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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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From 1900 until 1988, there was hardly a year that passed without an oil tycoon sitting on the UC Board of Regents. The most influential by far was Edwin Pauley, founder of Pauley Petroleum and a close confidant of Ronald Reagan during his terms as governor and president. Pauley, a regent from 1940 to 1970, used his oil wealth to lobby for the expansion of offshore drilling along California's southern coastline. In 1944, Pauley reportedly offered vice-presidential nominee Harry Truman and the Democratic Party a campaign contribution of $300,000 if the federal government would drop federal claims to California tidelands so that Pauley's firm could tap the undersea basins of petroleum and natural gas, some of the largest in North America. In the 1960s and '70s, Pauley pushed the state's legislators aggressively for permits to establish new oil and natural gas platforms close to UC Santa Barbara's oceanfront campus. After students erupted in protest over the 1969 blowout and oil spill in the Santa Barbara Channel, a California deputy attorney general accused Union Oil, the company responsible for the massive spill, of buying all the university experts and sowing fear among academics who might use their science to contradict industry.

These sorts of ties between the UC and Big Oil are by no means history. Chevron's CEO John Watson is currently a member of the UC Davis Chancellor's Board of Advisors. The San Ramon-based Chevron — California's biggest fossil fuel company and the ninth largest in the world — funds research across the UC campuses and at the three national labs managed by the UC. In June and July, Chevron made two grants, totaling $850,000, for oil- and natural gas-related research to UC Berkeley scientists. UCLA's Chemical Engineering Department is directly funded by the Western States Petroleum Association and nine oil and natural gas companies, including BP, Shell, and Texaco. And the UC's Los Alamos, Livermore, and Lawrence Berkeley national laboratories all receive millions annually from the Department of Energy's Fossil Energy Research and Development program to produce technologies that directly aid oil, natural gas, and coal corporations.

This shouldn't be surprising. Although the UC trumpets its visionary research on renewable energy and conservation, the university continues to pursue the technological priorities of the nation's dominant corporations, especially fossil fuel companies, which wield influence directly through grants they make to the UC and through lobbying to shape federal research funding priorities.

The question of whether or not the UC can help lead the nation away from fossil fuels isn't so much a matter of whether its scientists and engineers can devise the most clever clean-energy technologies, be they advanced solar cells or green-energy storage batteries. The UC has shown time and again that its scientists and scholars can push the limits of technology and knowledge in any area. Instead, the real answer as to whether the UC can take the lead on energy and climate will be determined by the political choices the institution makes with respect to fossil fuels.

To make the UC a true leader in the fight against climate change, its students have been trying to convince the board of regents to follow them. Students began to rally around the idea of divestment more than a year ago, and attended regents meetings to explain their plan, which focuses on the UC dropping its investments in the two hundred largest oil, natural gas, and coal companies.

Students also passed referendums at nine of the ten UC campuses calling on the regents to divest. "We don't just represent a few environmental groups or our campaign," said Victoria Fernandez, a UC Berkeley student and a leader in the divestment campaign. "Those of us asking for divestment, we represent pretty much all UC students."

In January, student leaders of the Fossil Free UC campaign met with regents Norman Pattiz, Bonnie Reiss, and Paul Wachter, and together they decided to create a task force to study the UC's investments. The task force members include Fernandez and Alden Phinney, a student at UC Santa Cruz; regents Pattiz, Reiss, and Wachter; professor Kammen of Berkeley and professor Mary Gilly of UC Irvine; and several advisers with scientific and investment expertise. The task force is led by the UC's new Chief Investment Officer Jagdeep Bachher.

"The task force has had several meetings, and is continuing to meet, in preparation for presenting its recommendations to the UC Board of Regents at the September meeting," said UC spokesperson Steve Montiel. "Determining how best to invest UC funds is ultimately the responsibility of the board of regents." Montiel said the task force will make its recommendation through Bachher to the regents' committee on investments. The committee on investments will then make a recommendation to the entire board of regents, which is expected to consider the issue at its upcoming meeting on September 17 and 18 in San Francisco.

Students, however, have been disappointed with the task force so far. "We've video conferenced three times, once for one hour, and most recently two hours, but it has been pretty frustrating because the quality of the deliberations hasn't been that good," said Fernandez.

Still, Fernandez said some of the regents really care about the issue and seem to be leaning toward action. Pattiz, a media industry executive, told students that the purpose of divestment is "to make a splash," and to "sway public opinion." Fernandez said Reiss, who served as education secretary under Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger in 2006 and now runs the Schwarzenegger Institute for State and Global Policy, "seems to really care about the issues, and cares what the students think."


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