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In Divesting From Fossil Fuels, Universities Make Compromises

Jul 10, 2015

Alicia Seiger, deputy director of the Steyer-Taylor Center for Energy Policy and Finance, is quoted at length in this piece discussing fossil fuel divestment by universities.

Fossil-fuel companies are generally considered a good place to invest your money. They earn, and they’re stable. But recently, a handful of U.S. colleges and universities – 26, including Stanford and Syracuse – have made headlines by casting fossil fuels out of their investment portfolios, seemingly placing the good of the planet over the good of their coffers.

But selling off those investments is no easy task, and not all universities divest equally.

Universities with large endowments have a harder time shedding their stakes in fossil fuels. Of the 26 schools committed to divestment, only four have endowments – donated funds that must be invested – of $1 billion or more. And of those, only Syracuse chose to divest itself of all fossil-fuel holdings; the other three limited their divestitures to coal.

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Coal divestment can also be pragmatic, ridding institutions of an increasingly risky holding. Alicia Seiger, deputy director of the Stanford Steyer-Taylor Center for Energy Policy and Finance, said as much in a May 2014 piece she wrote for Institutional Investor: “Coal companies make up less than 1 percent of major public market indexes and haven’t been performing well lately.” (Oil and gas, meanwhile, continue to be rugged investments).

In an interview, Seiger added that divesting from coal alone allows schools like Stanford to make powerful political statements without jeopardizing their portfolios. “I think it walked a really, really narrow line of how to do something that matters without doing anything that matters,” she said.

Coal meets the criteria for divestment set out by Stanford’s policy of socially responsible investing, Seiger said. If the university is to divest from a company or asset class, it must be considered to cause undue social harm, and reasonable investment alternatives must exist.

Colleen Leahy
Morning Consult