After setback, student group to continue rallying for fossil fuel divestment

Media Credit: Kiana Robertson | Hatchet Photographer

Student Association Sen. Frank Fritz, CCAS-U, plans to rework a bill that would put GW divesting from its holdings in fossil fuel companies to a student-wide vote. Because the original bill failed by only one vote, Fritz believes a rewritten bill could pass.

Leaders of Fossil Free GW said they will continue trying to convince officials to end all of the University’s investments in the fossil fuel industry – even after the group’s proposed Student Association bill to put the issue to a student body vote was struck down Monday.

The organization plans to circulate a petition asking GW to disclose its investments in fossil fuel companies and remove them from the endowment, also known as divesting. If the petition collects enough signatures, then students will weigh in on whether the University should divest when they vote for SA senators and executive cabinet members in late March.

Kyla Lang, the president of the organization, and other committee members said they’re not accepting defeat in the SA Senate. Lang started pushing the University to divest last fall, and she said Fossil Free GW will continue to lobby administrators to reconsider investments in fossil fuel companies, which are widely known to negatively impact the environment.

“I think this is one of many [campus issues] that we need to continue working on,” Lang said. “We will finish and get all of those signatures so we can be on the ballot.”

Lang said Fossil Free GW started a petition last year and has collected about 1,000 of the 2,500 needed signatures for it to appear on the ballot.

While a petition is one way to bring the issue to the larger student body, Sen. Frank Fritz, CCAS-U, who wrote the SA bill, said he will rework it to go before the Senate again and have it placed on the ballot through a successful vote.

The bill would need to be approved by more than two-thirds of the senate. It fell short by one vote Monday.

Fritz said Fossil Free GW is taking a two-pronged approach because members are unsure “if they can depend upon the senate anymore.”

Fritz, who is also Fossil Free GW’s vice president, said he will make the bill more concise and bring it up for discussion with the SA again in the next two weeks. Because the vote was so close, he said there is still a chance that a revote would lead to passage.

“It won’t have to be marginal next time. [The vote’s results] will be outright support,” Fritz said.

Meghan Chapple, the director of GW’s Office of Sustainability, declined to disclose how much of the University’s endowment is vested in fossil fuel companies. She also declined to respond to questions about how feasible it would be for GW to divest.

About a year ago, Office of Sustainability leaders tried to prove to financial officials that students considered divestment a top priority, but Chapple declined to comment on the office’s progress with that effort.

“We welcome student input to the University’s sustainable practices and will continue to work with our colleagues in GW’s investment area to incorporate sustainable practices into our investment decisions,” Chapple said.

Most endowment portfolios include investments in fossil fuel companies, said John Jurewitz, an economics professor at Pomona College. He said it might not be a positive move for GW to divest because it could affect other investments as well.

“If the fund managers [of the endowment] are really so much better than the market, then you’re just going to hurt yourself considerably if you change your investment style,” Jurewitz said.

Jurewitz said the fossil fuel industry makes up anywhere between 10 and 16 percent of the world’s economy. The University, he said, might hold investments in a number of the top 200 fossil fuel companies.

Still, Timothy Yee, the president of Green Retirement, which advises on retirement plans, said the financial decision to divest might be beneficial to the endowment.

Oil companies’ stock prices have dipped with the steep drop in oil prices in the last financial quarter. Oil prices are below $50 per barrel, the lowest price the market has seen in the past five years, according to Fortune.

Yee said oil and gas companies have five times the amount of oil than they can actually access. Since stock prices reflect the amount of assets a company has, oil and gas companies are somewhat misleading, Yee said.

“The market needs to realize [oil and gas companies] have assets on the books that are worthless,” he said.

Yee said he expects the market for fossil fuels to falter within five to 10 years, when investors realize that the oil companies’ assets are considered “stranded assets.”

“Some weeks ago, I was called a tree-hugging hippie, though,” he said.

Stanford University’s fossil-free student organization lobbied the school to divest from coal companies, said its team coordinator, Sophie Harrison.

Stanford only divested from the coal industry after one-fourth of the student body signed a petition calling for it.

“Stanford only divests when there’s overwhelming community support,” Harrison said.

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