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The fossil fuel divestment movement has scored a series of high-profile wins this year, with the Caisse de dépôt et placement du Québec and Montreal-based Laurentian Bank of Canada among the major institutions that have announced they’re selling their holdings in oil and gas companies or refusing to fund their operations going forward. But the biggest fish in the sea remains the one they can’t seem to hook just yet: the Canada Pension Plan Investment Board.
With nearly $550 billion in assets under management and more exposure to Canada’s oil and gas industry than any other institutional investor in the country, it’s the holy grail for pro-divestment campaigners. And based on its most recent statement, they appear to have their work cut out for them. Rather than selling its shares in Canadian oil and gas companies, the CPPIB seems determined to use its financial clout to hurry them down the road towards net-zero emissions as quickly and efficiently as possible.
In addition to oil and gas, it plans to invest strategically in sectors like agriculture, chemicals, cement, steel, power, and heavy transportation, all with an eye to rewarding companies that innovate the fastest and drive down their emissions the quickest.
“Under our new decarbonization investment approach, we are seeking to identify those companies that offer the greatest potential to build value through their transition, regardless of sector,” it said in a paper outlining its new strategy. “As such, CPP Investments may buy and hold promising companies with significant carbon footprints if we believe they are fundamentally undervalued and there is an opportunity to build value by helping them accelerate their decarbonization.”
To those in the climate community, this might seem like a long-winded way of saying that they’re capitulating to industry and the status quo. But that ignores the more complicated reality of what divestment can and can’t achieve, especially when it comes to the oil and gas industry.
As OPEC successfully manages the oil market higher, and prices continue to rise, these companies are seeing huge increases in their cash flows — ones they can use to pay down debt and return capital to shareholders. If these sorts of prices continue, said companies won’t be nearly as dependent on Wall Street and Bay Street as they used to be for the debt and equity issuances that fund their operations, and they could start to tune out the demands of ESG-minded investors. The longer those investors wait to use their leverage, in other words, the less influence they will have.
It also ignores the role large institutional capital providers can play in shaping corporate behaviour. As I’ve written in the past, there’s a different kind of golden rule at work here, which is that the people with the gold make the rules. Instead of cutting ties with the industry, banks and other large financial institutions should use their proverbial gold to make new rules, ones that reward the companies that most aggressively lower their GHG emissions and punish those that don’t. If a company achieves certain climate targets, they should be given a lower cost of capital — one that will allow them to outcompete their peers and grow their market share, all other things being equal.
That’s already happening at the edges of the industry.
Buried in the fine print of a recent announcement of a corporate takeover by Tamarack Valley Energy are details about a so-called “sustainability linked lending facility” it picked up in the deal. It gives the company access to $100 million in borrowing capacity at rates determined in part by how well it does on three “sustainability performance targets”: GHG emissions, decommissioning old wells, and increasing Indigenous workforce participation. Those targets, if met, can reduce the company’s cost of borrowing by up to five basis points (0.05 per cent) and increase it if they’re missed.
And while five basis points aren’t big enough to single-handedly change the company’s behaviour, it’s a step in the right direction. Imagine what would happen if banks were lending through facilities that offered inducements of up to 50 basis points or more.
Opinion: Instead of cutting ties with the industry, banks and other large financial institutions should use their proverbial gold to make new rules, writes columnist @maxfawcett. #Oil&Gas #FossilFuelFinancing #DivestMovement
It’s easy for activists to push for blanket divestment from the oil and gas industry, and it’s understandable why many financial institutions are willing to do it. Right now, divestment is the easy way out, especially for the managers at these institutions. Oil and gas stocks have been relative underperformers for the last decade, and their meagre returns are hardly worth the trouble of dealing with pro-divestment campaigns — or their campaigners. But retreating from the battlefield here is more a sign of cowardice than a display of courage. Dressed in the finery of virtue and principle, it’s really about avoiding the hassle of having to fight.
Instead, we need the stewards of our shared capital to use their influence and power for good. The CPPIB is best suited of all to do this, given the role it plays in funding our retirements. It has a clear and vested interest in the future, and it should want to protect the rest of its portfolio — and ours — from the potentially catastrophic impact of climate change.
The best way to do that isn’t by bailing out of positions in high-emitting companies and buying more shares of Shopify or Rogers. It’s by staying in the fight and using its influence to shape behaviour in the sectors and companies where it matters most.
For now, at least, the CPPIB seems to understand that.