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Why Some Local Officials Want To Divest From Fossil Fuels

Protesters gathered at the Usdan Student Center at Brandeis University in February and called on the school to divest from fossil fuels. Popular on college campuses, the divestment movement is gaining support among municipal officials in Massachusetts. (Robin Lubbock/WBUR)
Protesters gathered at the Usdan Student Center at Brandeis University in February and called on the school to divest from fossil fuels. Popular on college campuses, the divestment movement is gaining support among municipal officials in Massachusetts. (Robin Lubbock/WBUR)

The town of Ashland aims to be carbon neutral by 2040 and is fighting Eversource Energy's plan to leave a decommissioned gas pipeline in the ground — efforts that demonstrate the community's commitment to environmentalism.

But, in a twist, the fortunes of the town's public employees remain tied to the profitability of fossil fuel companies in their pension fund.

Now, Ashland Town Manager Michael Herbert is among more than 80 officials, representing roughly three dozen municipalities, who are pressing the state Legislature to pass a local-option bill that would free them to divest from firms in the business of non-renewable energy.

"This resolution certainly embodies what I feel is important, as a town manager, and I also think it reflects the values of this community," Herbert said.

Ashland is one of many municipalities for which divestment would align with other attempts to combat climate change. Yet support for pulling money out of traditional energy stocks is not exclusively, or even primarily, about going green.

The S&P 500's energy sector, which includes fossil fuel giants like Exxon Mobil and Halliburton, has yielded the worst return of the index's 11 business sectors in recent years.

"With the Legislature, the financial argument is our strongest tool," said Randi Mail, political director of the MassDivest Coalition. "If you're not accounting for climate exposure in your portfolio, you are violating your fiduciary duty."

Just a few years ago, the state's Public Employee Retirement Administration Commission blocked a divestment attempt by the Somerville Retirement Board, saying that unloading fossil fuel holdings would be a breach of fiduciary duty.

Mail contends that "the financial winds have changed."

The local-option bill, which has more than 70 cosponsors in the House, would not require retirement boards to divest from fossil fuels but would allow them to do so, if inclined.

Watertown Town Councilor Caroline Bays argues that divestment could help protect property in her community that is vulnerable to flooding while also boosting retirement accounts.

"There are so many reasons to be doing this," she said. "It makes sense ethically, morally for our climate, for our town — and for our workers — to do this."

Related:

Callum Borchers Twitter Reporter
Callum covers the Greater Boston business community for Bostonomix.

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