The Sisters of St. Francis and Chevron: an unlikely, ongoing investor-corporate dialogue

How faith investors are working with controversial oil major

On November 29 last year a delegation of oil industry executives assembled at the motherhouse of the Sisters of St. Francis of Philadelphia in Pennsylvania.

The purpose of their visit? It was the latest chapter in a long-running engagement between the sisters and other investors and their company, Chevron. The party included Ed Spaulding, General Manager of Government and Public Affairs at the company as well as local managers.

The meeting was attended in person or by phone by around 30 people from the Interfaith Center on Corporate Responsibility (ICCR) including Richard Liroff, Executive Director of the Investor Environmental Health Network (IEHN).

“I think it was a very good meeting,” says Sister Nora Nash, who heads up the engagement with Chevron.

The fact that the investors were able to successfully invite Chevron onto their turf speaks volumes. And it sits in stark contrast to the oil company’s taking legal action against some of its other shareholders over its controversial Ecuador judgment.

But Sister Nora’s focus is much closer to home, in particular Chevron’s fracking operations in the western part of the state.

Indeed, the November meeting centred on the ICCR’s persistent questions at shareholder meetings about Chevron’s fracking activities dating back several years.

The latest resolution has gone further than before in making specific demands for key performance indicators (KPIs) about environmental and social impacts. “Our resolutions are reasonable,” she says.

Previous resolutions had up to 40% shareholder support and Sister Nora says: “We are trying to speak to large pension funds to make them understand what is happening here. The health issues are serious.” Asked if the issue has been picked up by the wider investment community, she says: “It has, really it has.”Over the course of the engagement, Nash acknowledges that Chevron has made progress, though “it’s minimal and incremental” for a company of their stature: “We expect them to be a leader.”

Despite “encouraging words” from Chevron, the reality is that they are an extractive company. “They mean well but we have to see it in operation.”

She recognises that the company does have a set of principles of operational excellence in place, but notes that it “only has value in operation. Which has not happened here in Pennsylvania”.

“I sense that they realise they need to do better”

Sister Nora refers to the state’s troubled history with mining and oil extraction – and the fact that the state’s constitutional stipulation that citizens have a right to clean air.

The state is undergoing somewhat of a shale ‘gas rush’ – which has seen deprived communities sell off their land rights for relatively small sums. They were ill-prepared, she says, for what would happen next: “Poor communities are still poor communities”. But they are now suffering health problems related to the drilling, she claims.

She has seen for herself some of the impacts of the operations on poor communities in the state.

Chevron needs to document its dealings with landowners, Nash argues – and adds: “We’re not hearing the people’s voices outside the activists group.”

“I sense that they realise they need to do better,” Sister Nora concludes. “They know the pressure is on.”

Sister Nora plans to go the AGM to present the resolution in person. It will be just the latest installment of an unlikely relationship…