The Long, Stubborn Fight with Universities over Coal, Oil, and Gas Divestment

ACORN
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May 2014 A group of prominent Harvard alumni were led out of a reunion ceremony by police on Friday when they unveiled a large banner calling on President Drew Faust to consider reinvesting the school’s stakes in fossil fuel companies that they say contribute to climate change and other environmental impacts. Photo Credit:  Divest Harvard
May 2014 A group of prominent Harvard alumni were led out of a reunion ceremony by police on Friday when they unveiled a large banner calling on President Drew Faust to consider reinvesting the school’s stakes in fossil fuel companies that they say contribute to climate change and other environmental impacts. Photo Credit: Divest Harvard

New Orleans           One of the many fronts for activists campaigning about the urgency of climate change has been to win divestment of coal, oil, and gas stocks from the investment and endowment portfolios of universities and colleges. Thus far the results have been mixed. A chart in the Wall Street Journal had the big whoops Harvard and Yale as solid “no” along with other ivies like Brown and Cornell, while partial victories have been won at Stanford, Pitzer, and San Francisco State in the West and the University of Dayton with the University of California system teetering towards a decision.

For me it seems like déjà vu all over again. More than forty years ago Middle South Utilities, now called Entergy, the electric utility provider for Mississippi, Arkansas, and Louisiana, proposed to build what they called the “world’s largest coal-burning power plant” at White Bluff along the Arkansas River between Little Rock and Pine Bluff. The coal was going to come down in 100-car train loads from the Powder River Basin in Wyoming until they could build a slurry pipeline from the Fort Union coal deposit in the Great Plains underneath parts of eastern Montana, western North Dakota, and northeastern Wyoming that would use precious western water to flush the coal down to Arkansas and other buyers. Does any of this sound familiar today in a world of tar sands oil pipelines from Canada to the Gulf of Mexico?

ACORN members, organized in the cities of Little Rock and Pine Bluff, knew that we couldn’t afford the plant given the soaring rates at that time when we were fighting for caps on cost through what we called “lifeline” rates for the first 400 kilowatts of power as a basic necessity at a fixed cost. We also knew we couldn’t win and beat the plant from our base in the cities, so we organized groups of farmers downwind from the proposed plant in the Protect Our Land Association affiliated with ACORN by sharing studies of the impact of sulfur particulate damage to crops that had been conducted in other countries. Laughably, the company tried to convince the farmers that they would be getting “free” fertilizer. They even flew some of the farmers and me to see the giant coal fired plant in Paradise, Kentucky, where we were able to humiliate them from song to study.

Nonetheless, we were still not winning, until our crack researcher, Steve Kest, showed me that their largest shareholders were pretty much in order, Harvard, Yale, and Princeton, and it was on! I managed to convince Bill Kitchen, the brother of one of our staff, Mary Jo Kitchen, and an off-and-on organizer and carpenter, to leave Johnstown, New York, and decamp to Harvard to start an organizing and petitioning drive on campus calling for the university to divest its Middle South Utilities stock. Nick Lemman, then of the Harvard Crimson, and later a respected author, New Yorker writer, and Columbia University professor, was from New Orleans and gave us quite the boost in story after story. Our fight at Harvard became the first time that ACORN made the front page in what was then the Arkansas Gazette. We had the heat on!

The results? Well, we got the plant scaled down and some early generation scrubbers to make a dent in the pollution. Harvard and a number of the others created “study” committees, wrote some letters to the company, and basically tried to shine us off until the heat died down.

It seems that 40 years later, they are still studying and rationalizing that they know best, and damned the consequences. Harvard’s President Drew Gilpin Faust rejected divestment saying “Significantly constraining investment options risks significantly constraining investment returns.” In other words, to heck with the planet and the future, show me the money! Estimates are that 5% of the total higher education portfolios or $22 billion are in energy and natural-resource stocks, so with this kind of non-leadership, campaigners face a hard road to winning. Stanford University met reform halfway by divesting in 100 coal companies as the worst of the lot, so the Ivy League hardline, money grubbers might be able to learn something from the West.

All we ever learned in the ACORN campaigns was to fight harder and never quit, and that looks like the lot of climate change campaigners for many years to come as well.