After hearing sometimes tearful testimony from environmentalists and American Indians, the CalPERS Board of Administration indicated on Monday that it would reconsider its involvement in the controversial Dakota Access Pipeline project.
The board did not make a final decision, but several of its members said they were swayed by the dozens of people who raised objections to the 1,100-mile pipeline, which would carry oil from North Dakota to Illinois.
Many were retired public employees who said the investment jeopardized their future by supporting a fossil fuel business that they consider to be a danger to the environment.
“If we’re really going to invest for the future, for the members of CalPERS, the future turns on a planet that is not polluted, a planet that is not compromised, a planet that is not destroyed,” said Arthur Williamson, a retired history professor from California State University, Sacramento.
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The California Public Employees’ Retirement System owns about 1 million shares in Energy Transfer Partners, the company behind the pipeline proposal. The retirement fund also may have investments in companies that are believed to be financing the project, according to a CalPERS staff report.
The board’s direction followed an emotional morning meeting in which dozens of people implored the investment fund to pull out of the project. One speaker sang a prayer with a chorus of “raise your children, let them fly.” Several cried.
“I can’t tell you how moving all of the public comments were to me personally. We all feel the energy in the room,” said board member Priya Mathur.
She asked CalPERS staff members to report on options the board might consider to re-engage with its builder, a request that other members seconded. The board did not give its staff a deadline.
After the meeting, she clarified that she did not intend her motion to indicate that she wanted to divest from the project.
“We take these issues very seriously, and CalPERS has a tradition of taking these issues very seriously and engaging companies,” she said.
Earlier in the morning, about 150 people gathered outside CalPERS headquarters, where they carried signs urging divestment and listened to speeches.
The Army Corps of Engineers announced last week that it would grant the project its final permit. For months, American Indians led by the Standing Rock Sioux tribe, environmentalists and veterans have protested to block construction.
Recently, Davis and Seattle have broken ties with Wells Fargo because the bank is believed to be one of the institutions financing the pipeline.
“We can say where our money should go, and if we refuse to fund the the things that are threatening the land, threatening the water and threatening tribal treaty rights, we can take out our money out and say, ‘Not in our name,’ ” Oakland City Councilwoman Rebecca Kaplan said at the morning rally.
Inside the meeting, retired public employees and a few current state workers who used vacation time to attend the meeting echoed Kaplan’s remarks. One state scientist called the pipeline an “incredibly risky investment.”
“You have my permission to divest,” said retired teacher Martha Dragovich, 74, of Martinez.
CalPERS leaders last week released a report that urged the board to oppose an Assembly bill that would compel it to divest from the pipeline project. The report said the bill could affect about $4 billion in investments, and CalPERS would lose its ability to influence the project.
CalPERS staff members said they are discussing the bill with its author, Democrat Ash Kalra of San Jose. The board did not weigh in on Kalra’s bill, but some of its members suggested they wanted more options.
Board member Theresa Taylor, for instance, called the pipeline project “problematic.” She listed her concerns about the environment, climate change and respect for American Indian tribes. “I oppose the project,” she said.