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Boston University moves away from coal and tar sands, but won’t pledge full divestment

Student divestment group says the Board of Trustees’ decision does not go far enough.

Boston University just took steps towards reducing its financial relationship with the fossil fuel industry. CREDIT: WIKIMEDIA COMMONS
Boston University just took steps towards reducing its financial relationship with the fossil fuel industry. CREDIT: WIKIMEDIA COMMONS

Boston University announced Tuesday that it would endeavor to “avoid investing” in coal or tar sands companies, after an advisory committee for the school recommended it move away from fossil fuel investments.

“Anthropogenic climate change caused by use of fossil fuel energy sources is possibly the largest and most complex challenge mankind will face during this century,” BU president Robert Brown wrote in a letter Tuesday to the BU community, explaining the board’s actions.

Last week, the board accepted a recommendation for BU to develop a climate action plan and said another recommendation, to prioritize clean energy expertise in the school’s hiring process, was already the standard, if not explicitly spelled out.

But the first and most meaningful recommendation — to immediately divest from and prohibit future investments in any company that continues to explore for fossil fuel and from all coal and tar sands companies — was only partially adopted. The board voted to “commit, on a best efforts basis, to avoid investing in coal and tar sands extractors,” but did not address investments in companies that actively explore for new fossil fuel reserves.

The student-led Divest BU group was not impressed.

“BU remains invested in the fossil fuel industry,” the group said in a statement Tuesday. “According to an email from President Brown sent out to the school today, our Board of Trustees decided last week to ‘commit, on a best-efforts basis, to avoid investing in coal and tar sands extractors,’ using vague language that does not guarantee a commitment to divestment.”

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According to the group, the school’s Advisory Committee on Socially Responsible Investing had recommended total divestment from coal and tar sands producers, as well as divestment from companies that explore for fossil fuel reserves.

“The Board of Trustees not only inadequately addressed the first portion of the recommendation, but also completely neglected the second, failing to take a true stance against the role every fossil fuel company plays in the urgent crisis of climate change,” the group said. “They have placed BU on the wrong side of climate history by continuing to support oil, natural gas, and the rest of the fossil fuel industry.”

BU is not the first university to move its investments away from fossil fuels. Several schools, including Georgetown, have pledged to divest from coal. There is a trend, though, of administrators rejecting or slow-rolling calls from students for full and transparent divestment. Like BU’s, many boards say they can’t control investments made by their fund managers.

Meanwhile, funds are increasingly moving away from fossil fuel investment — prompted, perhaps, like audits such as one last year that showed the Massachusetts pension fund had lost half a billion dollars in a single fiscal year by investing in fossil fuel companies.

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Divestment proponents — and city, state, and federal officials worried about mitigating environmental damage — say that the fossil fuel industry is likely to see a steep decline in coming years, as the country and the world move away from oil, gas, and coal.

“The entire fossil fuel industry is participating in the propagation of climate change, climate denialism, and political inaction in the face of this crisis,” Divest BU said. “We, as members of a global community at BU, need to say that these actions are morally unacceptable and our institution will not participate in them in any way.”