Politics Blog

WWU told to divest from fossil-fuel investments

Students, alumni and concerned citizens held a rally Saturday, May 17, at Western Washington University, urging the institution to divest from fossil-fuel companies.

According to a press release received today (Monday, May 19) from RE Sources for Sustainable Communities, the foundation in charge of managing WWU's investments is willing to consider putting its roughly $2 million investment in fossil-fuel companies elsewhere. ( A guest column to the Western Front by WWU senior Eddy Ury said fossil fuels make up 4 percent of the university's investment portfolio.)

Lummi Nation council member Jay Julius explained to people at the rally what is at stake for the tribe.

"Where the coal port is being proposed is on top of a sacred village of ours called Xwe’chi’eXen,” Julius said. "For us, we are at ground zero … Our fishing grounds are protected under the United States Constitution. As indigenous, fish is our main source of food."

The full RE Sources release:

A larger crowd of students, WWU alumni, and Bellingham residents rallied behind leaders of the Lummi Nation at Western Washington University (WWU) in a demonstration Saturday intended to protest the school’s approximately $2 million investments in fossil fuel companies. The demonstration followed a presentation by Bill McKibben at the WWU Performing Arts Center.

The unexpected turnout highlighted the diverse community opposition to fossil fuel projects, including recent expansions of local crude-by-rail facilities and the proposed Cherry Point coal terminal. Students collected over 500 pledges from alumni and community members to withhold donations from the WWU Foundation until it commits to ending its investments in coal, oil, and gas companies.

"Where the coal port is being proposed is on top of a sacred village of ours called Xwe’chi’eXen," said Jay Julius, a member of the Lummi Indian Business Council and fisherman, addressing the crowd. "For us, we are at ground zero … Our fishing grounds are protected under the United States Constitution. As indigenous, fish is our main source of food."

Julius focused his remarks on the impacts of coal terminal proposal, water quality concerns, and climate change. "The consequences that future generations are going to suffer are at least something we could’ve at least stood up, put our fists up, and took a stand for the human rights for us today and future generations." Julius said.

"It was obvious from hearing our local community that the impacts of fossil fuels go beyond climate change," said Eddy Ury, a Western senior and member of the Students for Renewable Energy, a campus group that organized the event. "I hope the university will stand with community leaders who are speaking out against the proposed impacts of coal and oil trains."

The WWU Foundation decided this week to take up the divestment proposal, which has previously secured support from WWU’s student government. The decision will be followed with a series of meetings in the coming weeks between students and administration officials to further consider the proposal to end fossil fuel investments. On June 3rd, WWU Foundation representatives will meet with students leading the campaign and begin planning for action at their summer retreat.

"It really shows how if you come together as a community, and demand your institutions stand with you, it can have a meaningful impact," said Jenny Godwin, a Western student who also participated in the demonstration. "It just doesn’t make sense financially to double down on a business plan dependent on building coal terminals and causing climate change."

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The fossil-fuel divestment movement is a sign of these particular times -- brings to mind the divestment cause of the 1980s, when universities were asked to stop investing in companies that did business in South Africa.

Stanford University announced earlier this month it would divest from coal-mining companies. But it still invests in oil and gas companies, including some working Canada's oil sands.

A guest opinion by three Oregon State University professors was published Saturday, May 17, in The Oregonian's website calling for that university to take fossil fuel companies out of its holdings, which make up 6 percent of all OSU investments.

The Harvard University divestment movement has gotten a lot of media attention -- in part because students on April 30 blockaded the administration building, and also because Harvard's president has been firm in her rejection of divestment. A guest columnist for The Boston Globe said Harvard, which talks a good game about fighting climate change, should end its hypocrisy and divest already.

Harvard President Drew Faust wrote a letter explaining why she didn't think it prudent to divest from fossil fuel companies. The letter read, in part,

Universities own a very small fraction of the market capitalization of fossil fuel companies.  If we and others were to sell our shares, those shares would no doubt find other willing buyers.  Divestment is likely to have negligible financial impact on the affected companies.  And such a strategy would diminish the influence or voice we might have with this industry.  Divestment pits concerned citizens and institutions against companies that have enormous capacity and responsibility to promote progress toward a more sustainable future. 

I also find a troubling inconsistency in the notion that, as an investor, we should boycott a whole class of companies at the same time that, as individuals and as a community, we are extensively relying on those companies’ products and services for so much of what we do every day.  Given our pervasive dependence on these companies for the energy to heat and light our buildings, to fuel our transportation, and to run our computers and appliances, it is hard for me to reconcile that reliance with a refusal to countenance any relationship with these companies through our investments.