University has a responsibility to divest from oil companies

“Penguin colony faces annihilation as huge iceberg blocks sea” (The Independent, 11/02/16)
“Dozens killed as offshore oil rig bursts into flames in horror accident in the Caspian sea” (The Mirror, 06/12/15)
“Toxic chemicals found in beached whales in Fife” (BBC News, 11/02/16)
“Climate change may make transatlantic flights longer and more expensive” (NBC News, 10/02/16)
“Pacific nations beg for help for islanders when the ‘calamity’ of climate change hits” (The Guardian, 13/10/16)
“Air pollution ‘kills more than 5.5m people a year’” (The Irish Times, 13/02/16)
The above is a selection of headlines which appeared in publications in both Europe and America over the last few months. Somewhat alarmist, I know. That penguin colony will take years to completely die off and it is not the entirety of their species. The Azerbaijani safety record has never been unimpeachable.
The mercury found in those Scottish whales is not enough to endanger non-aquatic life. Transatlantic crossings have always been long and expensive. Those living in the south Pacific islands are small in number and most of the respiratory  by air pollution are in distant Asia. Climate change, if you hadn’t made the connection, is what links them to one another.
Those oil rig workers died when a storm ruptured and set fire to a gas line, the burning of oil and other fossil fuels causes millions of premature deaths when their fumes are inhaled every year. Those mortality inducing particles are absorbed by the oceans and re-concentrate themselves in apex predators, such as the North Sea Pilot whales, as they are consumed up the food chain.
The carbon released in such combustion also causes the well-documented greenhouse effect which increases atmospheric energy and thus increases the speed of the jet stream. Any airliner crossing from east to west faces more resistance and has to use more fuel as a result. Accruing atmospheric heat led to the iceberg B09B breaking off from the Antarctic ice shelf. It lodged itself in Commonwealth Bay trapping a population of Adélie penguins once 160,000 strong now numbering less than 10,000. When B09B melts – it is slightly larger than Lichtenstein – it will be a contribution to the submerging of the island nations of Fiji, Kiribati, Tuvalu and Tokelau as sea levels rise. Therein is the trouble with climate change – its omnipresence. It seems to affect everything but appears less of an immediate threat and more of a minatory premonition.
Governments have recognised the potentially catastrophic impacts of global warming and enact measures to halt it, most recently at the COP21 in Paris. Individuals can choose locally produced food and use public transport amongst other environmentally friendly options. But what can a university do?
It can electrify its institutional vehicle fleet, recycle, install energy saving technologies, afforest available land, power itself from renewable sources, establish inter-disciplinary research hubs to offer climate change solutions and divest from fossil fuels. St. Andrews currently engages in all of those except the latter.
As of July 2015 the University endowment fund has a value of £50,072,000 with £1,120,784.19 currently resting with fossil fuel extracting companies. This is down from a high of £1,503,749.80 just a few months ago. Back then firms invested in included Peabody Energy Corp., the world’s largest non-nationalised coal miner, Transocean, the rig leaser whose well-valve exploded causing the Deepwater Horizon disaster in 2010 and Teck Resources who produce crude oil from tar sands in Alberta, Canada –known to be the most polluting method of crude oil extraction. The reduction should be applauded but the remainder is still of concern.
Financially supporting fossil fuel companies is uneconomic, immoral and unethical. Thus far, five hundred students, lecturers and alumni agree and have called on our University to divest their endowment fund from such polluters and never support them again.
Divestment is simply the opposite of investment. It means, in our case, withdrawing money from bonds, stocks or equities for reasons of principle. It functions as a political tool, closely related to boycotting or disinvesting, to pressure an entity, be it public or private, to cease morally corrupt activities, or face financial ruin. The most notable historical success was seen in financially strong-arming South Africa to end apartheid by a coalition of municipalities, pension funds and celebrities.
The global environmental divestment movement has seen over five hundred institutions since 2011, representing some £2.3 trillion, pledge to never again invest in fossil fuel companies. The Rockefeller Foundation is one of these institutions. The first patron of this foundation was the same founder of Standard Oil, the break-up of which has its descendants in two of the six super-major oil companies; ExxonMobil and Chevron. The UN has also come out in favour of divestment as has the governor of the Bank of England Mark Carney who has warned of a carbon bubble. Oil shares have been haemorrhaging value over the last year due to a market glut with the CEO of Vitol – one of Europe’s largest commodity traders– recently saying it may never recover above £40 a barrel. This is in comparison to the rising profits seen in the alternative energy sector. A recent analysis by MSCI – the world’s leading stock market index company – demonstrated that renewable energy investment portfolios outperformed those with holdings in oil, gas and coal over the last half decade. Divesting our endowment fund will also promote future growth. A 2015 survey conducted by the NUS indicated that a majority of students would be more likely to donate to their Alma Mater as alumni if it was no longer invested in fossil fuels. Indeed 61% of respondents wished them to only use and invest in renewable technologies. The economic rationality for divestment is the most incontestable of arguments to make.
The strict financial effect of St Andrews withdrawing its money from an industry worth trillions will be inconsequential. Indeed a Californian investment fund, the Apeiro Group, considered the threat of divestment to be ‘statistically irrelevant’. The aim is not, however, financial bankruptcy but to morally bankrupt investing in these companies. The immorality of destroying our planet is intrinsically and extrinsically self-evident.
In the words of Bill McKibbon an environmental divestment leader, “If it is wrong to wreck the environment, then it is wrong to profit from that wreckage”. Even if one cannot find value or wonder in the natural world they surely must be capable of empathising with the selfish desire of humanity to self-sustain. Fossil fuel reserves contain five times more carbon then our atmosphere can safely handle. 15 million years ago when atmospheric carbon was measured at 900 PPM the ground our University sits upon was submerged. A St Andrews millennial celebration looks as hopeless as the fate of the globe’s major coastal cities if business as usual terms are maintained. It is unfortunate that so many of us have come of age at a time when we can instantly recognise the meaning of the phrase ‘moral hazard’ through the trauma and pain caused by it. Replace sub-prime mortgage crisis with climate change and the paths to alterity are the same but the consequences are about as different as life and death, literally. Farrago funds such as Alliance Trust and UBS – which the University is invested in – and Buckley Meuthing*- which the University was invested in until recently – are lent credibility and righteousness by having an ancient institution such as ours as a client. We must recall this reputational debenture, and soon.
The University of St. Andrews has a proud tradition of ethical investing. Unlike most higher education institutes
we do have a Sustainable Investment Policy (SIP) dating back to 2006. The original demand and concurrent remit of the SIP specifically prohibits investing in companies which deal in arms or employ child labour amongst other criteria. To date that has been adhered to, but the ethical tenants of the SIP should have been more expansively interpreted to include any company which threatens our future, including the fossil fuel industry.
Indeed the SIP explicitly states that the “protection of the global environment, its climate and its biodiversity” is a core value. It is incumbent on our generation to build on the efforts of a decade ago and enshrine into the SIP a ban on environmentally destructive investments. It is ironic that our University wishes to prepare us for a future in which they are simultaneously thwarting through depredationary investing.
Even a desultory view of the university’s sustainability endeavours can confirm this sense of pietism. We have an entire institute dedicated to sustainability; SASI. It would be difficult to walk to any of its sister facilities of CREEM, DEES or CERSA without an electric powered Estates vehicle whizzing by. Indeed with its plans now being finalised for a 12 MW windfarm at Kenly alongside the coming completion of the biomass project at Guardbridge it may well be in the running for its own, world renowned, St. Andrews Prize for the Environment (sponsored by the oil company ConcoPhilips by the way). As arrogationary as this reads it is an imperative that the University divests to restore its most valuable asset, its integrity.
When I first had thoughts of proposing divestment for St. Andrews I contacted the Development Office. I was given the investment list for the year 2013/14. At this time the University was invested in only one company, the eponymously named Oil Search Ltd. I was told this was sustainable because the company derives the majority of its revenues (70%) from natural gas which is considered a bridge or transition fuel toward a renewable energy economy.
Having increased our portfolio from one fossil fuel extracting company to fourteen and now back down to two† that can no longer remain true. We have gone backwards not forwards and cannot allow this bridge an unguessable span. The will toward sustainability has been referenced by our University Chancellor Sir Menzies Campbell in a 2006 interview with The Guardian when he stated his priorities for the future as “the environment, the environment, the environment!”. Just last week the University’s Chief Executive and Quaestor Derek Watson echoed this sentiment when he said “if universities can’t lead on climate change, I’m not sure who can . . . Mother Nature doesn’t listen when you say we have to wait 10 years. These are issues we have to face” on discussing the Guardbridge Energy Centre.
We all benefit from the profits our endowment generates through scholarships, bursaries and CAPOD support. In turn we must hold ourselves responsible for how that money was obtained. Apathy and inaction make us complicit in the environmental damage wrought by this industry. Thus let us join the chorus of divesting universities – Glasgow, Oxford Brookes, Bedfordshire, Sheffield, Surrey, Warwick and SOAS of the University of London – in saying we want a clean break from the past, in every sense of the word. If you think the University should put its money where its mouth is then spare the six centimetres of ink to bring about a Fossil Free St Andrews.


  1. This is cogently argued and passionately expressed, akbeit with commendable restraint. The author’s conviction, his dedication to the cause, and his researches into the subject are evident throughout.


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