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SURGE to petition for divestment

Students United for a Responsible Global Environment plans to petition the University to divest its holdings in fossil fuel companies, according to the group’s vice president of policy.

The initiative follows similar campaigns at other Ivy League institutions, including Penn, Harvard and Brown.

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Isaac Lederman ’15, SURGE’s co-president, said his group found investment in fossil fuel-producing companies incompatible with the University’s values.

“It is immoral for the University to invest in [fossil fuel] companies, especially because the University is supposed to look after the planet that we, the students, are going to inherit,” explained Lederman. “We’re demanding that the University ask the people who manage its money to take that money out of the biggest fossil fuel companies that spend millions corrupting our democracy and polluting our planet.”

SURGE is specifically targeting 200 companies deemed by www.gofossilfree.org to be the world’s largest producers of oil, natural gas and coal. Headlining the list are oil and gas giants Lukoil Holdings, Exxon Mobil Corporation and BP PLC, along with Severstal JSC, a mining corporation.

However, it remains unclear whether the University holds equity in any of these companies.

“Regarding specific investments, we do not discuss the specifics of our endowment portfolio in order to retain a competitive advantage in the financial market,” explained University Spokesperson Martin Mbugua.

The list is sponsored by 350.org, an online organization dedicated to a “global grassroots movement to solve the climate crisis,” according to its website.

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Lederman said his group fully supported 350.org’s petition to discourage investment in these firms.

“These companies have over 80 percent of proven reserves under their control, and they are intent on burning all those reserves,” Lederman explained. “And they use their armies of lobbyists to fight action on climate progress.”

SURGE’s announcement follows a host of similar lobbies by groups across the Ivy League.

On Feb. 6, Cornell’s Student Assembly passed a resolution calling for divestment from fossil fuel companies by the end of 2020. Just last Tuesday, Penn’s recently founded “Divestment at Penn” group announced that 60 students have signed 350.org’s petition.

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After Harvard undergraduates voted overwhelmingly in favor of a referendum calling for the creation of a “social choice fund,” administrators agreed to create that fund in December. That decision was followed by a statement last week announcing the appointment of a vice president of sustainable investing.

SURGE — with a current membership of eight students — has received official endorsements from Greening Princeton, the Princeton Equality Project and the Princeton Pride Alliance, Lederman said.

Since going live on Monday morning, SURGE’s online petition has received 184 signatures, including those of current students, parents and alumni.

That support will be necessary for the campaign to achieve its stated goals.

The University channels all concerns about its investment policy through the Resources Committee, a subsidiary of the Council of the Princeton University Community. In this capacity, the Resources Committee reviews petitions and campaigns for divestment and can recommend policy changes to the Board of Trustees. The group, composed of faculty, undergraduate and graduate student representatives, last discussed a faculty petition for divestment from firearms manufacturers.

In its guidelines, the Resources Committee specifies that “sustained campus interest” must be demonstrated to warrant official review of a petition.

The Committee last recommended divestment in 2006, when the University chose to withdraw investment from companies associated with the genocide in Darfur. Last spring, the Princeton University Investment Company, which manages the endowment, announced it would stop investing in the hospitality firm HEI, which was accused of workers’ rights violations.

Although several campus groups had called for divestment from HEI, PRINCO said the decision not to invest further was “based purely on business reasons.”  

Despite the fact that SURGE’s demands are on a larger scale than those of the HEI petitioners, the group said it hopes the University will divest from fossil fuel companies in the same manner. Their demands call upon Nassau Hall to immediately freeze investments in these 200 companies, in addition to granting the University five years to draw down all existing holdings.

Since PRINCO does not publish details of its specific investments, it remains unclear whether the University holds equity in any of the 200 companies listed at freefossilfuel.org. 

The Princeton Coalition on Endowment Responsibility, an organization formed in fall 2011, met with the Resources Committee in January to discuss a proposal for increased endowment transparency. 

At the end of the last fiscal year, the University’s endowment totaled $17 billion after an annual return of 3.1 percent.  

Due to a reporting error, an earlier version of this article misstated the founding date of the group Princeton Coalition for Endowment Responsibility. The ‘Prince’ regrets the error.  

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