Fossil fuel divestment would make Illinois’ pension crisis even worse

SHARE Fossil fuel divestment would make Illinois’ pension crisis even worse

The United States is pumping record amounts of oil, vaulting over Russia to become the world’s biggest producer of crude. | AP file photo

During the recent Democratic gubernatorial primary, candidate Daniel Biss proposed a plan to divest Illinois’ pension funds from oil and natural-gas companies.

The state senator was defeated — but his idea is sure to surface again. Divestment remains a top priority for progressive activists, who hate the idea of investing public money in companies that emit greenhouse gases.


Divestment might be emotionally satisfying, but it won’t help the environment. It would, however, rob Illinois workers of their pensions.

The pension funds for state workers are severely underfunded. They need an extra quarter of a trillion dollars in order to pay out the full benefits that workers have been promised, according to an analysis by Moody’s. The crisis is so dire that state legislators have suggested emergency measures such as pressuring city governments to share the burden.

Illinois’s budget problems don’t stop there. The Land of Lincoln has $15 billion in unpaid bills, a $6 billion budget deficit, and state debts that amount to $50,000 per taxpayer. After decades of fiscal mismanagement, Illinois is now contending with higher tax rates and residents fleeing to other states.

Given this looming fiscal crisis, it’s sheer lunacy to propose selling some of the pension funds’ most lucrative investments.

Each dollar the Illinois Teachers’ Retirement System invested in oil and natural gas companies in fiscal year 2005 grew to $2.31 by fiscal year 2013. By comparison, every $1 invested in a broad stock portfolio returned $1.72.

Oil and gas assets accounted for more than 8 percent of the fund’s gains, even though they only represented about 3 percent of its initial investment.

Similarly, oil and natural gas assets accounted for less than 5 percent of the Illinois State Employee Retirement System’s investments but were responsible for 11 percent of its gains.

New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio recently announced plans to divest city workers’ five retirement funds from fossil fuel companies. The Empire State’s Gov. Andrew Cuomo has declared similar intentions for statewide pension funds.

Divestment may be popular with progressive politicians and activists who wish to wash their hands of the fossil fuel industry. But it won’t reduce the amount of carbon in the atmosphere. Illinois’ and New York’s virtue-signaling won’t persuade energy companies to suddenly stop drilling.

California already tried divestment, with dismal results. The managers of the California Public Employees Retirement System have steadily drawn down its fossil fuel assets. Simultaneously, they’ve stepped up their investments in clean energy firms. Thanks in part to this ideological investing strategy, the pension went from a $3 billion surplus to a $138 billion deficit in 10 years.

Many progressive states, cities, and schools have concluded that jeopardizing workers’ retirement security for the sake of a political agenda is irresponsible. Vermont, Seattle, and the University of Colorado have all considered, and then rejected, divestment plans.

Illinois politicians should likewise reject divestment. Our pension funds are already severely underfunded. Now is not the time to play politics with public employees’ futures.

Stephanie Trussell is the host of the Stephanie Trussell Show on WLS-AM 890 in Chicago.

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