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UMaine Students Press Again for Fossil Fuel Divestment
02/27/2014   Reported By: Jay Field

University of Maine students are again pressing the university system to stop investing endowment funds in the coal, oil and natural gas industries. The group Divest Maine made its case today at a meeting of the UMaine Trustees Investment Committee in Bangor. But as Jay Field reports, the head of the investment committee would only commit to more conversation on the issue. Jay Field has more.

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The University of Maine System has a $121 million endowment. Around 6 percent of that total - $7.5 million - is invested in fossil fuels.

"This raises questions of morality, ethical actions and climate justice," Sarbrina Vivian said. Consider the science, Vivian told one conference room of university officials and trustees in Bangor, and another, watching by video link from the University of Southern Maine in South Portland.

Vivian, with the UMaine Green Team, is a third-year, ecology and environmental science major. "At the forefront of this issue is the increase of greenhouse gases in our atmosphere," caused, Vivian told the system's investment committee, by our reliance of fossil fuels.

Scientists, she explained, have reached the same conclusion, the world over. Those gases, the ones increasingly hogging our atmosphere, are pushing global temperatures to ecosystem-altering levels.

"People have great power and can have immense impacts on the environment," she said. "We ask that the University of Maine System consider creating a timeline for divesting our endowment from those of the top fossil fuel companies which we currently support."

Grassroots campaigns to force similar divestitures are now underway at more than 300 colleges and universites. Maine's Unity College was the first in the country to actually do it. For now, though, it doesn't look like the state's public university system will be joining Unity and the other handful of schools nationwide that have renounced fossil fuel investments.

"Environmental sustainability is very important, but so is financial sustainability. And right now, we are also in a financial crisis," said Rebecca Wyke, the system's vice chancellor for finance and administration.

University officials say divesting in fossil fuels in the near term could negatively affect the return, risk and diversification of its investment portfolios. The system, Rebecca Wycke noted, does value sustainability.

UMaine research and ingenuity is responsible for the development of a major windpower project off Monhegan Island. And all seven campuses, she noted, are moving to reduce the university's carbon footprint. Try to see the system's efforts holistically, Wyke asked the students - don't just focus on divestiture.

"We definitely hold that very dear, and we recognize it's such important work and that university, in many ways, has stepped up as leaders," said Meaghan LaSala. LaSala, a USM junior, says these efforts, no matter how successful, won't make the fossil fuel companies change their ways.

Responding to LaSala, UMaine trustee Karl Turner asked, rhetorically, what would happen if universities across the nation all simultaneously divested from fossil fuels at the same time. Turner is chair of the board's investment committee.

"I could be completely mistakeN, but I think it would have zero impact because the demand for carbon still is in our economy," Turner said.

Students asked Turner if he would agree to appoint an ad-hoc commission to further study divestiture, and fine-tune a resolution calling for the system to get there over a five-year time frame.

But Turner declined, instead giving his personal email address to Meaghan LaSala, agreeing to allow more general discussion of the issue at future meetings.

Editor's Note: In the interest of full disclosure, Karl Turner also serves as a member of the MPBN Board of Trustees.


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