UW Students Seek End of Fossil Fuel Investments

May 20, 2013

Correction 5/28/2013: A previous version of this story incorrectly stated that Brown University in Rhode Island had divested from fossil fuels in response to student pressure.

Students at the University of Washington want the school to dump its investments in major fossil fuel companies like Exxon and BP as part of a nationwide campaign to combat climate change through public institutions.

The University of Washington prides itself on being a green campus, but Kyle Murphy thinks they should have a green portfolio too. Murphy is one of the founders of UW Divest, the student group proposing a change to the way the UW Endowment Fund invests its money.

He said that this is about ethics more than economics, “It’s about preserving and creating a world that allows everybody to live in it equitably and securely; and climate change threatens all of that.”

The group started the campaign early this year. But they have already developed a proposal for how the UW can invest more responsibly. The proposal has a list of almost 60 companies involved in oil, natural gas, and coal they want out of the endowment fund.

But energy investments only make up a tiny fraction of the UW portfolio. And many of the investments are tied up in both fossil fuels and alternative energy.

Scott Montgomery is an affiliate professor at the UW with 30 years of experience as a geologist in the fossil fuel industry. He said divestment would not have much of an impact on use of fossil fuels.

“Demonizing fossil fuels and the companies that provide them is really a distraction,” said Montgomery. “It’s an expression, unfortunately, of the misunderstanding of these companies and how much power they have. So if you feel that oil use is a danger to the climate, should you attack the companies that provide it or the mere 250 million vehicles that call for it every day?”

Montgomery also said that divestment will do little to the profits of companies like BP or Exxon. But Murphy said the movement is not designed to damage their stock price.

“It’s supposed to damage their reputation and their political clout,” he said. “We need to hold them accountable to their actions through divestment. And that will allow the public interest to prevail.”

The national divestment campaign has been drawing comparisons to a similar movement against South African companies during apartheid.

UW Divest plans to meet with the University’s Board of Regents in June to discuss its proposal.