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While San Diegans continue to find tar balls plaguing the beach (which began en masse after an oil spill in Orange County earlier this month) other San Diegans are questioning another crude coincidence: The city continues to invest in fossil fuel companies. 

“It’s upsetting and also tone deaf these decisions are being approved when we had a really damaging oil spill off our coast,” said Laura Walsh, California policy director for Surfrider, an environmental organization focusing on the state’s coastline.  

A lone member of the public echoed Walsh’s concern, commenting on the city treasurer’s investment policy which passed through the Budget and Government Efficiency Committee’s consent agenda (meaning there wasn’t any discussion) on Oct. 13.  

“The recent SoCal oil spill underlines how important it is for us to move away from fossil fuels,” wrote Stephanie Lawrence. “The city should end its investments in Exxon and Chevron and instead use that money to invest in more sustainable and responsible companies. Thank you.” 

The treasurer didn’t propose any changes to the policy, a pretty standard-looking document giving the position’s authority to invest public funds. But the City Council could choose to wield the policy as a political tool by declaring certain investments undesirable.  

Committee Chair Councilman Chris Cate confirmed if council wanted to do something like that, this policy would be the place to do it. Cate, however, said he wouldn’t be the one to bring it up.

“I think our city does a fine job at managing our investments and funds,” he said. 

I wrote about this almost at exactly the same time last year when former Councilman Chris Ward’s office introduced a “socially responsible investment policy.” He’s now a member of the state Assembly and that policy proposal didn’t go anywhere.   

As a reminder, the burning of fossil fuels by humanity is mostly to blame for the breakneck pace (on a geologic scale) at which the planet is warming, causing melting glaciers and rising seas, acidification of the ocean, and crazy fluxes in weather that make hurricanes and heat waves more treacherous. I could go on.  

The City Council that OK’d this investment policy is supposed to be operating under a “climate emergency” via a resolution passed my first week on this job (March 2020). That document links fossil fuel degradation to environmental injustices borne by “frontline communities” who should be benefitting instead from a sustainable and equitable economy. 

Yet, the city’s monthly investment reports show it invested millions in Exxon Mobile Corp. on Aug. 26. It also invested in Skandinaviska Enskilda, a Scandinavian bank that provides significant backing to the fossil fuel industry. Although that bank recently adopted a fossil fuel policy aimed at backing less-dirty fuels, it’s got its loopholes too. At the very least the bank passed a fossil policy in February acknowledging the role fossil fuels play in the changing climate, something San Diego’s investment policy does not do. 

The city of San Diego also invested millions in Chevron Corporation back in March, another fossil fuel company that is publicly committing to lowering the carbon intensity of its products. 

Whether those banks and companies actually do the things they say they will remains to be seen. At the very least, they’re saying it.  

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