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September 15, 2016

Students replaced by 350.org at DU divestment hearing

A last-minute change in the speaker line-up for today’s University of Denver (DU) Divestment Task Force hearing shows even deeper ties between the fossil fuel divestment campaign in Colorado and the effort to ban oil and gas production statewide. The switch also provides more proof that college divestment campaigns aren’t led by students at all, but by the fringe national environmental group 350.org.

Today’s hearing was originally slated as an opportunity to hear the “Divest DU Students’ Perspective.” But late on Tuesday, Divest DU gave their time to another speaker. Instead of a DU student, the task force is expected to hear from Michaela Mujica-Steiner, a “Political Liaison and Narrative Strategy Consultant” who works for 350 Action, an affiliate of 350.org. Just six weeks ago, the task force heard from another 350.org operative, California-based Brett Fleishman.

Part of Colorado’s discredited anti-fracking campaign

As Divestment Facts outlined in a Sept. 1 presentation to the DU task force, 350.org and other national activist groups have spent years pushing anti-fracking ballot measures in Colorado. These measures, which aim to shut down the state’s oil and natural gas sector, have been met with broad and bipartisan opposition. For example, Gov. John Hickenlooper (D) has called these efforts “radical” and “extreme.” Ken Salazar – a former U.S. Senator for Colorado, former Interior Secretary for President Obama, and current head of Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton’s transition team – has condemned this “ill-conceived” campaign because it will “undermine businesses across the state, damage our economy and kill jobs.”

Mujica-Steiner, the 350 Action organizer, was directly involved in the signature-gathering effort for this year’s anti-fracking ballot measures. She was even quoted in a 350 Action press release and offered up as a media spokesperson when those signatures were submitted in early August. At the time, the activists insisted that had collected enough signatures for their initiatives to make the November ballot, but those claims turned out to be false. The activists with 350.org and other groups delivered their petitions to the Colorado Secretary of State’s office in half-empty boxes, creating the impression of a huge signature total. But when state election officials consolidated the petitions for shipping and verification, they were left with 50 empty boxes.

Later, election officials found that anti-fracking groups were thousands of valid signatures short of the threshold for making the ballot. They also found “several potentially forged signatures lines” in the petitions. A forgery investigation is now underway at the Colorado attorney general’s office.

As for Mujica-Steiner, she has divided her time this year between Colorado’s anti-fracking campaign and the college divestment campaign at Northern Arizona University (NAU). She was arrested when protesters occupied NAU’s Student and Academic Services building and refused requests to leave at closing time. The protest was supposed to pressure NAU’s President Rita Cheng into approving divestment, but it didn’t work. Two days after the protest, Cheng pledged to “choose pragmatism over symbolism” when dealing with calls to divest from fossil fuels.

The same misleading claims – all over again

Given that Divest DU’s divestment petition is a largely word-for-word reprint of the template petition drafted by 350.org for its organizers across the country, we can only expect that 350.org’s presentation today will reiterate many of the claims already made by a group that has, from the beginning, sought to demonize the men and women of the energy sector, “drive a stake through the heart of zombie fossil fuel” and “polariz[e] the debate” in a “helpful way” by “stigmatizing fossil fuel companies.”

But as Divestment Facts noted before the DU task force two weeks ago, even advocates for aggressive climate action have criticized the divestment campaign and the agenda behind it. For example, Director of Harvard’s environmental economics program Robert Stavins has called the divestment campaign “fundamentally misguided.” Climate activist and retired NASA scientist James Hansen has even said: “[S]uggesting that renewables will let us phase rapidly off fossil fuels is almost the equivalent of believing in the Easter Bunny and Tooth Fairy.”

Divestment Facts also explained why the fossil-fuel divestment campaign is losing badly on college campuses across the country. Around 75 U.S. universities with combined endowments of roughly $265 billion have given the divestment issue significant attention. Endowments totaling just $2 billion have pledged full divestment from fossil fuels. This is a far cry from the victorious rhetoric and trillion-dollar claims of 350.org, which even liberal media outlets like Mother Jones and MSNBC don’t take seriously.

Undermining a university’s “core mission”

While 350.org’s divestment campaign racked up some early wins at small schools, the campaign has lost badly at bigger institutions like DU. The University of Michigan (U of M), for example, rejected the claim that fossil-fuel production is somehow “immoral and unethical” like the targets of past divestment campaigns. “Fossil fuels enable us to operate the university, to conduct research and to provide patient care,” U of M President Mark Schlissel said in December 2015. “At this moment, there is no viable alternative to fossil fuels at the necessary scale. In addition, most of the same companies that extract or use fossil fuels are also investing heavily in a transition to natural gas or renewables, in response to market forces and regulatory activity.”

In October 2015, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology refused to “entangle MIT in a movement whose core tactic is large-scale public shaming.” And in 2014, Maine’s Bates College warned fossil-fuel divestment would cause “significant transaction costs, a long-term decrease in the endowment’s performance, an increase in the endowment’s risk profile, and thus a loss in annual operating income for the college.” Moreover, those losses “would affect critical college priorities, including financial aid, faculty and staff salaries, and support for academic programs” and “potentially threaten core aspects of the college’s mission,” Bates College President Clayton Spencer said in 2014.

These decisions are consistent with the findings of a series of reports, commissioned by the Independent Petroleum Association of America, showing the major costs that fossil-fuel divestment can impose on a university’s endowment. Excluding an entire sector from an investment portfolio – especially one that powers more than 80 percent of the U.S. economy – lowers returns and imposes large administrative costs, the reports conclude.

350.org may be comfortable with using schools as chess pieces in a much larger campaign to ban oil and gas development across Colorado and demonize the fossil-fuel industry nationwide. But the students, faculty and staff at DU deserve much more than costly political stunts that threaten to undermine DU’s mission to promote learning, advance scholarly inquiry and cultivate critical and creative thought.