Stanford Might Not Like Coal, But it Sure Likes Oil

Back in May, in response to widespread protests by environmentally active students, Stanford University announced that it would stop investing in companies that did business in coal.

Citing environmental concerns, the university explained its decision like this:

Acting on a recommendation of Stanford’s Advisory Panel on Investment Responsibility and Licensing, the Board of Trustees announced that Stanford will not make direct investments in coal mining companies. The move reflects the availability of alternate energy sources with lower greenhouse gas emissions than coal.

This is part of a widespread movement to divest from fossil fuel companies. As Bill McKibben, one of the leaders of the movement, explained two years ago, fossil fuel companies must be defeated because they use their profits to exert influence in Washington, influence that prevents the country from making better energy policy choices. “This is no different than the tobacco industry,” McKibben said, “for years, they lied about the dangers of their industry.”

Stanford has technically complied with its pledge, but it’s hardly taking the moral high ground here.

According to a piece at Bloomberg News, Stanford may have divested from coal, but it’s sure as hell still investing in oil and gas.

Stanford University’s endowment invested in three oil and gas companies in the third quarter, a few months after saying it would end direct investing in publicly traded coal-mining ventures.

The endowment, valued at $21.4 billion as of August, bought shares of Rex Energy Corp. (REXX) with a market value of $15.5 million at the end of the quarter, according to a regulatory filing yesterday. Stanford also bought shares in YPF SA (YPF) and Petrobras Argentina SA (PZE), with a market value of $11.1 million as of Sept. 30. The fund exited its stake in Exxon Mobil Corp (XOM), which had a value of about $201,000.

StanfordPanorama

Some schools are at least more honest about their priorities.

“I do not believe, nor do my colleagues on the Corporation, that university divestment from the fossil fuel industry is warranted or wise,” said Harvard President Drew Gilpin Faust last year. “Significantly constraining investment options risks significantly constraining investment returns.” Or, basically: Sorry, we just like the cash.

The common reference point in all those discussions of divestment, has to do with apartheid-South Africa in the 1980s. During this period many activists got colleges to divest from companies operating in South Africa.

The Stanford move is sort of like if a college announced that it would no longer invest in companies with overt policies of racial pay and benefits discrimination but would continue to be involved in South African companies, despite the fact that mandated racial discrimination and segregation policies in the country really made it impossible for socially responsible businesses to continue operating there.

Jamie Henn of 350.org, a group working to get organizations to stop investing in fossil fuel companies, told Bloomberg that the move, while not technically in violation of the promise it made in May,

Certainly isn’t in the spirit of the commitment they made. It’s disappointing to see a university that has been so forward-looking on these issues continue to walk backwards when it comes to their endowment.

Stanford has not said anything about its latest endowment decisions.

Daniel Luzer

Daniel Luzer is the news editor at Governing Magazine and former web editor of the Washington Monthly. Find him on Twitter: @Daniel_Luzer