NCIO & San Diego 350: beware fossil fuel contamination in “black box” pension fund investments

  • Black Box representing "black-box investments" leaking oil

No Coal in Oakland’s warning against infrastructure investment proposals that conceal fossil fuel projects reached hundreds of pension fund investors in San Diego last weekend. It couldn’t have happened without the vital support of activists in San Diego 350 who mobilized to leaflet that city’s convention center.

On October 19 through 21, thousands attended the opening days of the 65th Annual Employee Benefits Conference in San Diego.  NCIO composed and financed a leaflet warning against “black box” investments similar to the “teaser” that the Bank of Montreal prepared to lure unwitting investment in the Oakland Bulk and Oversized coal terminal.  San Diego activists arranged to print the handout, and members of San Diego 350 spent hours over three days on the sidewalk outside the convention center, distributing our message.

Leafletters from 350 San Diego & NCIO's Aaron Reaven, October 2019

Leafletters from 350 San Diego & NCIO’s Aaron Reaven, October 2019

NCIO’s Aaron Reaven joined the San Diego activists in leafleting, but NCIO decided against incurring the fossil fuel impact of sending a larger contingent to San Diego.  We were very fortunate that Paul Vachal accepted the challenge of mobilizing his community. Without his organizing effort we could not have reached conference attendees.  We heard from Paul that San Diego 350 appreciated the opportunity to directly address people who can influence divestment from fossil fuel financing, as a targeted complement to the street protests the group has organized and participated in.

Organizers of the conference, the International Foundation of Employee Benefit Plans, invited administrators and trustees of pension plans to participate, including plans for unions and public sector employees, and multi-employer plans; attorneys, accountants, vendors, and others working in the field also attended. Aaron and Paul estimate that two-thirds of the people who were approached with our leaflet responded positively.

NCIO’s outreach to pension funds developed from our campaign to expose the Bank of Montreal’s efforts to help finance the Oakland coal terminal.  BMO’s strategy targeted pension funds as potential investors in an infrastructure project for which the centrality of coal would be deliberately obscured.  The bank has refused to confirm whether their efforts continue.  The leafleting in San Diego takes a broader tack, attempting to alert the pension fund investment community to be generally wary of vaguely-described “infrastructure” investment that may conceal coal or other fossil fuel investments.  We are signaling to other banks and financing companies that such deceptions will be met with strong, public, reputation-staining opposition.

The flyer’s text follows:

Beware of Hidden Fossil Fuel Investments

Fossil fuel investments are getting riskier as the worldwide push to renewables gains momentum. Financial, litigation, regulatory, credit, and reputational risks are making it much harder to raise funds for fossil fuel infrastructure projects.

Well-informed investors are backing away from the opportunity to chase higher returns by investing in the future of fossil fuels. Your pension fund could become a target for investment in disguised fossil fuel projects that may soon become stranded assets.

(See for an example; background information is at

As fossil fuel investments get riskier, the financial industry will hide these “opportunities”

in black boxes. Whether or not your pension fund is ready to divest from fossil fuels entirely, require your investment managers to disclose any investments in fossil fuel infrastructure lurking in the investments they provide.

Don’t buy a black box full of stranded assets!   Pension world whistle-blowers: feel free to contact us at