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Capping the Well

For more than a century, the University of California has maintained extensive ties to the fossil fuel industry. A coalition of students, alumni, and climate scientists is trying to sever those bonds.


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One of the first oil wells in California was an 87-foot-deep sump gouged into the earth by San Francisco wildcatters in 1861 at a site they called "Tar Canyon," roughly six miles northeast of where the UC Berkeley campus is today. The well was a financial failure, but the experience was promising enough that drillers scoured the state searching for black gold. By 1880, California had an oil industry.

The state's first major petroleum refinery opened that year on the island of Alameda, and from the very beginning, the environmental damage wrought by fossil fuels was evident. In 1881, as much as 3 million gallons of crude was boiled on the edge of San Francisco Bay to make kerosene. The refinery dumped its waste into the bay, killing oyster beds and sparking protests by fishermen against the Pacific Coast Oil Company. The oystermen lost that fight, and Pacific Coast Oil Company went on to become Chevron.

One hundred and thirty three years later, the fight against fossil fuels continues, but with greater urgency, as the environmental effects of carbon-dioxide emissions become devastatingly clear. "The world we have enjoyed, if present trends continue, is going to be a historical memory," said William Collins, a senior scientist and professor of Earth and Planetary Science at UC Berkeley and the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory (LBNL). "Climate change caused by emissions of CO2 from human sources will increase the number of hot days, posing a risk to life of humans and animals and whole ecosystems. It will alter extreme rainfall patterns, and lead to the imposition of long-term droughts, and the sea level rise is likely to be one to two meters globally within the century, causing tremendous disruption in coastal communities."

Collins, the lead author of two Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change assessments, and the director of the Climate Readiness Institute, is doing his best to help policymakers tap the talents of UC Berkeley and LBNL scientists and scholars to find technological and policy solutions to global warming. Collins also recently signed an open letter from UC faculty addressed to the university's governing board of regents, calling on the board to financially divest the University of California from the world's two hundred largest fossil fuel companies. "Speaking for myself as a private citizen, I think divestment makes an important statement," Collins said in an interview.

Activists are increasingly using divestment as a key weapon in their battle against climate change. Divestment is the opposite of investment: When an institution divests, it sells off any financial stakes it has in an industry and avoids funding harmful activities. American colleges and universities currently have $448 billion in endowment assets and billions more in pensions and operating funds that are invested in everything from California tech firms such as Apple to European insurance companies like Zurich, AG. Institutions of higher education, therefore, finance corporate growth, research and development, and mergers and acquisitions through the investments they make with cash from donors, students, employees, and the public.

Divestment is a controversial tactic because it's so effective. Divestment by universities and other institutions helped bring down apartheid South Africa, and divestment dealt a powerful blow against the tobacco industry. Convincing institutions to divest from South Africa and tobacco was a big fight because both were politically powerful, and naysayers claimed at the time that divestment would do more harm to schools and students than to apartheid and Joe Camel. The critics were proven wrong.

Divesting from the fossil fuel industry, however, may be a whole other question. A tidal wave of public institutions selling off stocks and bonds of a multitrillion-dollar global industry like fossil fuels probably won't do much to shift the financial markets — such is the economic power and wealth of companies like Exxon. But divestment would be a profound moral statement with possibly many political impacts. Already, thirteen colleges and universities have committed to some form of divestment from fossil fuels.

Divestment "asks the university to put its money where its mouth is, "said Victoria Fernandez, a senior at UC Berkeley and a leader of the Fossil Free UC campaign.

Kathryn Barnhart, a UC Berkeley alumna, said she joined the divestment movement because she felt powerless to do anything about climate change. "Of course government is totally dysfunctional and frozen," said Barnhart. "Divestment seemed like an area I could put my energy and see a result. It will send a strong message to politicians."

Activists like Fernandez and Barnhart hope the message is clear enough to advance national and global efforts to cap and reduce CO2 emissions through treaties, taxes, and massive investments in alternative energy sources. Activists think that the University of California can play an important, if small, role in getting there. Next week, the UC regents will consider the feasibility and desirability of divesting from fossil fuels at their meeting in San Francisco.

But convincing those in positions of power to divest can be incredibly difficult, especially when the targets are arguably the most powerful and profitable corporations in world history. King Coal and Big Oil have deep pockets and friends in all the highest offices, including those in Washington, DC, Sacramento, and even the University of California. Divestment is also complicated by the fact that UC's relationship to oil, natural gas, and coal extends far beyond investments made by campus endowments and the system's treasurer. Indeed, the UC's numerous ties to the fossil fuel industry — including personal relationships involving some of university's top officials — run as deep as the Marcellus Shale.