Carbon Bubble & Divestment Trouble: An Analysis | The JEI



John Byrd, PhD

Senior Instructor, Finance & Managing for Sustainability Programs, Finance Faculty, Business School, University of Colorado Denver


Elizabeth S. Cooperman, PhD

Professor of Finance & Entrepreneurship, Finance Faculty, Business School, University of Colorado Denver



Those concerned about catastrophic climate change argue that a large portion of known fossil fuel reserves cannot be extracted and burned. The valuation effect of these unburnable or stranded assets has not been fully impounded in the share prices of oil and gas and coal companies, suggesting that there is a carbon bubble in prices: prices are too high. In response to these two factors-unburnable assets and a carbon bubble for share prices of fossil fuel companies-a divestment movement has emerged. We examine how investors in oil and gas and coal companies have reacted to news announcements about carbon bubbles, divestment, and related topics. We document abnormal negative stock returns, on average, corresponding to these announcements, with investors in coal companies reacting somewhat differently than those in oil and gas companies. Anyone actively involved in online stock trading will be keen to stay up-to-date with this subject and other news items pertaining to the stock market to help them with their investment decisions. Similarly, if you own a brokerage in the trading industry, it’s important you keep an eye on these abnormalities and ensure you have the best Leverate liquidity provider to reduce risk and keep control over simultaneous trades.

Carbon Bubble & Investment Trouble: Investor Reactions An Analysis

“According to the Assets Disclosure Project, 55% of the average pension portfolio is invested in carbon-intensive assets or exposed to climate change risks, but until now investors have largely ignored this. It will be difficult for them to do so in the future.” [Mike Scott, Forbes, December 11, 2013]

Climate scientists argue that to avoid the disastrous effects of climate change at least one-third of fossil fuel reserves should not be burned. President Obama stated in an interview with New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman, referring to the world’s fossil fuel reserves, that “We are not going to be able to burn it all” (Friedman 2014). Concerns about stranded assets increased recently after the release of a study by climate scientists in Nature, which argues that leaving only one-third of carbon reserves unburnable underestimates the scale of the problem. The researchers estimate that 82% of coal, 50% of gas, and 33% of oil reserves must remain unburned (McGlade and Elkins 2015). These unburnable or stranded assets have led commentators to claim that there is a “carbon bubble” in share prices; that is, share prices of fossil fuel companies haven’t yet taken into account the possibility of these reserves never being extracted or being consumed only at much higher prices due to carbon taxes or similar regulatory mechanisms (Greenstone 2015). In response to the role of fossil fuels in climate change and the concept of a carbon bubble, a fossil-fuel-divestment movement, organized by and its founder Bill McKibben, has gained momentum.

Whether investors in fossil fuel companies have heeded these warnings or are ignoring stranded asset risks is unclear. This study sheds light on how investors in fossil fuel companies react to news announcements about the possible carbon bubble in prices and divestments of fossil fuel stocks by investors. We examine stock market reactions by major fossil fuel companies to 27 news announcements that specifically mention a carbon bubble or divestment or are closely related to the topic of stranded assets. We began our documentation with Carbon Tracker’s initial report on unburnable carbon from July 2011 and continued through the end of 2014. Computing abnormal stock returns for 19 large publicly-traded oil companies and 8 publicly-traded coal companies, we found statistically significant negative stock price reactions overall, and that the share prices of coal companies are particularly sensitive to divestment announcements, while oil companies are more affected by discussions of a carbon bubble.

The article is organized as follows:

  • Overview of stranded assets and divestment.
  • Arguments for and against divestment
  • Hypothesized investor reactions
  • Discussion of the data and methodology
  • Empirical results
  • Conclusion

Stranded Fossil Fuel Assets and Divestment

The concept of unburnable carbon reserves or stranded assets was first brought up in financial literature on July 11, 2011, in a report on “Unburnable Fossil Fuels” by the Carbon Tracker Initiative (CTI). The report predicted that a large percentage of fossil fuel reserves would be unburnable in the future, and that fossil fuel companies were significantly overvalued. This forecast was based on climate scientists’ estimates that in order to have about a 50% chance of less than 2°C of warming, the maximum aggregate carbon dioxide emissions that can be released from 2000 through 2050 is less than 1,000 billion tons of carbon dioxide (Gt CO2) (Meinshausen et. al. 2009). As of February 2015, only about 565 Gt CO2 of that carbon budget remain (NOAA 2015). In 2012, author and activist Bill McKibben began an educational tour across 21 U.S. cities to present the math of climate change in a “Do the Math Tour,” named for the safe level of atmospheric CO2 concentrations of 350 parts per million. As part of the tour, a divestment movement was initiated (modeled after the anti-apartheid divestment movement of the 1960s) to pressure investors to sell their stakes in fossil fuel companies. The divestment movement has gained traction, especially on college campuses, and a separate organization has emerged to spearhead it ( Among the universities that are removing fossil fuel stocks from their endowments are Stanford and the University of Dayton in the U.S. and Glasgow University in the U.K. The Norwegian Sovereign Fund and some other institutional investors have also announced divestments, especially of coal companies.

Arguments For and Against Divestment

With news of significant risks associated with the burning of fossil fuel reserves, now projected to generate emissions that would raise temperatures 16.2 degrees globally (Greenstone 2015), the question of whether to divest or not to divest has become an important issue for institutional investors. From a moral point of view, such as that stated by the United Methodist Church, General Board for Pension and Health Benefits on its website, institutional investors with religious or environmental convictions find that burning fossil fuels is ethically wrong, given its possible contribution to catastrophic global warming. From an economic perspective-or the perspective of fiduciary duty-if regulations about carbon emissions are implemented, the likelihood of a burst in a current carbon bubble could result in a huge drop in the valuations of fossil fuel companies in the future (Gilbert 2015). By divesting, investors would be taking heed of these significant risks before it is too late-they would be classifying stranded fossil fuel assets as toxic assets, in a manner somewhat similar to the collateralization of subprime mortgage debt obligations, which took place before the subprime loan crisis.

As Gilbert (2015) and Bloomberg (2014) point out, investors-and institutional investors in particular-are concerned about a significant loss in diversification if fossil fuel companies are divested from portfolios. Gilbert (2014) notes that a report by Sustainable Insight Capital Management (SICM) in New York finds that with divestments of fossil fuel companies, investors would lose access to 11 to 19 percent of the S&P 500 index, depending on how broadly fossil fuel companies were defined in terms of end user companies.

According to a report by Bloomberg New Energy, the ability to rebalance has to be carefully managed. For portfolio managers it is easier to divest from coal companies, which are a relatively small asset class, than from oil companies, which are a huge asset class and offer favorable attributes for portfolios, including high dividend yields, scale, liquidity, and growth potential (Bloomberg 2014). In their annual reports, many oil companies argue that rather than changing business strategies, they will continue searching for new reserves and are also working to develop new disruptive technologies. These technologies would capture and store carbon before it is released, or possibly afterwards, by pulling it from the atmosphere. However, as Greenstone (2015) notes, much further research is necessary before this can happen. In the event that such technologies become available, the notion of unburnable reserves would largely vanish, and, depending on the costs of the technologies, fossil fuel companies would continue to be viable enterprises far into the future.

Hypothesized Investor Reactions

The likelihood of mandatory carbon emission regulations is growing. In November 2014, President Obama pledged to reduce US emissions by 26% to 28% by 2025, compared to 2005 levels. This pledge is part of a deal negotiated with China, which has pledged to cap emissions, in advance of the Paris Climate meeting in December 2015 (Taylor and Branigan 2014). Obama is also asking federal agencies to cut emissions over the next 10 years by 40% from the 2008 levels (Davis 2015). Thus, there is growing momentum for some sort of global climate agreement that will almost certainly include a curb on fossil fuel use. This suggests that concerns about a carbon bubble are legitimate, and we expect negative stock-price reactions for fossil fuel companies to news about the carbon bubble. This is something every trading novice should consider when starting out with brokerages. TradeZero can help with further guidance and support on what exactly you will need to do.

As discussed above, it is easier for portfolio managers to divest from coal companies than from oil companies. Moreover, when coal is used for electricity generation, its carbon emissions are much higher than those for either natural gas or oil: 2,249 lbs. per MWh of carbon dioxide is released for coal compared to 1,135 lbs. for natural gas and 1,672 lbs. for oil (EPA 2014). In the United States, Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) restrictions on carbon emissions for utilities are also more imminent. Since coal has greater comparative emissions and is easier to divest from, we expect a more negative reaction from coal companies to announcements about the carbon bubble and divestment.

Discussion of the Data and Methodology

The events that we searched for and examined were news announcements that included the following key terms: carbon bubble, stranded assets, unburnable carbon, and fossil fuel divestment. (Figure1). We began by looking at 32 events but deleted five because, on the announcement date, oil prices fell by more than 2%. The 2% fall in oil prices was an arbitrary cut-off, but we felt that it would be impossible to distinguish the effect of the news announcement from the effect of a drop in oil prices, so these observations were eliminated.

The remaining 27 announcement events include 10 divestment events, 6 carbon bubble events and 11 other events (Figure 1). Announcement dates include the earliest publication date by major news sources, including Bloomberg, S&P, the Wall Street Journal, the New York Times, and other major news sources. The news announcements were categorized as Divestment, Bubble, or Other, and we described the corresponding oil price change for the event period (Figure 1).

Figure 1: News announcements used in the study categorized as a Divestment Event or an Oil-Specific Event and with the corresponding oil price change over the announcement period. The announcement period includes three trading days with the event date at the center of the period. Events with an oil price decrease of more than 2% were deleted from the sample. The type column identifies events that specifically mention either the carbon bubble (B) or divestment (D).

Event DateTypeDescription
20130419BCarbon Tracker: Carbon Bubble will Plunge the World into another Financial Crisis & Update $674 Billion Annually spent on Unburnable Fossil Fuel Assets
20130422BNYT: Earth Day Debate: Is there a Carbon Bubble?
20130503BNY Times on “Unburnable Carbon” and Specter of a “Carbon Bubble”
20130516BWSJ: Here’s the Carbon Bubble
20130612BForbes: Unburnable Carbon
20131029BWSJ: Op. Ed Al Gore & David Blood: The Coming Carbon Asset Bubble
20120719BMcKibben: Rolling Stone Article: Global Warming’s Terrifying New Math
20121106DBill McKibben & Kick-Off Nationwide “Do the Math” Tour
20130802DIs it Time to Divest from Fossil Fuels?
20140128DNorwegian Sovereign Fund Halves Investments in Fossil Fuels
20140129D17 of World’s Largest Philanthropic Foundations Pull $ Out of Fossil Fuels
20140130DNorway’s oil fund to debate ending fossil fuel investments –
20140131DNorway spurs rethink on fossil fuel companies –
20140504DStanford to Divest from Coal Companies
20140623DUniversity of Dayton Divests $670 in Fossil Fuel Stocks: Over Carbon Bubble
20140922DRockefellers & Others Announce $50 bil. Divestment from Fossil Fuels
20141008DGlasgow becomes first university in Europe to divest from fossil fuels
20130130HSBC: Study Published on Unburnable Reserves for Oil & Gas Companies
20130203Climate Ambition Could Slash Value of Oil Firms
20130326Citigroup Research Report: Is the End is Nigh’ for Global Oil Demand
20110711Carbon Tracker Initial Report on Unburnable Carbon published
20120119News Report on Fossil Fuels as Sub-Prime Assets
20121113Intl. Energy Agency: Fossil Fuel Boom is a Climate Disaster in the Making
20131024Carbon Risk Initiative: Investor Group Sends Letters to 45 Large Fossil Fuel Companies on Unburnable Carbon
20131026NYT: Climate Change Could Put $6 trillion in fossil fuel reserves at risk
20140212Shareholder Resolutions Files with 10 Large Fossil Fuel Companiesto report on Climate Risks and Business Strategies to Reduce these
20140508Carbon Tracker Identification of Oil Projects Not Making Economicor Climate Sense

The information collected about the companies in the sample, which were categorized as coal or oil and gas, included their total assets and market capitalization at the end of 2013 (Figure 2). We also looked at each company’s years of reserves computed as total reserves, as reported at the end of 2013, divided by production in 2013. The sample includes major fossil fuel companies that are publicly traded in the United States with available data on CRSP-Daily returns tapes for AMEX, NYSE, and NASDAQ securities. The sample firms include 27 large corporations with an average market value of $68.8 billion and total assets of 88.1 billion. These include 19 major oil and 8 major coal companies that are publicly traded in the United States. The coal companies in the sample have the largest ratios, averaging 40.68 years compared to 13.50 years of reserves for the oil companies.

Figure 2: The sample of coal and oil companies with years of fossil fuel reserves shown. “Years of reserves” are computed as total reserves divided by production based on values reported for 2013. For CNOOC the data was from 2012. Financial data is as of the end of the 2013 fiscal year.

Company NameIndustryTickerYears of reservesTotal AssetsMV Common Stock
Arch CoalCoalACI39.558,990.19944.65
Alpha Natural ResourcesCoalANR49.4811,799.261,578.03
Apache CorporationOilAPA9.5261,637.0034,012.73
Anadarko PetroleumOilAPC9.8055,781.0039,953.48
Alliance Resource PartnersCoalARLP22.532,121.902,846.15
BHP BillitonOilBHP10.87138,109.00153,448.42
Peabody EnergyCoalBTU37.1614,133.405,275.05
Chesapeake Energy Corp.OilCHK10.9841,782.0018,026.12
Cloud Peak Energy Inc.CoalCLD13.322,357.431,096.13
Canadian Natural ResourcesOilCNQ32.6251,754.0039,078.35
CONSOL EnergyCoalCNX105.2611,393.678,716.71
Conoco PhillipsOilCOP16.49118,057.0086,612.59
Devon Energy CorporationOilDVN11.9042,877.0025,119.22
Eni S.p.A.OilE10.87190,620.0687,834.74
EOG Resources Inc.OilEOG11.3930,574.2445,834.75
Hess CorporationOilHES11.8842,754.0027,001.06
James River Coal Co.CoalJRCC29.711,204.0096.50
Occidental PetroleumOilOXY12.5369,443.0075,698.74
Sinopec Corp.OilSHI9.526,051.973,082.32
Walter Energy Inc.CoalWLT28.385,590.861,040.67
Exxon MobilOilXOM12.53346,808.00438,702.00


To investigate the reaction of the oil and gas and coal companies in our sample we used a standard event-study methodology. We calculated abnormal stock returns for each firm on each event date by comparing the actual returns over the three trading days from one day before the news announcement to one day after. We designated these as “days -1, 0, 1.” We computed the expected stock return using the capital-asset pricing model (CAPM), with betas being computed using the daily stock returns from July 1, 2009, through June 30, 2011. The expected stock return is a company’s beta multiplied by the market returns over the event period. Abnormal stock returns are calculated by subtracting the expected return from the actual return. Any excess return (actual less expected) is ascribed to the news announced during that period.

The significance of the average abnormal returns for each event date is tested with t-tests, and the average abnormal returns are calculated for all events for the entire sample as well as for announcements that specifically mention divestment or the carbon bubble. In addition, average abnormal returns are calculated separately for oil and gas companies and coal companies.

To investigate the reaction of the oil and gas and coal companies in our sample, we calculate abnormal returns for each firm in the sample for each of the event dates by using a traditional CAPM. Cumulative abnormal stock returns (CARs) are calculated for
days -1, 0, 1 surrounding each event date in excess of the expected return based on the CAPM, with betas being computed by using daily stock returns from July 1, 2009, through June 30, 2011, and by using the CRSP value-weighted index for the market index.

The significance of the average CARs for each event date is tested using t-tests, and the mean CARs are calculated for all events for the entire sample. We also test for the significance of particular types of events, including divestment events and oil specific events. In addition, mean CARs are calculated separately for oil and coal companies.

Empirical Results

We compiled a statistical summary of the average event date abnormal returns for the 27 announcement dates (Figure 3). For the entire sample, the mean for all events is an abnormal return of -0.687% with a t-statistic of -2.712, which is significant at the 1.4% level. Over all event dates the average abnormal return for oil companies alone is
-0.198%, which is not statistically significant. For coal companies, the average CARs for all events is -1.886%, which is significant at the 0.6% level (t-statistic of -3.10).

Figure 3: Summary statistics of Event-Date abnormal stock returns from 27 news events related to a carbon bubble and/or fossil fuel divestment for 8 coal companies and 19 oil companies from July 7, 2011, through October 8, 2014.

Abnormal stock returns are the return over a three-day period around the event date in excess of the expected return based on the CAPM, with betas being computed by using daily stock returns from July 1, 2009, through June 30, 2011, and the CRSP value-weighted index.

All EventsEntire SampleOil CompaniesCoal Companies
Average Abnormal Return-0.687%-0.198%-1.886%
Divestment Events
Average Abnormal Return-0.600%-0.018%-2.048%
#of events101010
Carbon Bubble Events
Average Abnormal Return-0.895%-0.520%-1.789%
Other Events
Average Abnormal Return-0.629%-0.153%-1.791%
# Companies27198

In examining announcements that specifically address the issue of divestment or announcements stating that an investor had divested, we see a- 0.60% CAR for the entire sample, a -0.018% average abnormal return for oil companies, and a -2.048% CAR for coal companies, which is significant at the 7.9% level (t-statistic of -1.837). While the share price of oil companies did not respond to announcements about divestment, the share price of coal companies did as we predicted. This is consistent with the hypothesis that coal companies are more likely to be targeted for divestment.

While a -2.048% CAR doesn’t seem large, it would be roughly equivalent to a loss of $535 million of aggregate market value for the eight coal companies in the sample, or about $66 million per company based on year-end 2013 market capitalization.

The results for announcements that specifically mention a carbon bubble have negative average abnormal return for the entire sample and the oil and coal companies separately, but none are statistically significant. The response for oil companies (-0.52%) is greater than for divestment or other announcements, suggesting that oil company investors are not concerned so much with divestment as with the general concept of a carbon bubble. While this result is not statistically significant (t-statistic of -1.588 and p-value of 11.2%) it may be economically significant. A 0.52% loss for the oil company sample is equivalent to a drop in market capitalization of approximately $9.4 billion dollars or about $490 million per company.

The average abnormal return for other types of announcements is -1.79% for coal companies, which is statistically significant at the 4.4% level. This strong result causes the average abnormal return for the entire sample to be significantly different than zero.

We tested the robustness of these results by removing the most extreme abnormal returns and re-computing the results. There is little qualitative difference between those results and the results we report (not shown for the sake of brevity).

We looked at the CAR for each announcement for the entire sample and for the oil companies and coal companies separately (Figure 4). When comparing the average CARs for the divestment announcements (which are highlighted in yellow in the figure), it can be seen that coal companies are consistently negative (seven negatives for ten announcements), and that the final five announcement dates are all associated with negative average abnormal returns, four of which were statistically different than zero. Although the sample of companies and announcements is too small to test whether this trend is significant, it suggests that investors in coal companies are becoming more sensitive to the divestment discussion.

Figure 4: Event-date abnormal stock returns for 27 events for the entire sample, just coal companies, and just oil companies.

Abnormal stock returns are the return over a three-day period around the event date in excess of the expected return based on the CAPM, with betas being computed using daily stock returns from July 1, 2009 through June 30, 2011 and the CRSP value-weighted index. The Type column refers to Carbon Bubble events (B), Divestment announcements (D), and Other related announcements (O). The asterisks denote statistical significance. One asterisk (*) means the result is significant at the 10% and two asterisks (**) denote significance at the 5% level.

AllCoalOilType15 character description
201304190.12%0.51%-0.05%BCarbon Tracker:
20130422-4.09%**-9.75%**-1.71%**BNYT: Earth Day
20130503-0.77%-1.79%-0.35%BNY Times on “Un
20130516-1.04%*0.22%-1.57%**BWSJ: Here’s the
20130612-1.43%**-4.05%**-0.32%BForbes: Unburna
201310290.36%1.28%-0.03%BWSJ: Op. Ed Al
201207190.59%1.05%0.39%BRolling Stone A
20121106-1.80%*-6.39%**0.14%DBill McKibben &
20130802-1.23%*-4.55%**0.16%DIs it Time to D
201401281.37%**2.86%**0.74%**DNorwegian Sover
20140129-0.07%0.73%-0.41%D17 of World’s L
201402280.94%*2.10%0.46%DNorway’s oil fu
20140304-1.78%**-2.67%**-1.41%**DNorway spurs re
201405041.04%**-1.02%1.80%**DStanford to Div
20140623-0.70%*-2.02%*-0.21%DUniversity of D
20140921-0.59%-2.48%*0.11%DRockefellers &
20141008-3.18%**-7.04%**-1.56%**DGlasgow becomes
201301301.07%*-0.19%1.60%*OHSBC: Study Pub
20130203-1.91%**-5.63%**-0.34%OClimate Ambitio
20130326-0.06%-0.33%0.06%OCitigroup Resea
20110711-0.60%*-0.27%-0.73%*OCarbon Tracker
20120119-0.99%*-0.46%-1.22%**ONews Report on
20121113-1.18%-4.98%**0.42%*OIntl. Energy Ag
201310240.37%1.81%-0.23%OCarbon Risk Ini
20131026-0.20%-1.60%0.39%ONYT: Climate Ch
20140212-0.74%*-1.81%*-0.29%OShareholder Res
20140508-2.05%**-4.43%**-1.18%*OCarbon Tracker


Our results suggest that investors in fossil fuel companies are concerned about stranded asset risk. In particular, investors in coal companies responded negatively to news about divestments, as predicted. The divestment movement is affecting coal companies. Even with a small sample of companies and announcements, we found statistically (and economically) significant results for coal companies. The carbon bubble concept has some effect, and although it is not statistically significant in our sample, it appears to be economically significant. Our results suggest that investors in fossil fuel companies are beginning to embed the possibility of divestment and a carbon-bubble risk premium into their valuations for these companies.



The authors are grateful to the Tom and Jane Petrie Faculty Development Fund at the Business School, University of Colorado Denver for a research award to pursue this project.


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John Byrd is senior instructor in the finance and managing for sustainability MBA programs in the Business School at University of Colorado Denver. His research interests are primarily in corporate governance and sustainable business. He is currently working on projects about stranded assets, science-based sustainability targets, and shareholder resolutions related to climate risk. He has an MPPM (Master of Public and Private Management) degree from Yale University and a PhD in finance from the University of Oregon. Email: [email protected]

Elizabeth S. Cooperman is a professor of finance and entrepreneurship in the Business School at the University of Colorado Denver. Her research focuses on financial institutions and sustainability and corporate governance. She is currently working on a textbook, Managing Financial Institutions with a sustainability focus (Routledge) and is an author and co-editor for A Simple Path to Sustainability: Green Business Strategies for Small & Medium-Sized Businesses (ABC-CLIO) 2011. She has an MBA and a PhD in finance from the University of Georgia. Email

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