Posted: Fri 25th Jun 2021

Councillor quotes ‘research’ by reading out Shell website as plan to call on pension fund to move away from carbon fuel investments fails for people living in or visiting the Wrexham area
This article is old - Published: Friday, Jun 25th, 2021

An attempt to get Wrexham Council to call upon their “regional Pension Fund bodies to seek rapid disinvestment in companies that produce carbon emitting fuels” has failed.

The ‘non political’ motion, introduced as an opposition motion, was signed by members of the Labour, Plaid Cymru and Liberal Democrat councillors and was debated at the end of the Extraordinary General Meeting of Wrexham Council on Wednesday.

The motion pointed to the Climate Emergency declaration by Wrexham Council and asked councillors to back a call, like others have done in Wales, on the Clwyd Pension Fund “to seek rapid disinvestment in companies that produce carbon emitting fuels”.

The motion noted, “In particular, given the very long history of carbon fuel companies investing huge sums of their money to distort and deny climate change evidence, the likelihood of persuading them to go against their narrow financial interests seems remote.”

Wrexham Councillors Cllr Nigel Williams (Main member) and Cllr Trevor Bates (Substitute if Cllr Williams can’t attend) are co-opted members of Clwyd Pension Fund Committee and would have effectively been asked via the motion to “press for the rapid disinvestment in carbon fuel companies at every available opportunity” via that role.

Labour Group Leader Cllr Dana Davies opened the debate saying a “global transition to a low carbon economy is essential”, pointing to actions by Dyfed Pension Fund earlier this year that “screened out investment in companies with exposure to fossil fuel reserves and thermal coal”.

“Pension funds in Wales are already doing this, so this motion in front of you isn’t new. Cardiff and Monmouthshire councils have also been very proactive in this area. So the question is, why can’t we here in Wrexham?

“We as a local authority have a responsibility to work for the public good and we do that by supporting I’m developing ethical policies.”

“If we are serious and committed as a council to our local decarbonisation plan. We need to support this motion.”

Cllr Marc Jones seconded the proposed motion, adding that the council has to “persuade those corporations to consider renewable energy options.”

Due to the meeting taking nearly two hours to get to the debate on this motion Cllr David A Bithell was juggling two screens and two meetings and indicated he would not be taking part in the vote (he did), and he gave a brief presentation on achievements as he stated that “Wrexham has got a real good track record for decarbonisation” – something the motion itself stated.

Cllr Bithell also gave a run down of the finances, explaining: “Fossil fuels make up about £25 million approximately 1.1% of Clwyd Pension Fund assets, which are over £2 billion.

“There are over 49,000 Clwyd Pension Fund scheme members, 17,000 contributors, 18,000 deferred contributors and 14,000 pensioners. This council works proactively to promote decarbonisation across the council at every opportunity.

“My belief is its not our role as elected members to interfere with trustee matters where 1000s of peoples are affected with their pensions. I will not be supporting the motion today. Clearly, I won’t be voting against it.

“But I would if I was here, Mr. Mayor, and I’m asking councillors not to support the motion, because I think this is meddling in trustee matters, which is a matter for trustees of the pension committee and not elected members of this council.”

Cllr Malcom King urged Wrexham to lead the way as he related conversation with other councillors in North Wales saying others would ‘follow suit’ if such a motion was agreed.

Cllr King pointed to the finances of pension funds and share prices of such fossil fuel investments, stating: “You’d got to be completely bonkers thinking that the share price for oil and gas and coal is going to go up.

“It’s been going down now for years. If it suddenly goes down, that will affect the pension funds. It will affect all of us, including us as councillors.

“If that were the case, we would have to as a council add more money into their pension contributions, which would affect council tax payers. Is that something really, really we would want to risk by not getting out of a failing share price for oil, gas and coal?”

Cllr King also focused in on possible hypocrisy, adding: “The other issue to do with finance is that we’re trying to persuade Wrexham electors to do more about this and recycle and so on and put themselves out because they’re all worried about climate change.

“Whilst at the same time, we as councillors are making money out of the share price for oil and gas, would we would we be advocating investing in smoking, in tobacco companies? I’m sure we wouldn’t.”

“Lets get on with this, let’s try and protect our grandchildren’s future by getting out of coal and gas and oil as soon as we can. Otherwise, I’m afraid all of us will be asked by our grandchildren, What on earth were you thinking of?”.

“How could we be saying that the best approach is for positive engagement with oil companies that have lied to us for decades about climate change? I don’t think there is a positive engagement you can have with organisations like that.

“We just need to get out of it before they’re worthless shares and before we have to use council taxpayers money to make up for the poor, poor investment choice we made now, besides the poor ethical choice we were making by not doing it.”

Cllr Trevor Bates offered an animated rebuttal to Cllr King, saying: “The motion before us calls for disinvestment in fossil fuel companies, the likes of Shell and BP, for instance. So I thought I would do some research into what exactly we might be withdrawing our investment from in these companies who are the enemies of climate change, and who stands with this council in the war against climate change.”

Cllr Bates appeared to have been reading this page along with others on the Royal Dutch Shell PLC UK website as part of his ‘research’.

He added: “I took a look at the Shell website to start and according to their website, Shell wants to be a leading player in the sustainable transport system of the future and it’s invested in a range of alternative fuels with low or no carbon emissions like hydrogen and electric vehicle charging.

“So perhaps they’re not our enemy after all? In 2017, Shell signed an agreement with high powered charging network operator IONITY. They offer charging points across 10 European countries, starting with 80 of its biggest highway stations.

“This meant that drivers could travel long distances with confidence for the first time using EV vehicles. In 2018, Shell opened a new hydrogen refueling station at Shell Beaconsfield in Buckinghamshire, supplied by ITM power. This opening follows the launch of its first fully branded and public hydrogen refueling site in the UK at Shell Cobham in 2017.”

“The motion before us calls for disinvestment in this company – Shell, but is Shell the enemy? This is a company driving the change but the motion says disinvest. This is a company seeking out carbon neutral alternatives. But the motion before us says disinvest.

“This is a company testing developing carbon neutral alternatives but the motion before it us disinvest. This is a company funding the development of alternatives. But the motion for calls for Clwyd Pension Fund to disinvest, but not only Clwyd Pension Fund, it calls for everyone to disinvest in some of the biggest drivers of change today, I hasten to add the BP are also doing similar things.”

Cllr Bates clarified, “I have not been paid by Shell to do this, by the way.”

Cllr Bates’ speech went on, “For the time being our world depends on petrol, diesel, coal, and gas, etc. To disinvest in such companies is to disinvest in our future. Apart from planning the future, what else are these companies doing? Well, like it or not, right now, your lives, your family’s lives and indeed, my life depends on fossil fuels.”

“These companies are keeping the country moving, or perhaps you want the country to stop? How do you think our police force would manage to police without petrol to drive their cars? How do you think our paramedics would get about, our ambulances? How about our fire engines? How many electric powered fire engines out there right now?”

“Yes, we do need to change but the change needs to be controlled. We can’t just turn the tap off. Not today, not tomorrow. But hopefully if we get it right sometime in the near future.”

Cllr Bates wrapped up his points by targeting those who signed the motion, “So you the councillors who signed this motion? You think our pension fund managers should just cash in their shares in all these fossil fuel companies? Like Shell, like BP, and you want everyone else to do the same? If we did this, I’m sure all the overseas investors would really snap them up at a discount and take further control in the UK.”

“Perhaps this motion was brought about from a genuine feeling that we can make a difference to our environments. Those more cynical amongst us might feel that perhaps it was brought in an attempt to make favourable sound bites ahead to the next elections. Either way, this motion has not been thought through, indeed, the war against climate change.

“Perhaps the first thing we need to do is work out whether these companies are indeed our enemies, or perhaps we should be standing side by side with a common aim of future survival.”

Cllr David Griffiths said: “We all want to cleaner future, we all want a future for our children and grandchildren. I think has been said earlier on, these firms can’t do it on no money. They need the money to do it.”

The Finance Officer interjected and pointed out that the Clwyd Pension Fund has its own governance framework (Page currently 404’ing) and also noted, “…that none of the eight pension funds have divested in fossil fuels at this point, what they are doing is putting in place responsible investment policies and the Clwyd Pension Fund approve the responsible investment policy on the June 9th which moves towards a carbon neutral position.”

Cllr Nigel Williams, the co-opted member on the Clwyd Pension Fund committee, then addressed the meeting, “I’ve been accused of not caring for the environment.

“Well, I’d like to say this, I have a young family myself and I do care. Since becoming elected four years ago I have planted dozens of trees in my ward, together with volunteers planted 1000s of plants, and bulbs all which reduce the carbon footprint. I hope everyone bringing this motion here this evening and all the people who have contacted me by phone and email are doing the same to do their bit.

“My main fiduciary function is to ensure that the pension fund can financially meet its obligations and pay the pensions to all of those who are entitled, which people have worked so hard for all the working lives, also parents or family members, or maybe widowed, so they depend on this money also. However, the Clwyd Pension Fund also has to ensure that we have a robust, responsible ethical investment policy that we adhere to. ”

Cllr Williams pointed to the Finance Officer comments earlier, adding: “We have set out our policies to gradually divest over a period of time that we feel are sustainable and will not adversely impact on the fund”.

Citing Cllr Bates’ speech earlier about share ownership and losing control, Cllr Williams said: “Selling the shares simply passes ownership to another investor, and has no impact at all on the company. Instead, we use ownership powers to engage these companies to ensure that policies are in place to transition away from fossil fuels. If we’re not sitting at the table, we can’t be party to those discussions.

“The focus on engagement rather than blanket divestments allows the fund to benefit from opportunities from fossil fuel companies who are in the process of transitioning to renewable forms of energy.

“Several of the companies included in the £25 million total that we have invested, now also generate revenues from renewable energy. The approach of engagements rather than divestments is supported by government representatives and best practice initiatives, including the Minister for Pensions and Financial Inclusion, the Pensions Regulator, Local Authority Pensions Forum, and the Wales Pension Partnership, and other groups such as Pensions for Purpose.

“The fund has made investments in green, and new energy technologies for a number of years by investing in private rather than public companies. This includes investments selected by fund managers in solar and wind farms, as well as other environmental technologies.

Cllr Williams also told the meeting that at the last Clwyd Pension Fund meeting earlier this month he “brought up the subject of disinvestments and asked that we try and bring this forward as quickly as practicable”, pointing out he did not need a motion to make him do that.

Cllr Williams also called out Flintshire councillors, pointing out he was the only one pushing for change, and said there were six members from Flintshire on the committee.

Cllr Alun Jenkins said he was ‘staggered’ that Cllr Williams was the only one putting pressure on, adding: “I agree with what Trevor is saying that, yes, they’re already doing much of this.

“But, if there’s a threat to that existence, then they are more likely to work more quickly to do what is necessary to bring about faster change. I’m certainly not pressing for immediate change to pull the plug now on these investments, that would not be sensible for anybody.

“I think that that discussion needs to take place within the within the [Clwyd Pension Fund]. Nigel is obviously raising the questions, and hopefully our resolution will give would give encouragement, and add strength to his arm now to be able to achieve that.”

Cllr Michael Dixon did not mince his words speaking about progress with Exxon Mobil towards greener energy generation, adding “I wouldn’t presume to instruct either Nigel or Trevor, or indeed the others to say ‘divest from these companies’. I want to nail those companies feet to the floor, and change them.

“With the oil companies, we’re stuck with them for the time being. From the short term point of view I would not wish to divest from them, because I don’t want some so and so thinking ‘Great, we can screw money out of other people!’

“I want to be in there fighting and changing them because I believe that’s the only way we’re actually going to get the future that we want, that we desperately need before we blow everything else on this planet. So from that point of view, whilst I welcome the fact that this motion has come and that we’re having some debate, and I won’t be supporting it this evening”.

Cllr Dana Davies wrapped up the debate, reminding those still present that the motion “actually gives Councillor Williams more encouragement, more strength in his argument that he presents at that meeting and helps him in driving the agenda.”

A named roll call of councillors left in the meeting took place with 15 votes in favour of the motion and 19 votes against the motion meaning that the motion was “lost”.

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