Dem Gov Candidate: What Do Buggy Whips and Fossil Fuels Have In Common?

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BOSTON — Fossil fuels such as coal and natural gas are as cutting-edge as buggy whips were a hundred years ago, a Democratic candidate for governor of Massachusetts said.

Bob Massie told a crowd of anti-fossil fuel activists at a rally Tuesday that the state’s Pension Reserves Investment Management Board has done a disservice to its fiduciary responsibility by continuing to invest in companies that produce fossil fuels because they will soon be outdated — just as the buggy whip at the dawn of the automobile.   

“People say ‘fiduciary duty,’ and we’re supposed to freeze and fall down like it’s some kind of Hogwarts spell,” Massie, a Somerville resident, said during the rally outside the pension board’s headquarters on State Street in the city’s Financial District. “That’s not what fiduciary duty is — fiduciary duty says that people in charge of investments should use their best judgment about how to invest that money on behalf of the people who are their beneficiaries.

“What I want to suggest today is that the people at PRIM do not understand the concept of fiduciary duty, they continue to invest in an industry that is going down, down, down, down.”

Tuesday’s rally, dubbed the “Billionaires Bash,” drew a few dozen people, many of them traveling from the western part of the state. Mickey McKinley of Montague told New Boston Post that a bill addressing divestment is currently languishing on Beacon Hill. The legislation, dubbed An Act Relative To Public Investment in Fossil Fuels, was assigned to the Joint Committee on Public Service in January and has yet to receive a hearing. The bill calls for the immediate divestment of coal holdings and would create a commission to study investments in oil and gas.

McKinley, who was doling out mock billion-dollar greenbacks featuring GOP megadonor Charles Koch, said the “bill is a little more doable now,” a reference to previous versions that called for an outright divestiture of oil and gas holdings and failed to gain traction in the state Legislature.

“There’s really no excuse for this except they say, ‘oh we can’t do it because our investments are in funds that we can’t sort,’ but it could all get done if they wanted to,” McKinley said.

She noted that most of the activists carpooled to get to Boston for the rally. “I’m going to have five in my Prius driving home,” he said.

According to a report in The Berkshire Edge, McKinley was one of 18 protesters arrested earlier this month, charged with blocking access roads inside Otis State Forest in order to keep Tennessee Gas Pipeline crews from cutting down trees to make way for a planned pipeline extension.

As of March 31, PRIM records show that fossil fuel holdings amount to a little more than $1.8 billion — roughly 3.6 percent of the pension fund portfolio’s total value of $50.7 billion. PRIM records also show that the pension fund has ExxonMobil holdings valued at $170 million.

Several who attended Tuesday’s rally also testified before the pension board during a morning meeting. Peter MacKinnon, president of Service Employees International Union Local 509, told the board that “burning fossil fuels is causing climate change” and claimed that “investing in fossil fuels will actually increase costs for retirees, as we are forced to adapt to an earth that is gradually becoming less habitable.”

He went on to cite rising sea levels and a spate of droughts and heat waves. 

“There is no doubt that burning fossil fuels is changing our climate in ways that will significantly decrease the quality of life and increase the cost of basic survival,” MacKinnon told board members, according to a copy of his written testimony. “Most of us wouldn’t bet against that outcome, so why is our retirement fund?”

SEIU Local 509 has an office in Marlborough.

Ferd Wulkan, the organizing director for the Public Higher Education Network of Massachusetts, which advocates more government spending on public colleges and cheaper tuition for students, told rally attendees that PRIM’s fossil fuel holdings have actually lowered the fund’s overall value, even as portfolio managers increased holdings in coal by about 30 percent over the last calendar year.

“Talk about putting your head in the sand,” Wulkan said. “The portfolio as a whole decreased in value by about 9 percent over the last year but fossil fuel holdings increased by about 5 percent.

“That difference, had they divested a year ago and reinvested that money in a way that achieved the same rate of return as the rest of the portfolio, our pension fund would now have almost a half-billion dollars more.”

Massie, meanwhile, said that not only are fossil fuel companies woefully behind the times, so are the decision makers at the state pension board.

“They remind me of the people who used to insist that horses would be used forever and that cars were a fad,” Massie said.

Massie mentioned the fate of towns whose “entire economy was built around the buggy whip.”

“PRIM reminds me of people who insist on investing in buggy-whips because there’s no way that the buggy-whip is going to disappear,” he told the crowd. “There’s always going to be horses, there’s always going to be carriages, and therefore there’s always going to be buggy-whips.

“That’s the same kind of thinking that’s going on inside PRIM — that there’s always going to be fossil fuel, no matter what.”

Activists later marched, led by a New Orleans-style horn band, from their State Street meeting point up to the front steps of the Massachusetts State House:

Once there, marchers were joined by state Representative Marjorie Decker (D-Cambridge), sponsor of the state Legislature’s divestiture bill.

“Actions have consequences, and our inaction is dire,” she told the crowd.

Massie’s appearance at Tuesday rally came as another Democratic candidate for governor, Newton Mayor Settie Warren, announced he plans to take his campaign to the “next step” at an event scheduled for Saturday, May 20 according to State House News Service.  The event, according to reports, will feature a block party theme, beginning at 2 p.m. on Beaumont Avenue in Newtonville. 

Other Democratic candidates who have either declared or are openly exploring challenging Governor Charlie Baker include Jay Gonzalez, who served as budget secretary under former governor Deval Patrick; and former state senator Dan Wolf, the founder of Cape Air.