State pension fund invests over $1 billion in gas companies | Star-Gazette |

State pension fund invests over $1 billion in gas companies | Star-Gazette |

Written by
Jon Campbell

Living Wage

Living Wage figures for Tompkins County as calculated by Alternatives Federal Credit Union.

Expenses 2009 2011

Living Wage $11.11 $11.67

Rent $763 $811

Food $203.25 $203.60

Transportation $167.52 $179.03

Communication $61.49 $59.99

Health Care $143.53 $173.08

Recreation $100 $101.62

Savings $59.81 $60.78

Miscellaneous $111.13 $110.46

ALBANY — The State Comptroller’s Office has invested hundreds of millions of dollars from the state pension fund in natural gas and hydraulic fracturing companies in recent years, a review of the fund’s most recent listings shows.

In all, the $140 billion fund had more than $1 billion invested in more than a dozen energy companies as of March 31, 2010, a review by Gannett’s Albany Bureau shows. That includes $72 million in natural-gas giant ChesapeakeEnergy Corporation and $145 million in Schlumberger Ltd, a company specializing in hydrofracking and oilfield services.

The issue of gas drilling and hydrofracking has divided the state, with some touting the economic and energy benefits associated with the fuel. Others say the extraction process — which involves the injection of millions of gallons of water and chemicals to fracture shale formations — is environmentally destructive and could lead to water contamination.

“The main objective is to make money, so that’s always a primary concern. But (Thomas DiNapoli) has always been very clear in his interest in safety and risk mitigation,” said Ola Fadahunsi, a spokesman for the Comptroller’s Office. “That’s the delicate balance that you always have to (achieve).”

Records show the fund’s investments in several gas companies have risen significantly since 2008, when many of those companies began expanding aggressively after technological advancements made the massive Marcellus formation more accessible. An additional $15 million went to Chesapeake and Houston-based Cabot Oil & Gas Corporation in that time frame, as well as $30 million to Southwestern Energy Company.

Some of the investments have led to big returns, including Schlumberger. The fund’s 4.2 million shares were worth $296 million as of 2010, after the fund bought $145 million worth of shares over the years.

Roger Downs, a conservation associate for the Sierra Club Atlantic Chapter, said the investments in fracking and gas companies deserve a second look, saying it could pose a conflict if the state moves ahead with drilling.

High-volume hydrofracking is prohibited in New York as the state reviews its permitting regulations. A second draft of the regulations will be released this summer.

“It’s something that I think we’d like the Comptroller’s Office to look at,” Downs said. “I think if the state is profiting from natural-gas development at the same time that they are looking at potentially new regulations for the industry, there is a bit of conflict of interest.”

A handful of the fund’s largest investments are in energy companies such as Royal Dutch Shell and ExxonMobil, which have built their fortune largely in oil but have in recent years acquired companies specializing in shale gas extraction. The fund has invested more than $374 million in Exxon, for example.

Some of the companies receiving pension-fund investments have come under fire for environmental mishaps. Cabot paid more than $400,000 in fines to the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection and reached a $4.1 million settlement after faulty well construction led to methane seeping into a dozen water wells in Dimock Township, Pa.

Chesapeake made news last month when a blowout in Bradford County, Pa., led to a spill of thousands of gallons of chemical-laced water used in the hydrofracking process.

Both earlier this year and in 2010, DiNapoli was part of a group of investors to file a resolution with several companies involved with shale gas, including Chesapeake, Cabot and Hess. The group asked the companies to detail the environmental impact of their operations, as well as put forth potential policies to reduce emissions and environmental harm.

Most of the companies agreed with the request, while Carrizo Oil & Gas will put the resolution to a shareholder vote next month.

“The development of the Marcellus and other shale gas plays must be done the right way,” DiNapoli said at the time the resolution was filed. “As shareholders, we want these companies to assure us that they have a full and complete appreciation of the liability risk, and that they’re taking steps to mitigate those risks.”

Susan Lerner, executive director of government watchdog group Common Cause New York, agreed with DiNapoli’s action, saying it’s important for pension fund managers to stay on top of the corporations they invest in.

“One of the risks for a company that is involved in mineral extraction is that something goes wrong and the company is held liable, and then the shareholder value decreases,” Lerner said. “If the pension funds are shareholders, then they should behave like capitalists and demand that their investment be protected in whatever way is appropriate.”

Assemblywoman Barbara Lifton, D-Ithaca, has been one of the fiercest critics of hydrofracking in the Legislature, but said she trusts the work of the Comptroller’s Office.

“I assume they look at these decisions strictly as investments and keep the politics out of it,” Lifton said.

While the companies’ practices continue to come under intense scrutiny from environmental groups, telling the comptroller not to invest in an industry would be setting a dangerous precedent, said Sen. Thomas Libous, R-Binghamton.

“This issue has come up on a number of occasions, and not just as it pertains to fracking, but as it pertains to a whole host of things over the years,” Libous said. “If the comptroller started separating things out into what people agreed or disagreed with, there would be nothing to invest in.”

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