Fossil Fuels Divestment: Win Some, Lose Some, Keep Fighting

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A pile of coal is shown at the TXU Corps Big Brown power plant near Fairfield, TX. August 2006. (AP Photo/David J. Phillip)

A pile of coal is shown at the TXU Corps Big Brown power plant near Fairfield, Texas in 2006. (AP Photo/David J. Phillip)

The divestment movement — a rising tide pushing institutions and other investors to pull their money out of fossil fuel companies — has a certain ebb and flow much in evidence this week.

At Stanford University in California, the board of trustees announced that it would not make “direct investments in coal mining companies” and that it would divest itself of any current holdings in such companies. Further, it will recommend to its external investment managers that they do the same.

The announcement comes after a review of the social and environmental impact of investing in the fossil fuel industry by the school’s Advisory Panel on Investment Responsibility and Licensing, a committee of faculty, students and alumni.

Stanford President John Hennessy said that the university “has a responsibility as a global citizen to promote sustainability for our planet, and we work intensively to do so through our research, our educational programs and our campus operations. The university’s review has concluded that coal is one of the most carbon-intensive methods of energy generation and that other sources can be readily substituted for it. Moving away from coal in the investment context is a small, but constructive, step while work continues, at Stanford and elsewhere, to develop broadly viable sustainable energy solutions for the future.”

Bill McKibben on Divesting From Fossil Fuels
Bill McKibben, writer, founder of the grassroots climate campaign and recent Moyers & Company guest, saluted the school’s decision: “Stanford, on the edge of Silicon Valley, is at the forefront of the 21st century economy; it’s very fitting, then, that they’ve chosen to cut their ties to the 18th century technology of digging up black rocks and burning them. Since it’s a global institution it knows the havoc that climate change creates around our planet; other forward-looking and internationally-minded institutions will follow I’m sure.”

Meanwhile, on the other side of the country, in Charlotte, North Carolina, shareholders at Bank of America’s annual general meeting considered a resolution urging the bank to examine the risks that industries in its financial portfolio pose to the environment. According to the activist Rainforest Action Network (RAN), “Bank of America is a top financier of greenhouse gas emissions-intensive industries such as coal mining, oil and gas production and fossil fuel-based electric power.”

Ben Collins, RAN’s research and policy campaigner, noted that coal is the leading contributor to greenhouse gas emissions and “a big problem for Bank of America, as it continues to finance billions of dollars each year to the dirtiest companies in the business. Shareholders proposed a resolution that the bank come clean on its accounting — and report the climate consequences of its financing decisions in the light of day.”

Especially disturbing is the bank’s involvement with mountaintop removal mining (MTR) — RAN reports that in 2013, Bank of America financed the destructive extraction method to the tune of $393 million, or 8.9 percent of the MTR market share — and its exposure to coal-fired power producers, including North Carolina’s Duke Energy, with which it has had many financial transactions.

Kemp Burdette, the Cape Fear Riverkeeper, said “Bank of America must take some responsibility for contaminating North Carolina’s waterways by financing irresponsible power companies like Duke Energy, who owns the most high hazard coal ash waste dumps in the country. Bank of America engaged in extremely risky business by pursuing deals with companies like Duke, who illegally dumped 85 million gallons of toxic coal ash in North Carolina waterways in 2014.”

Bank of America countered the environmentalists’ arguments, stating “Our company is an industry leader in supporting low-carbon solutions through our lending and financing programs, and in publicly disclosing the greenhouse gas emissions related to our operations and our business activities.” RAN and others acknowledged that Bank of America “currently reports an estimate of its overall exposure to carbon emissions from its financing relationships with electric utilities,” but that it “does not address emissions from the bank’s clients in other industries.”

None of four shareholder proposals introduced at the meeting were approved. Nevertheless, RAN’s Ben Collins said, “We were inside and delighted that our resolution was highlighted… The bank realizes that they have a problem, and the big picture is that it’s a problem requiring bold action by many.”

Bank of America’s proxy statement, including the fossil fuels resolution is available to the public, as is audio of the annual meeting. Ben Collins’ presentation to the stockholders begins at approximately 37 minutes into the recording.

Michael Winship is the Schumann Senior Writing Fellow for Common Dreams. Previously, he was the Emmy Award-winning senior writer for Moyers & Company and, a past senior writing fellow at the policy and advocacy group Demos, and former president of the Writers Guild of America East. Follow him on Twitter: @MichaelWinship.
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