CORNER BROOK, N.L. — The general council of one of Canada’s largest churches has voted to drop fossil fuels from its investment portfolios, with advocates for the motion saying the decision is based on the Christian duty to care for the earth.
Commissioners attending the United Church of Canada’s general council in Corner Brook, N.L., voted 67 per cent in favour Tuesday to divest the industry from its treasury assets and to shift the $5.9 million from the portfolio into green renewable energy ventures.
The motion also says the commissioners “encourage” the United Church of Canada Foundation to drop its fossil fuel shares and the church’s pension board is asked to determine if its holdings “align with the Christian imperative of seeking justice, resisting evil, and living with respect in Creation.”
The motion applies to the top 200 fossil fuel firms in the world.
Christine Boyle, a church member from Vancouver who supported the motion, said the church’s outreach programs work with people in countries like the Philippines where human-induced climate change may be contributing to poverty.
If the church had continued investing in oil companies it would be working against its own goals of promoting global social justice, she said.
“The impacts of climate change are being felt most strongly right now by marginalized communities and many are communities we are working with to create more just systems,” she said.
Boyle also said there is a strong moral argument against holding the fossil fuel shares, based on biblical references in Genesis that humans are entrusted to guard God’s creation.
However, Rev. Dave Pollard of Airdrie, Alta., said he opposed the motion because it doesn’t allow for recognizing fossil fuel companies that are doing their best to improve technology and are more environmentally responsible.
“To make a blanket statement we’re going to divest may perhaps be punitive to those companies that are working hard ... doing their level best to make themselves somewhat sustainable,” he said.
He said he is also concerned about the reaction he will get from oil industry workers when he returns to his congregation north of Calgary.
“They have families and they have feelings and they have concerns about their livelihoods, especially now,” he said.
The meeting in Corner Brook is the triennial council of the church, and the motion was originally brought forward by Trinity-St. Paul’s United Church in Toronto, which pioneered fossil fuel divestment in the Canadian church.
There are 400 people attending the meeting in Corner Brook, and a sub-group of about 150 members voted on the divestment motion.
Erik Mathiesen, the United Church’s chief financial officer, said its investment committee was working on a framework for divesting before the motion.
“They (the committee) would have deemed this premature. ... But the commission has heard that and felt it was important still to take a stand,” he said.
Mathiesen said he will convene the investment committee next month to begin work on the directive to find fresh investments in green energy, but there is no deadline for its completion.
“It’s certainly doable. ... We will certainly leave it to the investment professional to evaluate risk and return and so on,” he said.
A spokeswoman for the Canadian Association of Petroleum Producers said in an email it isn’t appropriate to target members of an industry working on ways to reduce its greenhouse gas emissions.
“Our view is that while investors set their own their criteria for investments, targeting a specific industry or commodity is not appropriate, particularly when some companies in those industries are driving innovation in the specific areas highlighted by some groups as the reason not to invest in them,” said Chelsie Klassen, manager of media relations for the association.
— By Michael Tutton in Halifax.