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Pitt, Chatham students press for divestment of fossil fuels

| Tuesday, April 4, 2017, 9:51 p.m.
Roy Weitzell, Aquatic Labratory Director in the Falk School of Sustainability, looks over greens growing inside the hoophouse on Chatham University's Eden Hall Campus in Richland on Monday, Oct. 12, 2015.
Kristina Serafini | Trib Total Media
Roy Weitzell, Aquatic Labratory Director in the Falk School of Sustainability, looks over greens growing inside the hoophouse on Chatham University's Eden Hall Campus in Richland on Monday, Oct. 12, 2015.

Their schools may have been born in the midst of Pennsylvania coal country and sit smack in the middle of the Marcellus shale, but students at the University of Pittsburgh and Chatham University are saying enough is enough.

Joining students at universities across the country, they want trustees at their schools to sell off their endowment investments in fossil fuels — typically classified as coal, oil and natural gas — and pledge to be free of fossil fuel investments in the future.

The trend toward divestment, much like an earlier effort to force institutions to sell off investments in tobacco, began on college campuses and in nonprofit and faith-based institutions about five years ago. It gathered international momentum with the signing of the Paris climate accords in 2015, a multinational agreement to limit greenhouse gas emissions to try to mitigate climate change.

A 2015 University of California move to divest its $200 million interest in fossil fuel holdings was among the largest hits the industry took. As of December, Arabella Advisors reported that 688 institutions and 58,399 individuals in 76 countries had committed to sell off investments in fossil fuels.

Students at Pitt and Chatham are targeting small numbers — an estimated $26 million in direct fossil fuel holdings in the $3.5 billion Pitt endowment and about $3.2 million in various mutual funds and funds of funds in Chatham's $80 million endowment.

But they are no less committed to pressing for change. Pitt senior Sage Lincoln has been working with a coalition of 43 Pitt organizations for four years to try to get the university to divest. In December, they constructed a 200-meter-long “pipeline” through the commons in the Cathedral of Learning to underscore their position that divestment is an issue of social responsibility for the university.

“We have 4,000 signatures supporting it, and we got the first-ever presentation to the board of trustees last February. The faculty voted to form an ad hoc committee on it at the end of last year, and we're working to draft a resolution. A lot of faculty members are interested,” Lincoln said.

Pitt spokesman Joseph Miksch said the university is aware of the divestment effort but declined further comment.

Walter Fowler, Chatham's vice president for finance, said the university's trustees are committed to working with students to reach zero in fossil fuel holdings. But the size of the school's endowment makes divestment dicey for a university that has staked its brand on sustainability education.

“We believe global warming is happening, and we strongly believe that people using fossil fuel is the reason,” Fowler said. “So we think it is ethical and part of our mission to reduce our use of fossil fuels and reduce our support for fossil fuels. But given the size of our endowment, we're relegated to invest in mutual funds and, in the case of private equity, in funds of funds.”

Chatham trustees, who decided to reduce their holdings gradually, had a consultant go through the endowment and identify investments that contained fossil fuels.

At first, finding replacements was a stretch. About five years ago, the school invested in a Dimensional Fund that was a sustainability fund that contained no fossil fuels. Fowler said since that time more groups have begun to market such funds.

Within five years, he said Chatham hopes to have no investments in fossil fuels. Students say the school needs to move faster.

“We think it is our university's responsibility to take care of that. We want to work together to make sure Chatham's investments are not just environmentally ethical, but overall ethical, and we want an exact timeline,” senior Maria Duarte said.

Debra Erdley is a Tribune-Review staff writer. Reach her at 412-320-7996 or derdley@tribweb.com.

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