New student group at the University of Southern Maine calls for fossil fuel divestment

Alex Greenlee | The Free Press

Posted on January 29, 2013 in News
By Tom Collier

Divest USM, a new student group at the University of Southern Maine, is an environmentally and socially minded group that intends to start a system-wide movement for the divestment of all University of Maine System investments in the fossil fuel industry. The group is also calling for reinvestment in what it considers to be more socially responsible companies.

Right now, the divestment movement is specific to the UMS’s pooled endowment investments, which were estimated at $121 million as of June 30, 2012. Endowments are financial gifts received from donors that cannot be directly spent. Instead, the UMS invests its endowments, and the capital that they generate may then be put to use, either in a manner specified by the donor, or if the donor made no such specification, in any way that the UMS sees fit. Investment income is often used to create scholarships, build and maintain new structures and subsidize facility operating costs.

Aside from gifts that are invested under the specific advisement of their respective donors, the UMS entrusts private investment managers with the system’s endowments. Some private managers then go on to invest some of the endowments in fossil fuel companies such as Shell, ExxonMobil and Peabody Coal. A statement given to the Free Press by Divest USM estimates that 6.2 percent — approximately $7.5 million — of the UMS’s managed investment pool (including the endowment) had been invested in oil companies as of Sept. 30, 2012.

Chris Sutherland, a senior and Hispanic studies major and one of the students responsible for bringing the divestment movement to USM, explained that he became aware of university’s holdings in fossil fuel corporations when he and his Environmental History of the Americas class went to see environmentalist and author Bill McKibben speak at the State Theatre last November as part of his “Do the Math” tour.

Right after that class, we went from the State Theatre to Local Sprouts and sat down and said, ‘let’s do this.’”

Current and future profits of the fossil fuel industry are based on the amount of fossil fuels currently in the ground, according to Sutherland. “The amount of fossil fuel that’s in the ground right now,” he said, “is enough to end life on earth as we know it.”

Even if we stop producing carbon today — stop all production and emission — the global temperature is still projected to rise by two degrees [Celsius].” Two degrees Celsius is a significant figure: it has been the decided temperature cap in the international community since the the Copenhagen Accord of 2009. In many European countries, that cap was established in 1996. Many scientists fear that should the average global temperature exceed the designated two-degree cap we would see the greatest consequences of global warming –– increased extinction rates and extreme, sporadic weather conditions.

“We’re not going back to your father’s planet or my father’s planet,” Sutherland said.

Divest USM is currently in its infancy, but Sutherland hopes that it will grow in the near future. The USM endowment makes up about seven percent of the UMS investment pool. Because UMS investments are pooled, USM cannot divest alone — the entire UMS would also need to participate. In order to be successful, the Divest movement will need support across all UMS campuses.

“The idea is that we’ll start here at USM, but we also have to start working to find partners at all other campuses,” Sutherland explained.

When asked whether socially responsible portfolios could compete with the system’s current investments, Sutherland nodded, saying that studies have been done that prove socially responsible investments can be just as profitable.

“It’s not like we’re going to walk in and say, ‘Take that money out, but we don’t know where you should put it,’ or ‘There’s nowhere else we can put it.’ Of course there is. There are many, many options that can be explored,” he said.

At least 210 other campuses across the country are rallying to divest from fossil fuel companies. Unity College in Unity, Maine was the first campus in the nation to do so, leaving USM’s movement in good company as they push forward.