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Stanford Dumps Its Holdings In Coal, With Climate In Mind

May 7, 2014
Originally published on June 10, 2014 7:59 am
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One of the nation's top universities is taking a stand against coal. Responding to dire warnings about the effects of climate change, Stanford made this announcement. The school's nearly $19 billion endowment fund will no longer make direct investments in companies that mine coal for energy.

Environmentalists have been calling for colleges and others to divest in fossil fuel companies. And Stanford now becomes the biggest educational institution to get out of coal. Industry analysts are skeptical the move will have much impact. We'll hear about that in a moment. But first to NPR's Richard Gonzales who's covering Stanford's decision.

RICHARD GONZALES, BYLINE: Stanford students, primarily undergrads, first organized their divestiture campaign back in November 2012. It was slow going at first, but they collected support from graduate students and some faculty and call themselves Fossil Free Stanford. Michael Penuelas is a Stanford junior and one of the leaders of the group.

MICHAEL PENUELAS: And we realized that if we could bring our voices together, we could leverage the power in the name of our institution, and we could make change on a scale completely new to us as young people.

GONZALES: At the end of last year, Fossil Free Stanford took its case to the university's advisory panel on investment responsibility, the group that sets investment policies. It was a first step towards convincing the Board of Trustees to invest in the coal industry. Several months passed. Last Thursday, the students got an answer from the trustees says Penuelas.

PENUELAS: And then we walked in, and there were all these proud smiles confronting us from these administrators. And what they said was, you know, Stanford's going to be a leader. Stanford is about to prove itself a leader in the climate movement.

GONZALES: The Board of Trustees at Stanford had agreed with the investment advisory panel that the university would divest its $18.7 billion endowment of any stock in about 100 coal companies worldwide. Susan Weinstein, chair of the advisory panel on investment responsibility.

SUSAN WEINSTEIN: We did an extensive amount of research and came to the conclusion that fossil fuels are impacting climate change, which negatively impacts social and economic systems. We concluded that coal contributes a disproportionate amount to greenhouse gas emission for the amount of energy it produces. And we concluded that there are viable alternatives to coal.

GONZALES: Weinstein says Stanford has a long history in research in energy and sustainability. It's crudely embarked on a campus-wide overhaul of its energy systems so that the trustees' decision wasn't really a stretch. Still, the university took no action on the students' request that it divest in oil and gas companies too. A campus spokeswoman said that such action is still under review, but no other decisions are expected in the near term.

The trustees' announcement this week might be dismissed as symbolic given the size of the coal industry, but for the students who launched this campaign, the taste of victory is more than sweet says junior Yari Greaney.

YARI GREANEY: We've always wanted to do something about climate change. We learned about it since we were young. And we never really had something concrete to rally around. Divestment has become our mechanism. And it's working.

GONZALES: Greaney says her group's next step is spreading the word about their divestiture movement and offering aid to similar efforts on other campuses. Richard Gonzales, NPR News, Stanford. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.