Exxon Among Targets for Divestiture in Climate Push

Activist Bill McKibben, who helped turn an obscure oil pipeline project into a high-profile political fight, has a new target for his effort to curb global warming: energy companies such as Exxon Mobil Corp.

McKibben’s group, 350.org, is asking colleges, cities and churches to divest their financial holdings from a group of 200 companies that produce coal, oil or natural gas. So far six schools, 16 cities and 11 religious institutions have agreed to divest from those companies, according to his group.

“We know we can’t bankrupt Exxon,” McKibben said in a meeting with Bloomberg News in Washington. “But we think we can politically bankrupt them.”

McKibben’s group has modeled its campaign after the 1980s divestment effort aimed at companies working with the apartheid regime in South Africa. Unless these companies can be persuaded to leave 80 percent of the available fossil fuels in the ground, climate change will proceed at a pace that would be catastrophic for the planet, they say.

Students at more than 300 campuses, including the eight Ivy League schools, have joined the movement, which got a mention from Obama during his climate speech last month. They are demanding that over the next five years schools purge their endowments of investments in 200 publicly traded companies with the largest reserves of oil, gas and coal.

Exxon Reacts

Exxon says divestment is the wrong approach to deal with greenhouse-gas emissions. “We take great offense to being compared to an apartheid regime,” Alan Jeffers, a company spokesman, said. “We don’t think it’s an effective part of the debate” to focus on divestment, he said.

McKibben should instead be trumpeting the growth of natural gas, which emits half the carbon-dioxide as coal when burned for electricity, he said. “We are surprised the environmental community doesn’t embrace natural gas more,” he said.

The effort is a shift in approach for McKibben, who started 350.org in 2008, focusing much of its energy on defeating the TransCanada Corp.’s application to build the Keystone XL pipeline. The pipeline would carry the oil produced from the tar sands of Alberta to U.S. refineries along the Gulf of Mexico. That oil is especially carbon-heavy, and locking in production of the tar sands for the next 40 years is especially problematic, McKibben says.

“If we can bottle up this stuff, then we can buy some time,” McKibben said. “If we can block Keystone, then the tar sands is basically a dead letter.”

What’s not clear is if President Barack Obama will agree with McKibben. A State Department analysis found that the tar sands will be developed with or without the pipeline, as producers will use other pipelines or trains to transport the product to refineries. And lawmakers from both political parties are pressing Obama to green-light the application.

In a major climate speech, Obama said Keystone would not be in the U.S. national interest if it will, “significantly exacerbate the problem of carbon pollution.”

“If that is applied in good faith, there is no way this thing could be approved,” McKibben said.