Fossil fuel divestment movement looks to DU after hitting dry spell in Colorado

Students participate in a campus divest rally at Tufts University. The nationwide movement is underway at several universities in Colorado and is the source of heated debate. (James Ennis/Creative Commons)

Students participate in a campus divest rally at Tufts University. The nationwide movement is underway at several universities in Colorado and is the source of heated debate. (James Ennis/Creative Commons)

The fossil fuel divestment movement may be losing steam in Colorado, but activists are hoping to reverse the slide by convincing the University of Denver to sell off its investments in coal, oil and natural gas.

The University of Denver Board of Trustees is scheduled to consider at its Jan. 20 meeting a report from the board’s Divestment Task Force, which has met seven times since it was formed in response to an April request from the student organization Divest DU.

So far divestment has failed to catch on in Colorado despite the best efforts of climate-change groups such as New York-based 350.org, which has championed the strategy as a way to tar the oil-and-gas industry’s public image and bottom line.

The University of Colorado, Colorado College and Fort Lewis College have formally or informally rejected divestment proposals. Dumping investments in fossil fuels from its endowment would put DU on a limb now occupied by a dozen or so small, mostly private schools known for their left-wing tilt.

In Colorado, only Naropa University in Boulder, a Buddhist-inspired enclave recognized last year as one of the nation’s top 10 “hippie colleges,” has agreed to divest its $6.7 million endowment of fossil-fuel holdings.

The DU endowment is nearly 100 times larger at $607 million. Still, DU senior Lori Scott, who helps lead the campus Divest DU movement, said she’s counting on the university to walk the talk when it comes to its progressive advocacy.

“We hope that, being a private university that’s really striving to be on par with other progressive and leading universities in the United States, the University of Denver will live up to its responsibility as a leading institution and to its motto of being a ‘private university dedicated to the public good,’” said Scott.

Nationally, major institutions such as Harvard University, the University of California and MIT have refused calls to sweep their endowments of fossil fuel holdings, citing the risk to their educational mission and financial stability posed by politically motivated investing.

Other top schools have agreed to tweak their holdings. Stanford University pledged last year to pull only its direct investments in coal from its $18.7 billion endowment. Yale University plans to withdraw $10 million of its $25.6 billion endowment from coal and oil sands.

Still, fossil fuel supporters are taking no chances in Colorado. Divestment Facts, a project of the Independent Petroleum Association of America, launched a social-media campaign last month in Denver, with plans to expand to Boston and New York City, aimed at countering student divestment movements.

Symbolism vs. substance

The campaign’s YouTube video argues that divesting is a purely symbolic act that does nothing to reduce carbon dioxide emissions because any oil and gas stocks sold by colleges are immediately bought by others.

“Divestment would mean your university’s investments would cost more and perform less. Higher costs and lower returns mean less money and you can guess who’s going to pay the difference, right? You are, and so will future students,” says the video.

At a Divestment Facts forum last month in Denver, Chris Fiore, senior economist at Compass Lexecon, estimated that divestment would cost DU between $68 and $250 million over 20 years, based on its overall investment mix and not its specific portfolio, which is private.

“That’s a cost universities are going to have to bear, and it’s going to have to come from somewhere,” said Fiore, part of the IPAA economic analysis team. “Whether it comes from raising more money through increasing tuition, whether it comes from decreasing student scholarships, whether it comes from decreasing number of professors they hire and anything of the like, they’re going to have to find a way to raise revenue.”

Tracee Bentley, executive director of the Colorado Petroleum Council, said the divestment push actually hurts renewable energy in that oil-and-gas industry invests more in zero- and low-emissions technology than any sector except the federal government.

The divestment movement is focused on Colorado because “we’re a gateway to the West,” she said.

“We’re a petri dish here, so that doesn’t surprise me that they’re coming after DU and CU, and even conversations have been had at CSU,” said Bentley. “But once they start seeing that happens and that divestment starts to happen, along with it goes the research dollars for renewable energy, to be honest. They’re very closely linked.”

At the same time, the proposal has drawn support both on and off campus. Former U.S. Sen. Tim Wirth, D-Colo., has encouraged the board to “provide leadership in this transition” to investments that “do not encourage further exploration for or development of new sources of fossil fuels.”

In May, the faculty Senate voted 32-12 in favor of a resolution urging the board to withdraw its fossil-fuel holdings, describing climate change as a “social justice” issue that “disproportionately affects poor nations.”

The DU undergraduate student government has voted three times to support divestment.

That said, DU student Scott Albertoni said at the forum that for most students, the campus divestment issue barely registers on the political radar screen.

“What I’ve experienced is probably four out of five students, when I ask them what is their opinion on divestment, they’re like, ‘Divestment? What?’” said Albertoni. “They can’t tell me what it is. Even the 20 percent of students who know, ‘Yeah, I know what the group is,’ they can’t tell me the ramifications for the university.”

Student movement with national ties

Divest DU’s Lori Scott disagreed, saying his description “really frustrated me because I think one of the best things we’ve done is gotten a lot of student support and a lot of student publicity, and I would say that a lot of people do know about it.”

She said the Divest DU leadership team has nine or 10 members, followed by about 30 students who “identify very strongly with being part of the campaign.” The university’s undergraduate enrollment is roughly 5,700.

Whether the movement is an outgrowth of organic student concern or the product of national meddling by climate-change activists has become a source of contention. In its Dec. 16 op-ed denouncing DU divestment as “unrealistic and unwise,” the Denver Post said the push is orchestrated by 350.org, which Scott denied.

“A common misconception is that we’re a limb of 350 or that 350 plays a really big role in our campaign, but that’s not the case,” she said. “They are very supportive of the divestment movement but it’s ultimately a student-run organization and movement overall.”

Founded in 2013, Divest DU receives funding from the student government as a recognized campus club, as well as support from the Fossil Fuel Divestment Student Network, which helps “train, coach and provide communications strategies” to student activists at more than 100 U.S. colleges and universities.

“Divest DU is part of the [DSN] southwest regional network, but we also have national conferences, so a few of our reps including myself went to Buffalo this summer,” Scott said. “And we have a campaign coach who works for the Divestment Student Network, but it’s not part of 350.”

That’s debatable. The DSN is a fiscally sponsored project of the Alliance for Global Justice, a left-wing philanthropy that traces its roots to the pro-Sandinista Nicaragua Network. The alliance, which also sponsors Occupy Wall Street, received $5,000 from 350.org in 2014, and has also benefited from $100,000 in grants since 2014 from billionaire George Soros’s Open Society Foundations.

In a Sept. 30 post, DSN director Greta Neubauer gave a shout-out to 350.org, saying, “We want to thank 350.org and the Responsible Endowments Coalition for supporting us to grow up alongside you over the past few years.”

The DSN recently announced a partnership with 350.org in organizing a Jan. 23 event “calling for nationwide student walkouts to resist and reject the climate denial of the newly-inaugurated Trump administration.”

If the divestment drive succeeds at DU, newly elected CU Regent Heidi Ganahl said she worries the issue could resurface in Boulder. The regents voted 7-2 against fossil-fuel divestment in 2015.

“I don’t think it’s going away any time soon. I think they’re just gearing up for the next battle,” said Ganahl at the forum. “Right now, the battle is at DU, and they could move on to another university or circle back to CU or some of the other universities they’ve already talked to about it. It’s a pretty fiery movement. I think we have to be on our toes and keep an eye on it and do what’s best for our students.”

The three-member DU task force is made up of trustees James Greisemer, Craig Harrison and Catherine Shopneck. The task force has posted its hearings online, but meetings of the DU Board of Trustees are not open to the public.

At the Oct. 6 meeting, Greisemer summed up the university’s position on climate change by saying, “We begin by recognizing the reality of global warming and the probability that burning fossil fuels is a significant perhaps the major contributor to this genuine problem.”

“This is a critical issue, one which institutions and each of us as individuals we think have a responsibility to address with a sense of immediate concern that was urged on us by our Divest DU students,” said Greisemer. “How we do that in the most effective manner is the question that this task force plans to address.”

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