Exxon-Mobile Thumbs Nose at Vermont, Climate Change


State Treasurer Beth Pearce references an enlarged screen shot of a news website, behind her. An ad for pension loans appears above an article quoting her concern about pension funding. Photo by Hilary Niles/VTDigger

State Treasurer Beth Pearce. Photo by Hilary Niles/VTDigger

A decision by Exxon Mobil Corp. shareholders to reject greenhouse gas emission goals has reignited a debate over whether Vermont should pull its pension investments out of oil and gas companies.


Exxon Mobil shareholders overwhelmingly voted down at least eight miscellaneous resolutions at an meeting annual meeting May 27 in Dallas, which State Treasurer Beth Pearce attended. Pearce handles investments for 48,000 retirees in Vermont.

The state and other investors say Exxon Mobil’s management strategy for climate change is “wholly inadequate.” They pushed for Exxon Mobil to adopt “quantitative” greenhouse gas emission goals and present a plan for reaching the goals by Nov. 30. It gained 9.6 percent shareholder approval.

Two other environmental resolutions — one requiring the board to submit a report on hydraulic fracturing and another to appoint a specific climate change expert to the board of directors — failed with 24.9 percent and 21 percent of shareholder support, respectively. A proposal to put a third and fourth female on the 12-person board of directors received 4.3 percent support.

“The overwhelming defeat of the resolution offered by Vermont Treasurer Pearce asking Exxon Mobil to reduce its greenhouse gas emissions proves that simply asking fossil fuel corporations to change their ways does not work,” Sen. Anthony Pollina, P/D-Washington, said in a statement.

“The best strategy for Vermont is to divest from fossil fuel companies,” Pollina said. “It makes no sense for us to say we oppose climate change and then invest in the companies that are causing it.”

Pollina says the state needs to vote with its pocketbook, and he is putting pressure on Pearce and Gov. Peter Shumlin to sell state Exxon investments. The state senator said Vermont could set an example as the first state to divest its assets from fossil fuels.

“Obviously, we don’t want to divest until our pension funds are going to lose their value,” Pollina said in an interview. “You can divest from these kinds of funds and still have a solid investment return.”

Pearce said this week that she will continue her “shareholder activism” and encourage oil companies such as Exxon Mobil and Chevron to reduce carbon pollution.

Shumlin’s spokesperson, Scott Coriell, said the governor “doesn’t believe divestment is the sharpest tool available to combat climate change,” and is open to a conversation about the merits of divestment.

Fossil fuel divestment is the rallying cry of 350.org a climate change group based in Middlebury.

Green Mountain in College in Poultney, Goddard College in Plainfield and Sterling College in Craftsbury Common have joined 350.org’s divestment movement. Suncommon, a solar company in Vermont, announced this month its employees’ 401(k) plans would not invest in fossil fuels.

Vermont’s retirement funds are $4 billion on any given day, according to Pearce’s office, and about $101.2 million is invested in the energy industry. That total includes $1.6 million in coal, $30 million in utilities, and $69.6 million in other energy investments.

Pearce said she opposes divestment for two reasons: Vermonters who depend on the pension fund might lose money; and the state would be giving up its seat at the table with energy companies.

“We don’t think that [divestment] is a workable strategy for Vermont,” Pearce said. “That doesn’t mean we’re going to give up the fight. … To me, that’s a responsibility we have.”

She referenced a study from her office’s Boston-based investment adviser, NEPC, which said that selling all stock in the fossil fuel industry would cost Vermont about $10 million.

“Many of those Vermonters stay here in Vermont when they retire, and they buy goods and services,” Pearce said. “When you look at it on whole, we’ve done a number of initiatives because we are committed to a clean energy future.”

She pointed to Vermont’s role in pushing two large companies — Dunkin Donuts and Krispy Kreme — not to use palm oil because companies that manufacture palm oil clearcut tropical forests. Vermont was also a founding member of the Investor Network on Climate Risk, which brings shareholders together to advocate for climate change initiatives.

Sen. Anthony Pollina. VTD/Josh Larkin

Sen. Anthony Pollina. VTD/Josh Larkin

Pollina, who is one of the most vocal lawmakers in support of divestment, wants to legislate divestment if he can’t advocate for it.


“The Legislature does have the power to require or ask the pension board to divest,” he said.

This year, Pollina introduced a bill that would require Vermont to divest any assets from “the 200 publicly traded companies that hold the largest carbon content fossil fuels reserves” over the course of five years.

“We would be doing the right things for ourselves,” Pollina said, “but I think we would also send a message to other states and provide the leadership that it will take for others then to follow us.”

According to Politico, Exxon Mobil’s Chief Executive Officer Rex Tillerson “mocked” climate change after the May 27 shareholders’ meeting. He said the company doesn’t want to “lose money on purpose” and that society can adapt to climate change.

Pollina said Tillerson’s comments mean that “Vermont clearly does not have a significant seat at Exxon Mobil’s table.”