BROWN: A middle ground on divestment
The University should promote responsible energy use without succumbing to the “divestment’ movement
Recently, a national “divestment” movement has begun to sweep through American colleges and universities. The movement asks that schools divest their endowments from fossil fuel companies in a symbolic and monetary stand against energy sources that damage the environment and fund radical regimes. In response, a group of pro-oil energy philosophers, scientists and others led by Alex Epstein published an open letter to American universities asking them to reject this movement as a recognition of the good fossil fuels have done and are doing for this country. Epstein claims fossil fuels have led to the dramatic improvements in quality of life seen in the last half-century and actually are good for the environment long-term, and that debate about the merits of fossil fuels has been repressed.
Epstein is at least partially correct that universities should refrain from a total divestment from fossil fuels, but not for the reasons he gives. Epstein is the author of the book he cites as his main evidence for his claims, which makes his conclusions dubious at best. His argument focuses mainly on the fact our energy has historically come from fossil fuels. He does not consider the possibility that a similar amount of energy could come from other sources in the future. While massive energy use has been necessary for recent human advancement, and the vast majority of that energy has come from fossil fuels, that does not mean a move toward more sustainable energy sources is a bad idea. And Epstein’s claim that fossil fuels are good for the environment is only true in the extremely limited scope through which he chooses to see the issue. He is right that fossil fuels prevent loss of some habitats by improving agricultural efficiency, but he ignores problems like air pollution, oil spills and climate change that damage those same habitats.
Epstein is correct in one respect: Far too much of our current energy comes from fossil fuels for a responsible university to support a complete divestment. But that does not mean the University of Virginia should not treat its energy investments in a more responsible way.
Numerous energy companies work in both the fossil-fuel industry and alternative energy. By investing in these corporations, the University would be encouraging a gradual transition away from an unsustainable resource to a renewable one without drastic, sudden changes to the economy. This would also allow companies to transition workers from fossil-fuel plants to other jobs as products shift toward green technology. Investment choices like these would reflect both a forward-thinking mindset as well as an acknowledgement of current conditions.
Investments in companies that work in energy conservation or transmission could also be an alternative. About 7 percent of energy produced in the United States is lost while being transmitted. This issue makes it impossible for energy to be transported over long distances in a cost-effective way. If further research could lower this percentage, not only would fossil fuels be more efficient and less harmful, but renewable energy sources like solar and wind power would also become much more realistic. One of the main barriers to mainstream solar and wind power is that the best places to produce it are isolated from areas of high energy consumption. By reinvesting its endowment in technologies like energy transmission that benefit energy produced both by fossil fuels and green technology, the University would be simultaneously taking a neutral and responsible stance on energy issues.
University students could also benefit from these investments if they were made deliberately after a dialogue with energy companies. If the University could establish a partnership with a major energy company through a large investment, it could provide University students with an inside track to jobs researching and developing transitional technologies. Over time a mutually beneficial relationship could prove fruitful for both parties, as the company would receive investment capital and an influx of talent, the University would send students to boost its own investment, and the energy industry would slowly shift away from fossil fuels. A relationship of this kind is particularly viable given our location near coal-producing centers like West Virginia, Pennsylvania and potential wind-harvesting sites in the Appalachian mountains.
The University, as with other schools, has no need to make any stand on the divestment movement. We cannot afford to completely and immediately divest from fossil fuels, both as a university and as a country. But why not make an informed and possibly beneficial move toward responsible energy investment instead? By striking a middle ground between the movement’s idealism and Epstein’s denial, the University could set an example for how to be a modern, forward-thinking institution when it comes to energy and fossil fuels.