Student petition calls for University divestment from fossil fuels

| Contributing Reporter

Fossil Free WashU, the Washington University chapter of a national Fossil Free movement, is calling for the University to divest from fossil fuels through an online petition launched last week.

The group demands that Chancellor Mark Wrighton and the Board of Trustees immediately divest the University’s endowment from the 200 “dirtiest” fossil fuel companies headquartered in St. Louis. In addition, Fossil Free WashU (FFWU) is calling for all endowment investments and proxy voting to be made completely transparent.

The recent petition, garnering over 300 signatures as of Friday, does not mark the first time FFWU has questioned the integrity of Washington University’s investments. Following two years of campaigning, Student Union passed a resolution in 2014 outlining a timeline for divestment. In early 2015, the organization released a second letter to Wrighton and it has focused recent efforts on recruiting new members and conducting research.

Tax returns from the 2014 and 2015 fiscal years reveal the University’s investment in two energy funds: Kimmeridge Energy Net Profit Fund and Foundation Energy Fund. Kimmeridge Energy is a private equity asset manager focused purely on the energy sector. Foundation Energy is the manager and operator of onshore oil and gas producing properties with the strategy to acquire, exploit and develop assets on behalf of its institutional partners.

FFWU has compared data from similar institutions and estimates that 3 to 5 percent of the University’s endowment is invested in fossil fuel companies, equating to over $70 million.

Following the recent departure of Chief Investment Officer Kimberly G. Walker in December, the administration has an opportunity to respond indirectly to student concern through the appointment of a new CIO who has expertise in socially responsible investment, per the demands of FFWU.

Sophomore Jessie Thornton, a member of Green Action and FFWU, noted the importance of having a high-ranking official in place who understands the importance of ethical investments. This makes the University more likely to be held accountable for its actions, she said. The move also eases the load of students who are balancing schoolwork with activism and cannot continuously monitor the University’s financial engagements.

“We want to continue working with the administration should they divest,” Thornton said. “But we’re also students and we can’t necessarily constantly do that level of research.”

Sophomore Peter Koulogeorge, a member of Green Action and FFWU, noted the growing popularity of the Fossil Free movement on other campuses. Other peer institutions have recently pledged to divest, legitimizing the movement and increasing the campaign’s momentum.

“Now that other universities, like Stanford [University], Syracuse [University and] Boston University, have all divested, it gives us more ground to work with, as the movement has more of a reputation nationally,” Koulogeorge said.

The campus-wide chapters of Fossil Free remain closely connected and frequently share tactical strategies, enabling student activists to operate more efficiently, Thornton noted.

“I think that we have been blessed with strategic knowledge from other campaigns,” Thornton said. “We’ve also learned from some of the missteps from other campaigns—things that they couldn’t have foreseen that now we know our administration may attempt strategically as a way of stalling us.”

Some members of the Washington University community have questioned whether divestment is the surest path to being more environmentally responsible. Director of the Consortium for Clean Coal Utilization and Professor of Energy, Environmental, and Chemical Engineering Richard Axelbaum said that refraining from the use of fossil fuel would send a stronger message to the University and allow students to understand the impact of fossil fuels on their lives.

“If I don’t like a company, the way I express that dislike is by not buying their product,” Axelbaum said. “We do need to address the environmental impact of fossil fuels, and my group is working hard to do that. But divestment is, in my view, a distraction that makes us feel we are doing something when, in fact, we are not.”

Conversely, Brian Talbot, a lecturer in the philosophy department who teaches courses in environmental ethics, highlighted the morally questionable aspects of investing in fossil fuel companies. He said that if it is easy to divest, then the University has good reasons to do so.

“I think we have reasons to divest, even if we don’t make a difference at all. It’s pretty commonsensical that it’s immoral to benefit from unjustly harming other people, even if you don’t make a difference to it,” Talbot said. “In most cases, I think people would agree that profiting from other people’s suffering, even if you don’t contribute to that suffering, is pretty questionable, especially if you can very easily not do so.”

In the coming weeks, FFWU will unveil a faculty petition and meet with Wrighton to raise their concerns and discuss the University’s next steps in exploring divestment.

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