Penn says it won’t invest directly in some fossil fuels. For students, that’s not enough

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Locust Walk on the University of Pennsylvania campus in West Philadelphia.  (Emma Lee/WHYY, file)

Locust Walk on the University of Pennsylvania campus in West Philadelphia. (Emma Lee/WHYY, file)

Lucy Corlett has been protesting against fossil fuels for years. As a freshman, she joined Fossil Free Penn, a student organization at the University of Pennsylvania demanding full divestment from fossil fuel industries.

She’s a senior now. And finally, she and others in the group can celebrate a victory: The university recently announced that it does not hold any direct investments in coal and tar sands, and will not plan to hold them in the future.

Coal and tar sands are considered some of the most harmful fossil fuels. That’s because extracting, transporting and using them pollutes the air, releases greenhouse gases and takes a major toll on the environment and on public health.

“When evaluating energy-related investments, Penn incorporates scenarios that assume the world achieves emissions levels consistent with the goals of the Paris Climate Accord … factoring the implications of a de-carbonizing economy into investment decisions will materially limit the scope of fossil fuel-related investments in the portfolio,” Penn president Amy Gutmann, provost Wendell Pritchett and vice president Craig Carnaroli wrote in a campus-wide statement Jan 29.

In other words, the university is moving its investments away from carbon-intensive energy sources and toward cleaner ones. That’s a big step for Penn, which has rejected past divestment proposals — one in 2016, another in 2018 — citing the idea that investment decisions should not be used to make “public policy statements.” Both proposals were spearheaded by Fossil Free Penn.

“The reality with the whole campus divestment movement is that there are almost no victories, that it’s a really hard-fought battle,” Corlett said. “People don’t listen to you, people don’t care about what you have to say … [so] any sort of acknowledgment that we can get from the administration of the power that their investments have, the power that this institution has, to change the course of history, is great.”

Obviously, she added, she was frustrated that the email announcement hadn’t mentioned Fossil Free Penn’s research or past proposals. “But again, we’re not here necessarily for recognition. We’re here to try to save ourselves and other people from climate catastrophe.”

Still ‘more to be done’

Stephen McCarthy, vice president of university communications at Penn, said the statement doesn’t indicate a formal decision to divest.

“The effect is very much the same, but divestment is a formal procedure requiring approval by the trustees that involves, among other things, liquidating holdings of particular investments,” McCarthy wrote in an email to WHYY. “Since the university did not directly own coal or tar sand investments and does not expect to own them in the future, the university did not go through the formal divestment process.”

But students say they’re also worried about the impact of indirect investment.

“A lot of our endowment is invested in private equity, U.S. equity, international equities,” said student coordinator Emma Glasser, referring to a chart mapping Penn’s portfolio. “And that’s what Fossil Free Penn is concerned about in terms of indirect investments since these bodies then will invest in whatever companies suit their financial organization.”

McCarthy did not respond to further questions regarding Penn’s past holdings or indirect investments.

Still, the students of Fossil Free Penn celebrated the announcement with what they called “a tiny party for a tiny victory.” Wearing minute paper party hats and holding small plastic cups, they toasted their success — and committed to keep demanding change from the university.

“Divestment isn’t just a financial decision, it’s also a political one,” Glasser said. “It signals to the world and to the fossil fuel industry that we are moving forward and that we need to change … [Fossil fuels] are a fuel of the past. And if we continue to use them into the future, we will have no future.”

Glasser, Corlett, and others say they’ll continue to hold weekly sit-in protests demanding that the university administration host a public town hall discussion to clarify the details of the announcement. On Thursday, Feb. 13, they’re organizing a Divestment Day demonstration in cooperation with hundreds of other students across the nation.

“This fight is hard, it’s long, it’s tiresome. And you know, is there really ever a win? I don’t know,” Glasser said. “[But] we think that this is one of the biggest things that Penn can do to fight climate change. And that’s why we spend so much time, and that’s why we care so much because we really believe that this will make a huge difference.”

The students see Penn’s announcement as just the beginning.

“It’s a big victory for all of us in the movement, nationally and internationally, to get an institution as large and influential as Penn to say something like this,” said Corlett. “I think my response [after this announcement] is, to the administration: ‘Thank you, but there’s more to be done.’”

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