Bullhorn - #ReasonsToResist at UBC: Fossil Fuel and Mining Investments

This is Part Three of a series from The Talon on Reasons to Resist at The University of British Columbia. See Part One: Tuition and Housing here, and Part Two: Finance and Labour here.

The focus of this series is to reflect and extend the current state of activism on campus, by evidencing yet more potential issues related to financial and negotiating power at the University. It is by no means intended to cover all legitimate grievances, and even in the areas on which it focuses, it should be taken as nothing more than what it is: the angry research of a debt-encrusted grad student.

Since it has unfortunately, but not unexpectedly, come to pass that the UBC Board of Governors (BoG) has approved a 10% international tuition increase, I should first take a moment to address Board Chair John Montalbano’s statement: “We must vote in a manner that is in the best interests of the [U]niversity.”

Assuming the rest of the provincially appointed Board members agree with him (by design, a majority of the Board) and vote as a block for the “best interests of the University,” that makes a potential voting block of the student, faculty, and staff voices on the Board (by design, a minority) functionally obsolete by indirect admission of the Board Chair. If the appointed Board members always vote in the University’s best interest, not only will the University always win, but they’ve also indirectly admitted that the concerns of the students, faculty, and staff are not the concerns of the University. This sounds like a reason to occupy an office, if I ever heard one.

Now, to the thrust of this article: Considering the recent resistance to pipeline surveying andmine drilling on unceded Indigenous lands; and the resulting injunctions against protesters despite Kinder Morgan’s not-necessarily-legal work and Imperial Metal’s shoddy cover-up, with assistance from the BC government, of a predictable tailings pond spill for which we have to payand the email from a UBC Forestry staff member using faulty legal advice to warn international students they could be expelled and deported by risking arrest for protesting;and the roughly 100 unenforceable arrests and thrown-out civil contempt of court charges bythe RCMP who relied on the oil company for legal interpretation of a court order with faulty GPS coordinatesAND such pipeline resistance being somewhat co-opted by those with highlyquestionablepolitical motives; I think it’s very important to take a look at how UBC’s investments, both in finances and human resources, don’t always match its vocal, on-goingdedication to sustainability.

The University likes to focus on how its environmental plan and efforts to construct new buildings to high energy standards help reduce greenhouse gas emissions from campus, but as a larger institution, UBC is responsible for all of its efforts and investments. So when hypocritical actions and rhetoric emerge in a public institution like ours, it’s somewhat easy to question if the right hand knows what the left is doing. But this only detracts from the fact that the same people are benefitting from the green, sustainable rhetoric as are benefitting from the oil-slick money it hides.

Fossil Fuel and Mining Investments

Reason #63. In a 2013 responsible investment planning FAQ, UBC answered “How muchdoes the University invest in the oil and gas sector?” [emphasis added] by saying it doesn’t directly invest in companies, but in pools of funds run by “external managers,” beyond the University’s direct control. They also stated “At various times, the funds in which UBC’s Endowment is invested include a number of companies in the oil and gas sector.” They give no actual indication of “how much” they invest in these companies, however.

Luckily, someone has done the math, so let’s unpack what it means.

Reason #64. For every 1 tonne of CO2 equivalent that UBC releases into the atmosphere, the energy and mining companies UBC has been found to help fund through its endowment investments release 9 tonnes of CO2 equivalent.

Reason #65. In fact, UBC directly profits from this environmental degradation through these investments to the tune of roughly $27 million a year. This is because its wholly-owned subsidiary Investment Management Trust Inc. (IMANT), the people deciding who those aforementioned “external managers” are, manages about $100 million worth of dirty energy investments, about 10% of UBC’s approximately $1 billion endowment fund.

Reason #66. These investments sit with fossil fuel companies known for a wide range of pollution, labour, maintenance, and legal issues like Chevron Corp., ConocoPhillips,ExxonMobilHalliburton (yesthat very Halliburton), Kinder MorganMarathon Oil,Occidental PetroleumPhillips 66Spectra EnergySunocoApache CorporationChesapeake Energy, as well as dozens of other lesser known oil companies.

Reason #67. This does not take into account UBC’s $1.15 billion staff pension plan (p. 20), similarly managed by IMANT, which has a comparable 12-13% of its infrastructure investments in electric and gas, 31% of its property investment in industrials, and 25% of their equity investments in industrials and energy (p. 23-25). As far as I’m aware, it is still unknown what amount of these investments lie in fossil fuel or mining companies.

Reason #68. After much recently growing pressure from student groups and climate activists for North American universities to divest from fossil fuel funds, UBC finally approved a responsible investment protocol in 2014 that includes a list of five (quite steep)requirements for divestment from a fund, via the (totally not rigged, they swear) BoG. If you only read UBC’s announcement of the new policy, however, you would have no idea divestment is even a possibility because, despite being the most significant change from the policy adopted a year prior, it isn’t mentioned in President Toope’s news release. It also paints the adoption of the new policy (which only came after months of shaming from activists in the media) as work by the “Board [of Governors] to provide positive leadership.”

Reason #69. The April 2014 announcements of new investing policies might have been silent on divestment because, in that previous planning for a responsible investment policy in 2013, “leaders in the responsible investment field” found divestment less favorable than a policy of “[environmental, social, and governance] principles and engagement with companies to improve performance.” This favours the status quo of current investments over the alleged costs of divesting from any problematic funds, even giving a three year window for fund managers to incorporate environmental, social, and governance principles into their portfolios. It’s also important to note that a discussion with experts to determine a responsible investment policy did not begin until 2010.

Reason #70. BC university faculty and students don’t want their schools profiting off fossil fuels. 66% of UVic faculty want their university to divest from fossil fuel funds. 71% of SFU faculty want their university to divest from fossil fuel funds. 77% of UBC students want their university to divest from fossil fuel funds. UBC faculty will hold a referendum over late January and early February on whether they will likewise call for the administration to divest.

Reason #71. Even ignoring the environmental responsibility, evidence shows (p. 9) it’s likely more profitable for investments anyway to divest from these funds. Portfolios without fossil fuel funds perform better, and avoid the risks of the sometimes volatile fossil fuel market and any potential carbon market bubble.

Reason #72. And even if they claim a financial alibi, UBC is directly contributing to at least some of the massive issues affiliated with the Canadian resource extraction industry at homeand abroad, through its participation in the Canadian International Institute for the Extractive Industries and Development (CIIEID), a federally-formed think tank. The CIIEID is verycontroversial, to say the least, and solidifies working partnerships between higher education and powerful, disproportionately Canadian extractive industries with harmful practices and little-to-no international legal oversight. Vancouver specifically, and Canada generally,continue to be havens for international mining conglomerates to avoid legal and financial responsibilities to the countries from which they extract these resources, and universities like ours directly feed this destructive cycle.

Reason #73. “UBC is working to explore and exemplify all aspects of economic, environmental and social sustainability.” But they have yet to adopt a responsible investment policy that avoids fossil fuel funds, and they remain committed to professional and industry development programs that contribute to mining and other resource extraction efforts.

Reason #74. On their pay-to-print service, UBC now shows students a graph of how many trees they are killing and grams of carbon they are emitting by printing what they are required to for their education. While assumedly an act to raise social consciousness around resource consumption, it effectively shames students for environmental degradations largely beyond their control, short of direct action. The University’s large-scale, institutional contributions to environmental degradation through its various forms of investments are well beyond what its nowhere near paperless campus could be responsible for.

There certainly is a #RippleEffectUBC, one contributing to our rich local history of greenwashing and the continual displacement and destruction caused by the resource extraction industries and neoliberal market economics for which it covers. Despite the University’s claims of leadership, backed by incredible resources with which they could exercise said leadership, they must continually be shown the way forward by activists and organizers paving the way for them. UBC has massive blank-spots in its rhetoric that serve its institutional financial interests, but student activists must hold the University accountable. It claims to be an agent of change for sustainability and spreading it to the larger world, while continuing to help fund and provide labour to perpetuate its destruction. 

When mining companies like Goldcorp use the auspices of “Responsible Mining” to invest millions into our Mineral Research Deposit Unit, our Earth Systems Science Building, or a Women in Engineering initiative, the University and its students become indebted to companies and industries wholly designed to profit from the continued destruction of our environment. SFU doesn’t have a Goldcorp Centre for the Arts out of the generosity of a mine manager’s heart. UBC’s Goldcorp Inc. Teaching and Learning Wing isn’t an investment in students’ futures as much as it’s an investment in Goldcorp’s future. These are institutional investments to secure the field-specific knowledge base and specialized labour necessary to expand resource extraction.

If we accept the drastic climate science predictions as fact, then it is wholly irresponsible to not rapidly investigate and implement as many drastic plans as possible to divest from and shut down the industries causing this issue. Instead, due in part to cut government funding, it seems many universities feel they can’t turn down any corporate gift. This isn’t the caseeverywhere.

If you have something that should be added to this list, spread it on Facebook or Twitter with #ReasonsToResist, or just all over campus with old-school flyers, wheatpaste, or tags. Or, stuff executive and administrator mailboxes with reasons why you don’t condone their actions.