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If we’re really going to change, sooner or later we’ll have to actually make a change.
The latest front in the fight against fossil fuels—so far, one confined to a couple of California towns—concerns what might be the most iconic element of the American commercial landscape: the gas station. Beginning in 2019, activists from the Coalition Opposing New Gas Stations have questioned whether there’s a need for big new versions of the filling station, or whether—since both California and G.M. have announced plans to end the sale of new internal-combustion vehicles in fourteen years—it might be time to decide that we have enough pumps already. Last year, they helped persuade developers to withdraw plans for two gas stations in unincorporated parts of Sonoma County, and earlier this month they helped convince the city of Petaluma to become the first in the country to ban new stations; they’ve so far lost a battle against a “mega station” that would accommodate up to twenty-eight vehicles at a time in the city of Novato, but they vow to keep fighting.
It will be a tough battle in Novato, because the opponent is not some mom-and-pop garage but Costco, the vast—and vastly successful—warehouse-store chain. Costco’s model is enormous volume allowing cheap prices. The company’s public image is sterling, because it offers employees fair wages and generous benefits (one looks forward to the day when this will not stand out enough to be a boast), but its practices are beginning to come under scrutiny: Nicholas Kristof describes in the Times precisely what practices are behind the production of a $4.99 rotisserie chicken.
In the case of gasoline, Costco isn’t drilling or refining; it’s just buying gasoline from oil companies and reselling it. But it can price the gas for its customers (who pay an annual membership fee) well below most of its competition: about twenty-one cents less, on average, in 2018. (Anyone who goes there for gas is also likely to pop inside for, say, a thirty-six-pack of razor blades.) As a result, gas generated about eleven per cent of the company’s net sales the following year, which would come to around sixteen billion dollars. It’s no surprise, then, that the company is adding pumps. (The Novato proposal isn’t even the largest—recently, the store won approval for a thirty-two-pump operation, in San Ramon, California.) Costco even has a Web page explaining how to use these octane shrines, which allow only one-way traffic and whose “extra-long hoses allow fueling from either side of the vehicle, so there is no need to be concerned with which lane to choose.” (Costco declined to comment.)
All of this makes a mockery of Costco’s stated position on climate change, which is that “at today’s rate of growth of global carbon dioxide equivalent (CO2e) emissions, the negative effects of climate change (e.g., extreme weather events, ocean acidification, wildfires, sea level rise, resource scarcity, forced migration, racial injustice, economic inequality, etc.) will likely cause the greatest disruption to life in human history.” If you are confronting the greatest disruption to life in human history, then you shouldn’t be expanding the side of your business that most directly contributes to it. One could argue that Costco doesn’t increase demand for gas but merely takes business away from family-owned gas stations. If that’s true, then economics as we’ve understood it is wrong. Selling gas cheaper will surely slow down the transition to electric cars or bikes—that’s the definition of marginal demand.
Costco lays out a complicated and extensive array of steps that it is taking to reduce its environmental impact, a lot of which appears to be corporate speak at its least specific. (“Create accountability through incentive pilots and recurring employee communications that build capacity, promote behavior change and foster a culture of continuous learning.”) None of those steps would be as important, though, as announcing that the company had decided to stop expanding its gasoline business, and, indeed, that it would begin to phase it out, and replace it with electric-vehicle chargers. Costco is in the car-selling business, too, and there is no reason that it couldn’t move toward marketing just E.V.s.
So far, no big enterprise that I know of has been willing to sacrifice any profit to move us in the direction we must go: not Costco, with its gas stations; not JPMorgan Chase, with its lending window still open to oil companies; certainly not ExxonMobil or Chevron, with their plans for more drilling. And each year the carbon level in the atmosphere keeps rising. If we’re going to change, someone is going to have to actually make a change.
Passing the Mic
Clara Vondrich has been at the forefront of the fossil-fuel divestment fight for many years, focussing on foundation endowments and pension funds. Now she’s helping to coördinate an effort to go after one of the biggest pots of money in the country: the federal Thrift Savings Plan, or T.S.P., which is where millions of federal employees sock away their retirement accounts. Our conversation has been edited for length.
You’ve worked on divestment for a very long time. Why is the T.S.P. such an important prize?
First, let’s start with sheer size: the Thrift Savings Plan, serving roughly six million active and retired federal employees and service members, has more than seven hundred billion dollars in assets. It is the largest retirement plan in the United States.
Second, divesting the T.S.P. would finally state the obvious at the highest level: fossil fuels are bad for investors. Traditional energy was the biggest loser in the S. & P. 500 for much of the past decade, finishing dead last for each of the past three years. Why should federal workers subsidize a failing industry, and take a hit to their retirement savings as a result?
Third, a mandate from President Biden to divest the T.S.P. would be a serious wake-up call to the fund’s mega-money managers, BlackRock and State Street, which together control more than ten trillion dollars in investor assets. BlackRock’s chief, Larry Fink, is saying all the right things about protecting client money from climate risk, but not enough is changing.
Are participants at the moment sort of forced to invest in the fossil-fuel industry? Do you hear from employees who are uncomfortable with that?
Yes and yes. Plan members have several alternatives under the T.S.P., but none of them are clean. People often ask, if fossil fuels are such bad investments, why are we still investing in them? Federal workers are getting fed up with dirty fuels lurking in their nest eggs. Take Nicole Cantello, an E.P.A. attorney, who says, “I bring cases against polluting corporations. Right now, my employer, the federal government, forces me to invest in the very companies that imperil my children’s future by pumping greenhouse gases into the air.” Nicole, who is also the president of A.F.G.E. Local 704, a Chicago chapter of the biggest federal-employee union in the country, is one of the organizers of a petition to President Biden, urging him to use the executive powers he has to divest the T.S.P. All federal employees, members of the uniformed services, veterans, and retirees are encouraged to sign.
This seems like the logical convergence of pressure on government and pressure on the financial industry. Do you think the Biden Administration has the nerve to make a move like this?