack at an oil well. Photo by Zbynek Burival/Unsplash/Creative Commons

(RNS) — A prominent mainline Christian denomination plans to divest from five oil companies it believes are not doing enough to address climate change.

The vote to divest from Chevron, Exxon Mobil, Marathon Petroleum, Phillips 66 and Valero Energy comes after years of debate in the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.).

On Wednesday (July 6), commissioners at the PCUSA’s general assembly voted 340-41 to add those companies to the denomination’s divestment list. They join 85 other companies on the list — most with ties to the military or the weapons industry.

The move “gives teeth to selective divestment,” said Aaron Ochart, vice moderator of the Environmental Justice Committee, who introduced the divestment recommendation to the general assembly, which voted online.

Since the 1980s, Presbyterians have called for a move away from fossil fuels, including oil. More recently, they have debated whether to divest or to use their investments to pressure companies to change their ways. In 2016 and 2018, votes to divest failed in favor of more engagement.

Rob Fohr, director of faith-based investing and corporate engagement for the PCUSA, said the church’s “Mission Responsibility Through Investment” committee had hoped to see more change at the five oil companies.

But their efforts at engagement failed to make progress, he said.

“Divestment is never the goal,” he said in an email. “Corporate change is the goal. MRTI determined, after engagement with these five companies, that continued engagement is not likely to yield meaningful change. Meanwhile, the climate crisis is only increasing in urgency. We hope this divestment will be received as a clear signal that meaningful change is needed.”

The next step in the process will be for the MRTI committee to compile a new version of the divestment list. That list will then be sent to the denomination’s pension board and the Presbyterian Foundation for approval. Both groups have already said they will approve the new list, said Fohr.

Rob Fohr speaks via video to the Presbyterian Church (USA) General Assembly about divestment, Wednesday, July 6, 2022. Video screen grab

Rob Fohr speaks via video to the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) general assembly about fossil fuel divestment, July 6, 2022. Video screen grab

During the discussion of the divestment recommendation, Tom Taylor, president of the Presbyterian Foundation, was asked about the financial impact of divesting. He said the impact was “impossible to know” and would depend on future market conditions. He also said the foundation would act quickly to divest.

“As soon as possible, we will get out of it,” he said.

Commissioners, who are made up of local Presbyterian church leaders, also approved a recommendation to add seven other companies, including three airlines, for more direct engagement. Those companies are found on a list compiled by the environmental group Climate Action 100, according to the denomination’s Environmental Justice Committee.

Those commissioners also approved a proposal, known as an overture, to create a “Presbyterian Tree Fund” to purchase carbon offsets for work-related air travel by church staff, as well as one titled “Investing in a Green Future.”