Divestment campaigns intensify before Paris climate meeting, but Seattle charity is mum on whether profits or ethics led to unloading Exxon, other stocks.
Almost every day for the past several months, protesters gathered outside the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation’s Seattle headquarters, exhorting the world’s richest philanthropy to fight climate change by pulling its investments from fossil-fuel companies.
As usual when it comes to questions about its portfolio, the foundation responded with silence.
But tax documents posted Monday show that the foundation has significantly scaled back its holdings in some of the world’s biggest oil, coal and gas companies.
In 2013, the trust that manages the foundation’s portfolio held at least $1.4 billion in stocks and bonds in companies like ExxonMobil and Royal Dutch Shell, which rank among the Fossil Free Index’s top 200 based on the size of their fossil-fuel reserves.
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The trust’s 2014 tax return shows investments in those firms fell to about $475 million. The total number of shares in those companies held by the foundation dropped about 10 million. And a handful of fossil-fuel companies — most notably Exxon — were purged from the portfolio.
Former Seattle Mayor Mike McGinn, a leader of the local Gates Divest movement, said he thinks the changes mean the Gateses are paying attention to the fast-growing divestment campaign, which has been embraced by more than 400 institutions worldwide representing $2.6 trillion in investments.
“The Gates Foundation has a history of responding to public pressure, while simultaneously not admitting they are responding to public pressure,” McGinn said.
But the lower value of the foundation’s fossil-fuel investments at least partly reflects plummeting oil prices, which have depressed stock prices. And cutting back on underperforming stock makes good financial sense, said Scott Montgomery, who teaches energy economics and geopolitics at the University of Washington.
“A very, very large number of foundations, universities, pension funds and other investing entities have reduced fossil fuels in their portfolio because they’ve lost a lot (of money) and they don’t want to lose more,” he said.
But Montgomery suspects the Gateses were making a statement earlier this year when they sold off more than 8 million shares of Exxon worth nearly $825 million.
Though reviled by environmentalists for its aggressive attacks on climate-change science and its resistance to emission limits, Exxon remains profitable, Montgomery pointed out. “Exxon is a moneymaking machine, so I suspect that was very much an ethical choice.”
Born of Microsoft wealth and bolstered by donations from billionaire Warren Buffett, the foundation’s endowment of more than $40 billion exceeds some countries’ GDPs. The money primarily is invested to maximize returns, which have funded more than $34 billion in grants to fight poverty and disease in the poorest corners of the world.
The Gateses do draw the line at investing in tobacco companies and other businesses whose “egregious” practices don’t align with their values and work. After public protests, the foundation sold its stake in a security company that operated controversial prisons.
But Bill Gates recently dismissed fossil-fuel divestment as a “false solution” to the problem of climate change — even though he’s alarmed enough to commit $2 billion to clean-energy research.
Divestment proponents say they don’t expect immediate impacts on carbon emissions. But previous divestment campaigns, such as the one that targeted South Africa’s apartheid regime, show that it’s possible to build social and political momentum for change, including meaningful carbon regulation, said Alex Lenferna, a Fullbright Scholar at the UW who’s helping lead the local Gates Divest campaign.
“It’s about changing that narrative, so that we can actually move forward,” he said.
National and international divestment campaigns have been under way for several years, including a push by the British newspaper The Guardian aimed at the Gates Foundation and its U.K. equivalent, The Wellcome Trust. Efforts are intensifying in the lead-up to next month’s U.N. climate conference in Paris.
Under McGinn’s leadership, Seattle was the first city to divest its operating fund. Launched in September, the Gates Divest effort also has roots in energetic protests against coal and oil shipments and Shell’s Arctic drilling operations.
But in a city that takes pride in the Gates Foundation’s charitable prowess, the divestment campaigners have adopted a gentler tone. When kayactivists — including McGinn — paddled with banners in front of the Gates’ Medina mansion last month, they towed an empty kayak and invited the couple to join them.
“Bill and Melinda Gates have a tremendous worldwide reputation, because they chose to take their fortune and put it towards improving people’s lives,” McGinn said. “That leadership voice they hold would be tremendously compelling in the fight against climate change.”
Monday’s tax-document release coincided with a report from the online magazine and sustainability-research group called Corporate Knights, which emphasized the financial argument for divestment. The group analyzed the holdings of 14 major investment funds — including The Gates Foundation — and found most of them would have made more money if they had replaced fossil-fuels stocks with stocks from companies with green credentials three years ago.
For the Gates Foundation, the theoretical lost profits amounted to about $1.9 billion.
But Montgomery said the analysis is unfair, because fossil-fuel prices have fallen sharply over the past few years largely because of an oversupply and the economic slowdown in China.
Fossil-fuel companies could bounce back in the near future, said Corporate Knights CEO Toby Heaps, but the long-term outlook is uncertain.
A recent Oxford University analysis warned that the divestment movement could stigmatize companies and lead to legislation that makes it harder to tap remaining reserves of fossil fuels — which would have a big impact on profitability.
As long as the Gates Foundation maintains its closed-lips policy about investments, there’s no way to know whether profit or ethics drove the recent portfolio changes. It also wasn’t immediately clear where the foundation shifted its investments, or whether green-energy projects saw a boost.
In 2013, the foundation’s holdings of big fossil-fuel companies accounted for about 4.8 percent of the foundation’s total stock and bond investments. In 2014, the fraction dropped to 1.6 percent.
In addition to jettisoning Exxon, the foundation divested from JX Holdings, a Japanese petroleum conglomerate, as well as Itochu, another Japanese firm involved with petroleum extraction and exploration.
But at the same time, the foundation boosted its shares of Vale, a Brazilian mining company criticized for its environmental and human-rights records. The foundation also bulked up on BP, adding 115,000 shares.
Information in this article, originally published Nov. 16, 2015, was corrected Nov. 16, 2015. A previous version of this story misspelled ExxonMobil.