It all might sound a bit convenient given oil and gas stocks have been on a tear: The S&P 500 Energy Index has surged 26% this year through Friday, the best performance of any industry by far, led by Occidental Petroleum Corp.’s 48% gain. And with $100-a-barrel oil on the horizon, there could be even more money to be made by investing in fossil fuels.
Calls for divestment grew louder last year. There were 1,485 institutions with $39 trillion of assets publicly committed to some form of divestment from fossil fuels in 2021, up from 181 institutions with $52 billion in 2014, according to one tally by a coalition of environmental and consumer advocacy organizations.
BNEF Chart: Most Pension Funds Opt to Divest All Fossil Fuels
The New York State Common Retirement Fund was one of the latest to commit, announcing Wednesday that it would divest $238 million from 21 energy firms, including Chesapeake Energy Corp. and Diamondback Energy Inc.
Morality is one thing. Whether divestment actually works is another. It can encourage a company to respond to criticism, but whenever one money manager sells a stake, it may be purchased by another investor who isn’t interested in pressing management on environmental, social or governance grounds.
Rupert Krefting, head of corporate finance and stewardship at M&G Investments in London, scours the firm’s exposure to the biggest emitters and then discusses strategy with its portfolio managers. While M&G is considering criteria for divesting from coal, it sees oil and gas as a critical part of the climate transition.
“Divestment is the last resort,” he said in an interview.
That’s a view shared by Johanna Kyrklund, CIO of London-based Schroders Plc, which manages about $1 trillion.
“We are not going down the path of exclusion,” which would be tantamount to “undermining the portfolio,” she said. “Active ownership is a better way forward, and that is what we have been doing.”
Calstrs showed the benefits of remaining invested in oil and gas. It supported the Engine No. 1 activist campaign that succeeded in replacing a quarter of Exxon Mobil Corp.’s board last year. Since the effort began, the oil giant has toughened its pollution targets, declared an ambition to eliminate emissions from its operations by 2050 and created a new division for low-carbon investments.
The current energy supply crunch — with surging heating and gas prices — is a cautionary tale about what a disorderly climate transition might look like when there’s not enough production from renewable sources to meet global demand, according to BlackRock, the world’s biggest asset manager.
BlackRock, which oversees $10 trillion, including more than $500 billion in sustainable funds, has said it doesn’t have an oil-and-gas divestment policy. Instead, senior executives recently told clients that investing in companies with decarbonization plans is an “under-appreciated opportunity,” especially during the early years of what’s expected to be a decades-long climate transition.
Last year, Toronto-based Brookfield Infrastructure completed the acquisition of Inter Pipeline Ltd., which operates energy infrastructure assets across Western Canada. The firm, a publicly traded subsidiary of Brookfield Asset Management, is targeting the midstream part of the petroleum industry that handles fuel storage, processing and transportation.
“We’ll see a number of opportunities surface there as this sector becomes under-invested due to the ESG winds,” Brookfield Infrastructure Chief Executive Officer Sam Pollock said on a conference call with analysts earlier this month.
Brookfield Asset Management, meanwhile, is in the final stages of closing its $15 billion transition fund, CEO Bruce Flatt said in a letter to shareholders Thursday.
“This fund was raised faster, and is larger than, expected, and we have already started putting the capital to work to help companies decarbonize their operations,” he wrote. “However, a critical point in this is that everything does not have to become green today — in fact, not everything can be green today.”