Tuesday, February 4, 2014

Divestment debut

UM students campaign for a fossil fuel-free campus

Posted By on Tue, Feb 4, 2014 at 3:26 PM

“We got the goods, dog,” says Erik Lillquist, a University of Montana sophomore.

“Let me see, let me see, let me see,” says Caitlin Piserchia, a junior, shifting excitedly in her chair at a corner table inside Food for Thought. Lillquist hands over his smart phone.

With phone in hand, Piserchia scrolls through an audited financial statement that contains detailed information about UM’s endowment. Lillquist and Piserchia learn that the University of Montana Foundation, which manages the endowment and other fundraising initiatives, has more than $165 million invested in a wide variety of holdings, from bonds to index funds to private equity investments that specialize in the energy sector. You wouldn’t think a financial statement would elicit excitement, but when it comes to UM’s finances these students have big plans.

Lillquist, Piserchia and a group of fellow students and alumni have launched a campaign to convince university administrators to divest its endowment funds from companies that extract, process, transport and burn fossil fuels. The campaign, called Reinvest Montana, joins a growing national movement that hopes to pressure college campuses and municipalities to pull their money from companies whose products and practices promote climate change.

Caitlin Piserchia, Nick Engelfried and Erik Lillquist with fellow students at a Reinvest Montana meeting
  • Cathrine L. Walters
  • Caitlin Piserchia, Nick Engelfried and Erik Lillquist with fellow students at a Reinvest Montana meeting

“It is a big national movement and we want to get on board and do our part,” says Lillquist, who was inspired to help launch a divestment movement in Missoula after he attended an environmental conference for student activists in Pittsburgh last fall. “[Climate change] is the moral issue of our time in my mind. ... Just like any other moral issue you should do something about it if you have the means and the time.”

Piserchia, who also attended the Pittsburgh conference, says that fossil fuel divestment is no idle dream. She points out that nine college campuses, 22 municipalities and 20 religious organizations across the country have already pledged to divest their money from fossil fuel enterprises.

The idea has picked up momentum in the last month alone, with 17 national foundations with $1.8 billion in assets publicly committing on Jan. 30 to fossil fuel divestment. A few days earlier, Jim Yong Kim, president of the World Bank, endorsed fossil fuel divestment during a speech at the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, saying “through policy reforms we can divest and tax that which we don’t want, the carbon that threatens development gains over the last 20 years.”

Despite the national momentum, University of Montana Foundation officials are not on board.

“How, when an economy is so dependent on or related to fossil fuel, how in the world can you strip it out?” says Keith Kuhn, the foundation’s executive vice president of finance and operations. “You can’t. It is not like tobacco. It is not like South Africa. I understand and respect what is being asked for, but it is not a valid tactic when it comes to fossil fuel.”

Kuhn adds that UM’s endowment does not use “social screens” and that it is already deeply entangled in fossil fuel stocks. “Almost every pooled investment has some relationship or some holding in the fossil fuel industry,” he says.

The students behind Reinvest Montana are not deterred by such statements, and neither are a number of national organizations advising the campaign. The groups have plenty of experience confronting the slow pace of administrative change, says Lauren Ressler, an organizer with the Responsible Endowments Coalition.

“It definitely is a process and that is why the student divestment movement has really focused on a five-year timeline at most universities for the phase out process,” she says. “That means giving the university five years to implement the divestment entirely in their portfolios.”

Ressler adds that cleaning out fossil fuel investments requires working with fund managers to find creative solutions, like developing fossil-free funds that promise returns that mimic more traditional investments.
“Right now there are a lot of new products emerging for investment managers,” Ressler says. “... There are many different funds that are developing these investment products, these new indices, that are available to [universities] and screen out fossil fuels from the get-go.”

With an organizing drive in the works and support from national groups like 350.org, Reinvest Montana is confident that it will eventually wrest a divestment commitment from UM’s financial custodians. The campaign also hopes to encourage reinvestment in local and sustainable enterprises.

“We want the university reinvesting in sustainable, Montana-based industries so that this money is going into industries that help our state transition to sustainability rather than into these largely out-of-state fossil fuel corporations,” says Nick Engelfried, a UM alumnus and environmental organizer who is working closely with the student activists. “... A big part of our strategy is showing that this is something that students want and that it will be important to prospective students deciding if they will come to school here.”

The group’s next biweekly meeting is on Monday, Feb. 10 at 7:30 p.m. at the UM FLAT. On Wednesday, Feb. 12, Reinvest Montana will ask the Associated Students of the University of Montana to pass a resolution in support of fossil-fuel divestment on campus.

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