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New Targets of College Divestment Movements: Oil, Gas & Coal


College is a time for classes, house parties and questionable dorm food. But as some students at UT and across the country are demonstrating, it’s also a time for activism.

Journalist and activist Bill McKibben and his environmentally-minded group are promoting a “Fossil Free Divestment Movement” to encourage American universities to withdraw their stock holdings from the top 200 coal, oil and gas companies. The group first gained notoriety when it held an International Day of Climate Action in 2009.

The campaign has spread via social media and word of mouth following McKibben’s “Do the Math” tour, where his team held events across the country cautioning about the effects of climate change. Now, individuals and student groups are starting their own grassroots coalitions aimed at the fossil fuel industry.

Unity College, Sterling, College, College of the Atlantic and Hampshire College have all agreed to ditch oil and gas stocks from their endowment portfolios. These are small liberal arts colleges, but students at larger universities are entering the conversation as well.

Ethan Howley, sophomore in engineering at UT, created the group Fossil Free Texas with a goal in mind: “to spread the message that climate change is happening now, it’s happening fast, and we need to act immediately.”

The group began just a month and a half ago. Since its induction, Fossil Free Texas has participated in the UT Earth Day Carnival, where its members collected signatures for a divestment petition. But starting the conversation in Texas may be more difficult than elsewhere.

“The momentum that oil and gas companies have in Texas is going to be very hard to break,” Howley says. “We recognize it’s going to be a long-term fight, but we’re trying to put pressure on as early as possible.”

And that pressure won’t all be conomic. The idea, according to cofounder Jamie Henn, isn’t to crash companies’ stock – he and his organization realize that this is improbable – but to “start to make the moral argument: if it’s wrong for these companies to wreck the planet, then it’s also wrong to invest in them.”

“That begins to have an effect on these companies’ brand and their social license,” Henn said.

This is the first major student attempt to quell the economic stronghold of fossil fuel energy companies, but American students have a long history of targeting industries where it hurts – their reputation, and their bottom line.

The South African anti-apartheid divestment project in the 1980s was the first widespread and perhaps most famous divestment campaign. Over 100 colleges and universities withdrew their stocks from South African companies in an effort to put pressure on the government to end apartheid.

Some studies suggest that the divestment had limited economic impact. A 1990s study, “The Effect Of Socially Activist Investment Policies On The Financial Markets: Evidence From The South African Boycott,” says “sanctions may have been effective in raising the public moral standards or public awareness of South African repression, but it appears that financial markets managed to avoid the brunt of the sanctions.”   

In the 1990s, university students had a different big industry target: tobacco giants like Phillip Morris and R.J. Reynolds. Students across the country wrote letters and held rallies requesting that their universities snuff out their stock in cigarette companies.

Henn says learned something from the anti-tobacco project. For him, awareness is a large part of the picture.

“Big tobacco used to have incredible sway in Washington, they could get any bill they wanted pass,” Henn says. “Now, no one really wants to accept campaign contributions from Phillip Norris. That’s what needs to happen with these oil companies, not because they’re providing energy but because they’ve continued to lobby against the type of changes that we need to address a crisis that puts our economy and lives at risk.”

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