What was behind the Faculty Senate’s vote on divestment?

June 4, 2020, 10:42 a.m.

We won’t spend this time attempting to convince you of the harrowing impacts of the climate emergency. We will only take a moment to reiterate that climate change is an issue of injustice and human rights violations. The fossil fuel industry, in its operations that endanger the entire planet, has consistently demonstrated its valuing of profit over human life, more specifically Black and Brown lives, around the globe. By divesting, we can begin to acknowledge the connected systems of oppression that are taking marginalized people’s lives in this country and around the world. 

On May 28, the Faculty Senate voted against supporting divestment. During the discussion leading up to the vote, it became painfully evident that those voting against the resolution unanimously passed by the Undergraduate Senate and Graduate Student Council were voting on neither the ethical imperative nor the financial prudence of divestment from a failing industry. They voted against divestment because they live in fear of their corporate sponsors pulling funding out from under them.

Fossil fuel companies are not funding a just transition

On Thursday, we heard many faculty parrot the reasoning that petroleum corporations are now funding research into renewables, and that this fact somehow justifies our continued investment in them. In fact, this is precisely the wrong way forward. When fossil fuel corporations fund renewables research, they effectively steer the conversation around what is necessary to avert climate crisis. A prime example of this is the Natural Gas Initiative, a joint initiative of the Precourt Institute for Energy and the School of Earth, Energy and Environmental Sciences, which is funded by the American Petroleum Institute, ExxonMobil, Total, Shell and Schlumberger, among others.

If any of these faculty truly understood that we must rapidly transition away from fossil fuels, they would understand that these corporations will never willingly nor quickly transition their business models away from fossil fuels. They refuse to support moving Stanford’s capital away from fossil fuels despite knowing the immense harm that this industry inflicts on the world. They turn a blind eye as the fossil fuel industry continues to extract known reserves, hurtling us towards a catastrophic 10 degrees of warming or more given their continued exploration for new reserves.

Had these faculty actually done due diligence on the fossil fuel industry before the meeting, they would understand that Exxon and other fossil fuel corporations are not funding a just transition to renewable energy. Rather, they are engaged in greenwashing their reputations, buying off researchers and doubling down on the exploration and extraction of destructive fossil fuels. In fact, many senators commented that they felt they had to abstain or vote the resolution down because they were not informed enough, despite their status as expert researchers at elite institutions and Fossil Free Stanford’s offers to meet with each senator personally to answer any questions about divestment and the resolution. 

Stanford climate research funded by fossil fuel corporations

The Faculty Senate vote called attention to how deeply the fossil fuel industry is embedded in our institution. In 2002, Exxon Mobil, Total Petrochemicals, Shell and Bank of America formed the Strategic Energy Alliance with the Precourt Institute for Energy, a Stanford institute directed by professor Sally Benson. Between 2002 and 2012, these four corporations and other partners committed $225 million in contributions to the Precourt Institute to form the Global Climate and Energy Project (GCEP). Exxon alone contributed $100 million to the project. Not only is the GCEP funded by fossil fuel corporations; these funders retain control over the research that is conducted. Oil corporations’ investment in clean energy research is dwarfed by their continued investment in fossil fuel exploration and extraction, and only serves to hold researchers hostage to their will to continue profiting from environmental destruction. 

Here it bears noting that investment in renewables and climate research only makes up less than 1% of Big Oil spending, and is dwarfed by both spending on exploration for new reserves and  spending on anti-climate policy lobbying. ExxonMobil, Royal Dutch Shell, Chevron, BP and Total spend an estimated $200 million outright each year obstructing climate policies. Why is our faculty protecting industries that have consistently used their capital to influence climate policy in favor of their destructive industry? Why is the Precourt Institute, whose mission is to pursue sustainable, affordable and secure energy for all people, accepting vast amounts of funding from the three corporations that are responsible for massive anti-climate policy lobbying?

The fossil fuel industry has its fingers in nearly every institute and initiative at Stanford that researches climate and energy. The dean of the School of Earth, Stephan Graham, worked as a petroleum engineer for both Chevron and Exxon Mobil before entering academia. Since being at Stanford, Graham has been granted multiple awards from the American Association of Petroleum Geologists, a historically climate-denying association whose main mission is to research further petroleum exploration. On Thursday, although he is not a faculty senator, Graham spoke against divestment and prevented proponents of the resolution from speaking by filling up the meeting’s time with empty rhetoric on moving toward sustainability. He remains actively engaged in research on discovering and extracting oil in sedimentary ocean basins.

Our own Woods Institute for the Environment, with which several faculty senators are affiliated, isn’t clean either. Ward Woods, founder, primary funder and current advisor to the institute, served as director of McMoran Oil & Gas Co., an oil and gas corporation that operates in Louisiana and the Gulf of Mexico. The Program on Energy and Sustainable Development at the Freeman Spogli Institute for International Studies is bankrolled by BP and other undisclosed funders. The list of oil influences and corporate partnerships goes on.

During the Faculty Senate meeting, at least five senators openly expressed their unwillingness to support divestment because they and their Ph.D. advisees receive funding directly from the industry. They balked at making a non-binding statement in fear that they would face retaliation from fossil fuel corporations, that they would lose their funding. While these and other senators made many false claims about what divestment would mean for Stanford (see this op-ed from a dissenting faculty senator), the root of the problem is much deeper than a poorly informed vote. 

The root of the issue is that Stanford’s research, like many other universities, has been colonized by fossil fuel corporations, as current Ph.D. student Ben Franta pointed out in 2017. By infiltrating academia, fossil fuel corporations are playing the long game: ensuring their dominance in the energy sector, influencing policy decisions in their favor and making sure that the brightest academicians do not object by buying them off. 

During the meeting, we heard our former provost John Etchemendy claim that divestment does little aside from grab a few headlines. Divestment is part of a broad collective action movement that has been cited by the fossil fuel industry itself as a threat to its operations. The Independent Petroleum Association of America has even launched an industry-funded project aimed at discrediting divestment, demonstrating the industry’s fear of our growing movement. Over 1,110 institutions have divested from fossil fuels, and that number continues to grow, even during the current economic downturn. Most recently, Oxford and Cornell committed to divest their endowments from fossil fuels, yet Stanford’s Faculty Senate seems to believe they have a greater perspective than the world’s oldest university and its investment experts. 

Trustees: Vote for a liveable future, divest

We are outraged that our faculty and mentors chose to elevate their personal financial interests rather than voting to support student consensus and a liveable future. We demand that the Board of Trustees do what the Faculty Senate refused to do: Reject Stanford’s entrenched connection to the fossil fuel industry and instead uphold your own principles of ethical investment. We can only confront the climate crisis in full if we set aside corporate entanglements and divest Stanford’s endowment from fossil fuels, a decision that aligns with the University’s mission, the Board of Trustees’ Investment Responsibility framework, our obligation as stewards of our planet’s future and our moral obligation to stop the abuses against marginalized communities at the hands of the fossil fuel industry.

Zoe Brownwood’ 22
Miriam Wallstrom’ 22
Logan Leak, first-year Ph.D. candidate
Keagan Cross ’ 23
On behalf of Fossil Free Stanford

Special thanks to Ben Franta, Ph.D., and professor Mikael Wolfe, for their support. 

A previous version of this article stated that the Natural Gas Initiative (NGI) is housed at the Stanford Woods Institute for the Environment. The NGI is a joint initiative of the Precourt Institute for Energy and the School of Earth, Energy and Environmental Sciences. The Daily regrets this error.

Contact Zoe Brownwood at zbrownw ‘at’ stanford.edu, or Fossil Free Stanford at fossilfreestanford ‘at’ gmail.com

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