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Big Ten students call for fossil fuel divestment

February 6, 2020
Pictured is the view from atop the T.B. Simon Power Plant on Feb. 14, 2019 at East Lansing. The T.B. Simon Power Plant is the main energy provider for Michigan State Universities main campus.
Pictured is the view from atop the T.B. Simon Power Plant on Feb. 14, 2019 at East Lansing. The T.B. Simon Power Plant is the main energy provider for Michigan State Universities main campus.

After an association of student body presidents unanimously passed a resolution demanding all Big Ten institutions freeze their investments in the fossil fuel industry on Jan. 25 climate action activists and Michigan State are looking at what this potential loss of investment could mean for the future of the university.

The resolution was voted on at the annual Association of Big Ten Students, or ABTS, conference in Indiana. According to the resolution, “Big 10 institutions who have committed to carbon neutrality… cannot truly be carbon neutral while investing billions in the fossil fuel industry.” It calls for the Big Ten student body presidents to call on the administration of their institutions to work toward research and fossil fuel divestment. 

ABTS defines freezing fossil fuel investments as “No investments in any company with proven carbon reserves. No investments in any company that explores for, extracts, processes, refines, or transmits coal, oil, and gas. No investments in any utilities that burn fossil fuels to produce electricity.”

The Associated Students of Michigan State University, or ASMSU, said in a statement they are not specifically working on this initiative themselves.

“ASMSU has not taken a formal stance,” ASMSU President Mario Kakos said. “We have not really worked with student groups in terms of divesting fossil fuels. However, that vote was more of supporting and empowering the other Big Ten schools.” 

Regardless, MSU activist groups see this as a step in the right direction.

“The Big Ten resolution is a strong step for showing that students are moving in this direction,” MSU Sunrise member and leader of MSU Divestment Initiative Jake Nessel said. “And now we need to really keep the pressure on the administration to show that they have an opportunity to do the same, and to show that this is a path that we can take for a more livable future.”

According to MSU Chief Investment Officer Dr. Philip Zecher, the university currently invests $3 billion, primarily through funds. They occasionally hire managers to buy stocks, bonds or contracts but do not directly invest, he said.

“We really want MSU to not only divest their money from fossil fuel companies, but also invest that money into renewable energy,” Nessel said. “And so I think that an important part of that is looking into options of how we can create a more sustainable university ... perhaps investing in solar energy, for example.”

Zecher said these numbers come from a certain point in time, and since these funds are quickly changing, the number is not always accurately measurable, and depends on what is meant by “fossil fuel.” 

Nessel said he has been able to see how fossil fuel investments can ultimately hurt the well-being of people firsthand. He spent time in Detroit working at a camp called Summer in the City as well as Abdul El-Sayed’s campaign for Governor.

“I was spending a lot of time in Detroit" Nessel said. “I started to really see the impact of asthma on kids and the impact of industrial pollution from companies, like Marathon in particular, in southwest Detroit.”

According to the 2019 report, the university invested about $103 million in Marathon.

Zecher described how continuing to invest in these companies, but working with them toward more sustainable investments is more convenient for the university — rather than cutting these investments and spending more money on alternative companies.

He said the university has sold off some of these fossil fuel-related investments, but not because of the divestment campaign, because it was right for the university. 

“So we’ve already diminished that asset class,” Zecher said. “But that’s not because of the divestment, push ... really an investment decision because ... the risk-reward in that asset class isn’t really paying for itself — the risk isn’t paying for what we earned by being in those.”

The resolution, however, calls for these changes to be made to support what is being impacted by climate change.

“As students, as taxpayers, and as citizens of the world whose frontline communities are already being impacted by climate change and whose future is in peril, we feel an obligation and a right to demand our universities are not complicit in the harms of fossil fuel investment and lead the nation and the world towards a better future,” the resolution stated.

Currently, MSU is the only Big Ten school on the Top 50 Green Colleges ranked by the Princeton Review, at number 19. 

Nessel said they are currently working with other schools, including the University of Michigan’s divestment campaign, in order to go beyond the state and continue to the whole Big Ten.  

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“I'm completely sympathetic to the issues of climate change,” Zecher said. “We need to find alternatives. We need to find alternatives fast. ... Converting from coal, getting rid of that, putting in the solar array, switching the production and the power plant to energy conservation.”

Nessel and the MSU divestment campaign are continuing to promote fossil fuel divestment and hope for more student contributions.

They will be hosting a rally at the Hannah Administration Building on Feb. 14 at 4 p.m.

“We really wanted to enact change, and we figured that change can be made wherever you are,” Nessel said. “So in our case, we’re working at Michigan State because we want to create a better future for other students and the generations that will follow us.”


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