California oil spill highlights need for environmentally focused investing, expert says. Here's how to get started

  • A West Coast oil spill is prompting renewed calls for a quick transition from fossil fuels.
  • Advocates say individual investors can help encourage this change by being more selective about where they put their money.
  • “There are a lot of ways to invest your values,” one non-profit executive says.

© Provided by CNBC Workers with Patriot Environmental Services mop up oil on the surface of the water at Talbert Marsh in Huntington Beach, CA on Monday, October 4, 2021.

A massive oil spill off the coast of southern California this past weekend has clean-up crews racing to prevent an ecological disaster.

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It has also prompted experts to say it’s time to transition away from the fossil fuel industry.

“What this spill does is underscore the need to move away from oil to other cleaner sources of energy,” said Danielle Fugere, president of As You Sow, a non-profit shareholder advocacy group focused on environmental and social issues.

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Companies can address this by revising their business models to consider climate risk, Fugere said. Federal lawmakers also have an opportunity to make the environment a top concern in upcoming legislation.

Individual investors can also change their approach to make clean energy a priority, according to Fugere.

“There are a lot of ways to invest your values, and that is increasingly a mantra of investors,” she said.

Seek funds free of fossil fuels

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As You Sow offers an online Fossil Free Funds tool that helps investors in mutual or index funds see what companies are held within those funds, as well as how they score on fossil fuels and sustainability.

Fossil fuel-free funds enable investors to screen for companies with exposure to oil and gas or coal-burning utilities, which can be tied to oil spills, drilling or neighborhood air-quality issues.

“That’s one way that investors can move their money to cleaner forms of energy,” Fugere said.

Petition for change in your 401(k)

Many individual investors rely on employer-sponsored 401(k) plans to invest for their retirements.

Yet these plans may not necessarily include fossil fuel-free options in their investment menus.

If these investments are not available in your company’s plan, ask for funds to be added that have environmental, social and governance-based companies, Fugere said.

Choose banks that help the cause

Investors can also send a message with their money through the banks they choose.

Those financial institutions often provide capital to companies, and investors would be wise to make sure those projects are moving in the right direction on climate issues, Fugere said.

Some banks have set net-zero targets to measure how much money is going into climate-related companies and projects and established concrete goals to reduce exposure.

Even a Google search can yield a lot of information on a particular bank’s reputation on the environment, according to Fugere. Additionally, an annual report from the Rainforest Action Network typically ranks the largest funders of fossil fuels.

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