The sustainable investing community is fond of saying that their greatest achievement will be to put themselves out of business. The fossil fuel divestment movement could say the same: when fossil fuel companies stop their relentless drilling and all assets currently held in reserves are abandoned, drivers of the movement will be looking for work.
The way things are going on Wall Street, we might be able to halt the divestment movement sooner than we think.
Last week's news seemed to show the market moving towards an acceptance of climate change's negative impact on corporate earnings -- and a rejection of fossil fuel investments on purely financial terms.
On Wednesday, the Obama administration's National Climate Assessment was reported in the Wall Street Journal under the headline "Climate Change Is Harming US Economy, Report Says." The story does not question the report or offer conflicting scientific opinions, but points specifically to greenhouse gases from energy production as the cause:
That's from The Journal, probably the most fiercely pro-business publication around. But even more astonishing is the story in Forbes "Fossil Fuel-Free Index Will Help Investors Manage Climate Risks." While the article says the fund, the FTSE Developed ex-Fossil Fuels Index Series, is aimed mainly at universities and public institutions, it does acknowledge --
The congressionally mandated National Climate Assessment...says...that it isn't too late to implement policies to reduce emissions of greenhouse gases, such as carbon dioxide and methane, and calls on governments at all levels to find ways to lower carbon emissions, particularly from energy production.
(The) concept of carbon stranded assets pioneered by the Carbon Tracker initiative contends that fossil fuel companies are overvalued by stock markets because their valuations include assets that cannot be exploited if we are to avoid runaway climate change. ...Carbon Tracker sheds further light on the risks, (in its) report... Carbon Supply Cost Curves. Evaluating Financial Risk To Oil Capital Expenditures, setting out the assets most likely to be stranded and the companies best placed to adapt to a low carbon future.
That Report calls out oil sands, the Arctic and deepwater exploration as terrible investments.
Carbon Tracker's website describes magical thinking in the fossil fuel industry: "Exxon saying there is no risk does not constitute prudent management of shareholder funds - it's like King Canute assuming he can hold back the tide, but investors can see that a shift in energy is already coming in."
That's language you'd expect from activists. But Forbes, that bastion of conservatism, joins in the bashing in choosing to quote analyst Mark Lewis of Europe's leading broker Kepler Cheuvreux: "The oil industry's increasingly unsustainable dynamics - as manifested, for example, by ongoing capex (capital expenditure) reductions amid record-high oil prices - mean that stranded-asset risk exists even under business-as-usual conditions: high oil prices will encourage the shift away from oil towards renewables (whose costs are falling) while also incentivising (sic) greater energy efficiency."
Forbes notes that with BlackRock -- the world's largest asset manager -- participating in the fund, the anti-fossil fuel movement has gone mainstream.
Mainstream? From a reporter at Forbes, whose self-reported audience statistics place its readers at higher levels of wealth and power than any other business publication, is calling the FTS ex-Fossil Fuel Index a welcome first step in making the idea of a world without fossil fuels a mainstream notion?
Now that's progress.
Of course there is still enormous weight on the other side of the argument. Fossil fuel companies recognize the threat to their business in the massive shifts in capital that are coming and are determined to get every last bit out of the ground ASAP. Even here in the hyper-environmental Pacific Northwest, the Black Diamond coal mine is reopening after 15 years and proposed coal ports refuse to die.
But there is growing evidence that fossil fuels are just a dumb investment. As stated in a recent report by HIP Investor, "Since 2011, the global energy sector has diverged from the S&P 500 for the first time in a decade, and dramatically lagged the S&P 500. The Coal Index (KOL) is down 28% since late 2011, and the Oil & Gas Index (BGR) is down 8% as well."
And the smart money is paying attention. Warren Buffet is closing a coal plant inherited as part of the NV Energy acquisition and replacing it with a solar farm. Divestment anyone?
I see the day coming when investors who hold fossil fuel stocks will be derided for being poor money managers. The smart money? Managers who bought renewable energy stocks early.