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May 12, 2021

Princeton’s Investment Recommendations Show Value of Partnership, Not Divestment

Last week, the Princeton CPUC Resource Committee released a list of four criteria they recommended the Committee on Finance of the Board of Trustee should adopt with respect to divestment. Although the committee recommended that the school “disassociate” its investments from some sectors of the fossil fuel industry, it did not endorse a move towards divestment, instead acknowledging the need to work with, rather than against the industry.

Recommendations also focus on a company’s current actions and path ahead, demonstrating a readiness to engage with energy companies that are working towards the energy transition through a path to carbon neutrality.

The recommendations are in keeping with earlier statements from Princeton recognizing the need to work with energy companies on decarbonization research. Last June, Lynn Loo, director of the Andlinger Center for Energy and the Environment at Princeton defended industry partnerships as a key part of the all-hands-on-deck approach needed to solve the twin problems of decarbonization and climate change.

In an op-ed for the Daily Princetonian, Loo wrote:

“Our experience has demonstrated that our individual skillsets are almost never enough to create substantial change; we must engage and build partnerships with a range of critical players beyond our campus and outside the academy. That’s why we’re working with leaders from non-profits, from government, and from industry to invent potential solutions and to also ensure our best ideas can be road tested under real-world conditions, quickly and robustly funded, and deployed at scale.”

Energy companies—including some companies generally associated with oil and gas development—have been making substantial investments in clean energy technology in recent years. In fact, one recent study by Harvard Business School Professor Lauren Cohen found that oil companies like BP, Chevron, and Exxon are some of the most prolific producers of green patents and suggested that opening investment to these firms might deliver innovative green technology faster.

Some recent clean-energy investments by traditional oil and gas firms include:

  • Suncor Energy, a Canadian oil company, invested $100 million in a carbon capture technology company called Svante.
  • A $100 billion carbon capture and storage project proposed by ExxonMobil that that could store 50 million tonnes of CO2 in Houston by 2030.
  • Chevron launched a $300 million fund on low-carbon technology and announced it will partner with Microsoft and Schlumberger to build a CCS plant in California.
  • Occidental Petroleum announced the company’s first “carbon-neutral” petroleum shipment by using CCS technology
  • BP’s hydrogen H2Teesside facility in northeast England will integrate carbon capture technology, collecting around 2 million tons of CO2 emissions a year.

Many major energy companies are invested in the energy transition. Instead of pushing for change, divestment from these companies would take resources away from needed research and innovation.

Princeton has long opposed divestment and the recently-released criteria are the findings of a subcommittee rather than official policy. Even so, the proposed approach, by stopping short of calling for full divestment, recognizes the role that today’s energy companies will play providing the energy of the future, and positions the school to continue its partnerships with them.