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2014 Winter Issue 5 (February 14, 2014)

Board Discloses $6M Invested In Fossil Fuels

February 16, 2014
By Hart Hornor

Many at Carleton aren’t surprised that roughly $3 million of the school’s endowment is invested in Philip Morris International, a tobacco company. Or that, even at a school that brags about its wind turbine and LEED-certified buildings, about 5 percent of the endowment is invested in fossil fuels.

But when the full list of Carleton’s direct investments was posted for the first time earlier this term on the Treasurer’s Office website, freshman Sam Neubauer was dismayed by what he saw. “I kind of thought we would be invested in fossil fuel companies, but it was still distressing to look at the list and go, ‘Wow, $6.2 million,’” he said.  

Since then, Neubauer and other members of the Climate Justice Coalition, a group that opposes investing in fossil fuel and initially asked last spring for the disclosure, have searched the three-page list for ammunition to use in a poster campaign. Carleton has stock in 145 companies, fossil fuel companies representing 4.1 percent of Carleton’s endowment, according to Neubauer’s calculations.

The disclosure followed the release of data from a campus-wide survey that found, among other things, that most Carleton students favor pulling money out of fossil fuel companies, and that a large portion of alumni, faculty, staff, and students favor investment in renewable energy, even if it results in lower returns.   

The survey also found, however, that less than 6 percent of respondents had ever seen the list of Carleton’s top 10 stock holdings, which has been posted on the Investment Office website for years. “Probably the average student doesn’t care much about what Carleton is invested in,” said Professor Daniel Groll, a co-chair of the Carleton Responsible Investment Committee (CRIC).   

But even if students don’t care how Carleton uses its endowment, the alumni who feed it might. “Alumni put money into the endowment, which is then invested in this list of companies, which now they can see,” said senior Duncan Sallstrom, a co-chair of CRIC.

One alumni group, called Divest Carleton, has already formed in the hope of pressuring the college to pull its investments from fossil fuel companies.

Despite the optimism of those who want Carleton to reinvest in renewable energy, this goal seems unlikely. Last year, the college released an official statement saying that it “does not have a policy of divesting, or of supporting divestment,” and its strategy of reducing its own carbon footprint is more effective than divesting in companies based on their carbon footprints.

Some students speculate that the complete list was kept under wraps because administrators worried it would give fodder to pro-divestment groups. However, Jason Matz of the Investment Office maintains that, in fact, the list was never made public because nobody ever asked for it.

Still, CSA President Matthew Fitzgerald assumed that administrators would be nervous about pro-divestment groups when he went to them last fall on behalf of the Climate Justice Coalition to ask for a list of Carleton’s direct investments. He made sure to present the request as a matter of transparency, not a step toward divestment, he said.

Moreover, Matz points to CRIC as an effective force in changing corporations from the inside. Every year, the committee looks through current shareholder resolutions at companies Carleton has invested in and chooses resolutions that seem to match Carleton’s values. According to Professor Groll, a typical resolution might ask a company to implement equal employment opportunities or issue a report about its green house gas emissions. “Most of them are minimal in that sense,” he said.

Once committee members choose resolutions they think should be approved, they spend weeks researching the resolutions and formulating arguments to present to Carleton’s Board of Trustees, which controls the school’s stockholder votes.

In preparation for this week’s Board meeting, CRIC members chose seven resolutions to recommend, including one that asks Pepsi to keep track of all its sugar suppliers in an effort to curb unfair seizures of land.

Neubauer says CRIC’s resolution votes can’t possibly make the change needed to save the planet. “Say you’re invested in Wal-Mart, and you want to raise their wages, you can do that through shareholder resolutions,” he said. “You can change some of the business practices. But with the fossil fuel industry, the business is the problem.” Before we stop global warming, we need to get rid of fossil fuel companies entirely, he said.

Even if they can’t get Carleton to stop investing in fossil fuels, members of CJC hope to at least start a conversation on campus about how best to stop climate change. In addition to putting up posters around campus, they plan to bring in a speaker to talk about climate change at 4:30 p.m. Tuesday in Leighton 305.

Comments

  • February 16 2014 at 6:30 pm
    Thomas Brenner '09

    Saw this article posted on Facebook. Very nice work.

    Given that Carleton is unlikely to immediately divest from fossil fuel companies, I would like to suggest to the CJC and Divest Carleton that in the meantime they consider drafting shareholder resolutions for the CRIC that encourage fossil fuel companies to look at investing in renewables. Many fossil fuel companies are re-branding themselves as 'energy' companies and they are also companies with significant financial resources that could one day be put into renewables when the market looks ready. So carefully drafted shareholder resolutions that encourage exploration of renewable energy markets could be beneficial in the long run. I don't know what's possible with these kinds of resolutions, but it seems inappropriate to dismiss a resolution out of hand (as in the second to last paragraph) when the school is unlikely to give up the investment.

  • February 19 2014 at 8:28 pm
    Daniel Groll
    Two small notes on an otherwise very nice article. 1. It is true that I said that, "“Probably the average student doesn’t care much about what Carleton is invested in.” On its own, that might sound like a kind of put down, as though the average student is apathetic or uninterested in the world around them. But that's not at all what I meant to imply. In fact, when the reporter asked me whether I thought the lack of interest (if I'm right that there is such a lack) is a problem, I said that it wasn't at all clear to me that it is: there are all kinds of things that are worthy of our interest in this world, and it's not clear to me that an interest in Carleton's investments is something that *demands* people's attention to the exclusion of other things that might grip them. 2. It is also true that I said, with respect to the resolutions we deal with, that, “Most of them are minimal in that sense.” This might be taken to imply that I think voting on shareholder resolutions are unimportant. But that is not at all what I meant to imply, as my remarks surrounding this particular quotation would have made clear. I don't remember exactly what I said, but it was something along the lines of while any *particular* resolution isn't asking for dramatic change, the sum of resolutions regarding a company -- both in one year and across years -- can lead to important, however incremental, change. I then gave the reporter the example Wells Fargo agreeing to stop Payday Lending: there is good reason to think that shareholder pressure played an important part in the company's decision. Whether the kind of incremental change that shareholder resolutions bring about is enough when it comes to some issues is an important question. I just want to make clear that I think that voting on shareholder resolutions is both important and effective.

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