Illustration by Ryan Alexander-Tanner

FOR A WHILE in 2013, the climate change activists pushing Portland to steer clear of fossil fuel investments—one small part of a worldwide shame campaign—couldn't keep from pinching themselves.

First, in a speech last June for World Environment Day, Mayor Charlie Hales delivered what seemed like a resounding endorsement of so-called "divestment." Hales' rhetoric was so spot on, in fact, that it sounded like it had been written by the local group leading the charge, 350PDX.org.

"By divesting from the 200 largest fossil fuel companies, Portland can eliminate the risk to its own financial future," Hales said in a transcript published by the Portland Business Journal. "We must act before the carbon bubble bursts. And we must send the signal to the market that such investments are risky."

And that wasn't all.

Sandy Polishuk, the divestment coordinator for 350PDX.org, says things went so far, her group sent a top mayoral aide, Josh Alpert, suggested language for a resolution.

"Even after the speech," Polishuk says, "[Hales] made a commitment to us."

Until, that is, Hales and the rest of Portland City Council decided to pump the brakes.

Alpert says Hales' office got a call from the state treasurer, Ted Wheeler, who's been a vocal opponent of fossil fuel divestment (but an even more vocal proponent of investing in renewable energy). Wheeler reminded the mayor's staff that a lot of the city's investment money is mixed up with state assets—and that if divestment was going to come up, then Wheeler's office needed to be at the table.

"We weren't as informed as we are now, and we got crosswise with the state treasurer," Alpert says. "We aren't in a vacuum."

Instead of Hales pushing something on divestment last fall, the council, in October, wound up taking a more measured step.

Commissioner Steve Novick, stirred by the many labor sins of Walmart, successfully persuaded his colleagues to immediately stop buying the retailer's bonds. But when it came to a larger, more official "do-not-buy" list, they agreed only to convene a committee.

That committee's report is finally scheduled to go before the city council on August 6. And divestment proponents—and even some of that committee's own members—remain disappointed. The report lays out a list of criteria for judging investments, but its main recommendation is that the council create yet another committee.

It also appends a bit of naysaying from the city's internal investment council, suggesting the whole effort may not even be "feasible."

"We really want to separate our resolution" from the committee's work, says Polishuk.

But that won't happen soon, if at all. Alpert promises Hales' continued interest in divestment. But the cautionary notes by the city's investment council and Wheeler will carry weight. And, he says, the office is loath to spin off fossil fuel divestment "without doing our due diligence."

He also raises something else dispiriting for activists: a lack of a political champion. In their ongoing street fee fight, neither Hales nor Novick, the logical choices, have the bandwidth.

"These are issues that invoke a lot of passion," Alpert says. "Maybe we weren't as clear with the public as we should have been."