Students protest GW investments tied to fossil fuels

Students are demanding that GW break ties with the world’s largest fossil fuel companies, and are planning to bring their fight to the Board of Trustees this semester.

The student organization Fossil Free GW is pressuring administrators to pull investments away from oil giants such as ExxonMobil, Shell and BP so that the University does not profit off the release of carbon emissions known to cause global warming.

Fossil Fuel GW, following in the footsteps of student advocacy groups pushing for divestment across the country, will strengthen its efforts next month with plans to spread awareness about the world’s limited supplies of crude oil, coal and natural gas. The group plans to canvass campus for signatures, and has tallied about 250 names so far.

One of the group’s coordinators, senior Vincent Patalano, hopes the University will sign a divestment agreement by the end of the semester.

Patalano said the University should stop “bankrolling” companies that harm the environment and contribute to global warming.

“We feel this is a huge opportunity for GW to truly make history and embrace this positive image of a sustainable university,” Patalano said.

University spokeswoman Candace Smith declined to provide a list of which investments in fossil fuel companies make up GW’s $1.37 billion endowment, which mostly relies on outside managers to make specific investment decisions. She said she spoke on behalf of Don Lindsey, GW’s chief investment officer, who did not return requests for comment.

A report earlier this year from the investment-management firm Aperio Group found that divesting from fossil fuel companies does not harm university endowments.

Fossil Free GW hopes to see GW divest from the top 15 companies involved in coal mining or in burning coal to generate electricity, a group that has been dubbed across the nation as the “Filthy 15.” Its petition then calls for GW to divest from all 200 of the largest fossil fuel companies within the next five years.

Student-led movements against fossil fuel investments have spread to more than 300 colleges across the country, with students at Harvard, Columbia and American universities seeing their campaigns gain momentum.

But while students at large institutions like Duke University are campaigning for divestment, only a handful of small colleges, like Unity College in Maine, have divested completely.

The University does not have a social responsibility investing policy, which several schools have adopted to hold investment managers accountable. Still, Smith said without a formal policy, “that doesn’t mean we don’t look to invest in socially responsible companies.”

“The University also is closely monitoring the public discourse on fossil fuel divestment,” Smith added.

Shannon Ross, a leader in GW’s Office of Sustainability, said the administration is working with the treasurer’s office to explore investments in green businesses. She declined to provide specifics about the investment plans or if the plans specifically looked at divesting from fossil fuel companies.

Sustainability has been a top priority for University President Steven Knapp since he came to campus in 2007. He helped launched the Office of Sustainability in 2009, and has overseen the effort to cut energy and waste reduction to reduce GW’s environmental footprint.

Patalano said this is the next step GW has to take to become a more sustainable institution.

“The reason we are doing this campaign in the first place is because we really believe in GW’s potential to be a true leader among universities working towards a sustainable future,” said Patalano.

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