Berliner, Navarro Call for County To Divest from Fossil Fuel Companies

Decision by County Council would make Montgomery part of worldwide environmental effort


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Montgomery County Council members Roger Berliner and Nancy Navarro are calling on the county Board of Investment Trustees to sell stock it holds in 200 publicly traded fossil fuel companies.

Berliner said Tuesday residents have approached the council for years on the issue, but no action was taken over concerns that it would harm retirement funds. Now, other companies’ stocks are performing much better than oil and gas companies, he said.

“We can get out of these stocks without harming the retirees and do well by the planet. That’s a pretty good combination,” Berliner said.

Berliner is an energy lawyer and the council’s vice president, and Navarro is chairwoman of the council’s Government Operations Committee. The board oversees investment of retirement funds for county employees.

Navarro, whose committee oversees the board, said she expected a divestiture bill to be introduced to the council in a couple of weeks.

The legislation would prevent the board from purchasing any new stocks or bonds in the fossil fuel industry and would require the divestiture, over five years, of fossil fuel company stock, according to Berliner. The legislation would allow the timeline for divestment to be delayed if the board can certify divesting the funds would reduce the investment return of the portfolio.

The board has about $65 million worth of holdings in coal, oil and gas companies in the Carbon Underground 200, a list of fossil fuel companies ranked by their potential carbon emissions. The board manages about $4 billion, Berliner said.

The list is updated annually by Fossil Free Indexes LLC, and the board’s divestment is being promoted by 350.org, an international environmental organization founded by author Bill McKibben with the goal to cut emissions of carbon dioxide to slow the rate of global warming.

Across the world, 350.org is tracking 600 commitments to divest, said Lindsay Meiman, 350.org’s U.S. communications coordinator. The funds that have agreed to divest have $3.4 trillion in assets under management, she said.

“Our communities are experiencing these devastating impacts of climate change, and we know who’s responsible. It the fossil fuel companies that are knowingly perpetuating the climate crisis,” Meiman said.

Jeffrey Weisner, president of the steering committee of 350MoCo, the local group affiliated with the 350.org movement, said it was time for the county employees’ retirement system to align its investment policies with the values of a county.

San Francisco and Seattle have made similar divestment commitments, as have universities, religious organizations and charities, according to a press release from Berliner.

Berliner said he expected the council to approve the bill.

The legislation would also address longer-term issues related to socially responsible investing, which considers environmental, social and corporate governance issues in determining whether to make an investment while also seeking to maintain strong returns for investors.

Navarro said she anticipated the investment board would develop a socially responsible investment plan that would then be reviewed by her committee or the full council.

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