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Stanford’s Divestment Dilemma: Seeking Pathways for Decarbonization

23 April 2018

It’s likely that last winter quarter you were emailed or forwarded a petition by the student organization “Fossil Free Stanford” (FFS), “a student group dedicated to pursuing climate justice and making sure Stanford's investments are consistent with its commitment to combatting climate change.” FFS petitioned for the following to be considered in the spring ASSU elections:

In accordance with Stanford’s commitment to ethical investment, the University should divest its endowment from fossil fuel extraction companies in order to avert further environmental and social harm caused by climate change.

FFS collected more than 1,000 signatures and the amendment was included on the ASSU ballot as an advisory referendum, with no legislative impact but the purpose of taking a symbolic stance. According to the ASSU election results, released April 14, 2018, the amendment passed with 65% of the graduate student vote and 70% of the undergraduate vote. In light of these recent events, the objective of this article is to start a pragmatic discussion on the goals of fossil fuel divestment and the evidence for and against this approach.

The fossil fuel divestment activity at Stanford is closely tied to a larger, growing activist movement. Though divestment in general dates earlier, fossil fuel divestment was adopted as a tactic by the US climate activist community when cap and trade legislation failed to pass the Senate in 2010. Many credit Bill McKibben’s 2012 Rolling Stone piece “Global Warming’s Terrifying New Math” with motivating the activist community to target the fossil fuel industry and its associated reserves. The logic put forward by McKibben is that the potential emissions of proven fossil fuel reserves are more than five times the allowable limit before 2050 for an 80% chance of staying within 2ºC (the globally agreed upon target to avoid risking a dangerously unstable climate). This carbon budget identifies an alleged inconsistency between the assets of fossil fuel companies and climate stabilization. Globally, 852 institutions have divested from fossil fuels, either fully or partially (e.g. coal only).

The case made by the fossil fuel divestment campaign is two-fold: (1) the direct effect divestment will have on CO2 emissions and (2) the amorality of investing in fossil fuel extraction companies. Materially, campaigns hope divestment will reduce emissions by making business more difficult for the fossil fuel industry. According to FFS, divestment should “diminish the overwhelming political and economic power of the fossil fuel industry” through both direct fiscal impact and social stigmatization. Divestment aims to label fossil fuel assets as bad investments and make their brands toxic through symbolic disapproval, making recruitment and policy influence difficult. These material impacts aside, FFS acknowledges that this is largely “a statement of values.” Divestment campaigns make the moral argument that institutions claiming to promote sustainability are morally misaligned with investments in fossil fuel resources. The underlying business model and product of the fossil fuel industry, the campaign asserts, poses a threat to societal well-being.

Several studies have investigated the cost of fossil fuel divestment in terms of its impact on portfolio performance and found negligible impact on financial returns (here, here and here). Based on previous studies, it appears that fossil fuel divestment can be orchestrated in a way that maintains portfolio diversity and does not impact financial returns. That being said, there is also no evidence to suggest that divestment will have any measurable, near-term impact on the fiscal performance of fossil fuel extraction companies either. The idea that even a large sell-off of shares in a company will have a demonstrable impact on the company’s share price or access to capital is unsupported. Any shares sold will be acquired at a momentary discount by an investor without the same moral qualms. Consequently, this neutral investor may not exert the same pressure on corporate strategy that a more climate-conscious shareholder may. Meanwhile, the share price and financial well-being of a company will continue to be driven by expectations of long-term profitability. As such, divestment is only effective if it shifts the long-term outlook for the fossil fuel sector.

One objective of the divestment campaign is to drive the perception that fossil fuel extraction companies are bad investments in the long-term and their resources will become stranded assets in a low-carbon economy, however it is not apparent that this is the case at present. In a future scenario with sharp declines in oil demand or after implementation of an appropriate price on carbon, this may be the case. Citing “a financial risk we do not want to take in the context of real assets”, the University of California has chosen to gradually reduce investments in fossil fuels, and if there is significant financial risk, then divestment is an objectively sensible financial strategy. However, politically treating all fossil fuel investments as toxic assets will not change the facts of demand. Though the share of fossil fuels in our energy mix will gradually decrease, given the amount of demand that currently exists for fossil fuels there is no imminent threat of these resources becoming stranded assets. Fossil fuels constitute over 80% of current global energy supply and, though the International Energy Agency projects renewables will dominate energy capacity additions through 2040 (see “New Policies” scenario), fossil fuels are still expected to meet the majority of energy demand. Further, some industries such as shipping, aviation, metals, and chemicals have few-to-no low-carbon primary energy alternatives at present. The overwhelming consensus in the energy community is that this energy transition needs to occur and is not happening fast enough, however there is tremendous inertia built in to the global energy system that must first be overcome. In order for fossil fuel companies to become bad investments, there would need to be dramatic declines in demand or the passage of restrictive supply-side policy measures (production quotes, supply bans, etc.). Through stigmatization, divestment seeks to apply social and political pressure to catalyze these greater changes in consumer behavior and policy, however it is not obvious that this indirect approach is the most effective strategy.

The climate activist community considers the practices and business model of fossil resource extraction companies unethical and amoral, placing it at odds with the well-being of society. For example, investments held by Stanford Earth in fossil fuel companies may be perceived as being “hypocritical and antithetical to the school’s stated mission of ‘solv[ing] the enormous resource and environmental challenges facing the world.’” In addition to the carbon content of the fuel itself, activists often reference the complicated and duplicitous history fossil fuel companies have had with climate change. Most famously, Exxon knew about climate change as early as 1977 and, until very recently, maintained a public position that humans were not to blame. Fossil fuel companies have been known to routinely cast doubt on climate science as their business model depends on the extraction and exploitation of carbon-based fuels. By not acting swiftly and immediately on the issue of climate change, fossil fuel companies increased the risk of future climate disaster in order to increase profits today. These practices are one reason why fossil fuel companies are often compared to historical targets of divestment, the South African apartheid regime and the tobacco industry. These divestment campaigns are viewed as successes as they achieved their goal of catalyzing enough social and political pressure to make the desired cultural and economic changes. The apartheid regime actively abused human rights and tobacco companies produce an addictive, carcinogenic product that provides no benefit to society. There is no doubt that the fossil fuel extraction industry produces a resource that contributes to global climate change. But this resource also serves a bona fide purpose that it would be naïve to ignore. The feasibility of operating our energy system without fossil resources is still a fiercely debated topic among experts today.

There is no debate that given our emissions trajectory, there is extreme urgency to transition to cleaner energy resources as quickly as possible. However, even in the most radical transition scenario, the fossil fuel industry will exist at least in part to fuel the transition. Energy-dense fuels are needed to produce steel required to manufacture wind turbines, and until storage is available at scale, the flexibility of natural gas complements the variability of renewables on the electricity grid. According to Stanford professor Mark Zoback, “It’s not natural gas instead of renewables, it’s natural gas until renewables are of a scale that we can stop burning gas as we originally stopped burning coal.” Regardless of how short this window may be, some fraction of the fossil fuel reserves will need to be developed. Stanford both invests and partners with fossil fuel companies in research endeavors to decrease emissions (e.g. carbon capture and sequestration, energy systems optimization, life cycle assessment, etc.). By stigmatizing the fossil fuel industry, Stanford may risk damaging partnerships with these companies. Many industry partners have been valuable research collaborators through involvement in programs like the Global Climate and Energy Project. The fossil fuel industry understands that the energy sector is in transition. Ten of the world’s biggest fossil fuel companies are now members of OGCI (Oil and Gas Climate Initiative), which commits to “the direction set out by the Paris Agreement on climate change, supporting its agenda for global action and the need for urgency.” Stanford´s Founding Grant calls to “promote the public welfare by exercising an influence on behalf of humanity and civilization.” Stanford is uniquely positioned to serve as a catalyst of the energy transition, one component of which can be exercising that influence to ensure resources are developed in a way that minimizes the environmental impact.

The decarbonization of the energy system is an enormous challenge, the math is terrifying, and the risks are huge. Divestment may serve as a symbolic action stigmatizing the fossil fuel industry, in the hopes of catalyzing enough social pressure to force political action. Perhaps divestment can serve as one piece of the puzzle in mitigating climate change. Furthermore, if divestment is pursued, the capital may be re-allocated towards investment in companies that are more aggressively accelerating the energy transition. However, Stanford may be more effective at affecting change through meaningful collaboration rather than political stigmatization of an industry. Finally, political capital is likely better spent on actions which have direct effects on carbon emissions or the value of fossil resources by shrinking demand. Examples include encouraging an internal carbon tax, energy efficiency investments, electrification of transport on campus, and procurements of low-carbon electricity. Overall, your stance on the issue of divestment will depend on your position on several questions: Can divestment catalyze the necessary social and political pressure to cause precipitous declines in demand or enact meaningful policy change? Are fossil fuel companies an adversary with an amoral business model which ought to cease to exist, or are they a partner which is required, at least in part, to fuel the energy transition?

Jeff Rutherford is a PhD student, and Greg Von Wald and Dante Orta Aleman are Masters students in the Department of Energy Resources Engineering at Stanford University.

Photograph by: fossilfreegm.org.uk