26 Jun 2013

Dirty Investments At Our National University

By Farz Edraki

The Australian National University last year divested its Metgasco CSG shares - while secretly buying up shares in Santos. Farz Edraki on the ANU's faded 'green' image

Should universities that promote themselves as pioneers of environment research put their investment portfolios where their mouths are?

Last month, it was revealed that the Australian National University (ANU) held shares worth over $80 million in at least eight fossil fuel companies. It took an FOI request from ANU students to bring this information to the public’s attention, after the university blocked attempts to publicise its investment portfolio and ANU Council discussions on investments in companies in coal, oil, or gas industries. See the documents here.

The ANU was privately investing in these companies at the same time that it publicly divested its shares – over $1 million of its $1.7 billion assets – in Metgasco, a coal seam gas company.

The ANU withdrew its shares in Metgasco in 2012, after an agreement with the ANU’s Investment Office and the Vice-Chancellor, Professor Ian Young, who acted on “concerns from various parties regarding perceived environmental impacts of coal seam gas mining,” according to an official statement.

Although ANU appeared to be cleaning up its investment portfolio, it was purchasing shares in Santos faster than it was divesting the Metgasco shares.

Fossil fuel companies that use coal, oil, and gas reserves have a recognised impact on the levels of carbon dioxide emitted into the atmosphere. Just last week, the Climate Commission warned that fossil fuels should be “left in the ground”.

Do universities, as institutions of higher learning, have a responsibility to invest in ethical companies? At the very least, should universities be transparent about their investment portfolios?

Home to the Climate Change Institute and the “ANUGreen” initiative promoting sustainability on campus, The ANU advertises itself as a “world class” institution which values research in climate change policy.

Young maintained that the ANU should be a “national leader, in terms of policy and research issues” at his first press conference in 2010, when it was first announced that he would take over from Ian Chubb as Vice-Chancellor.

Three years later Young has pursued a policy that is directly at odds with the university's stated environmental stance.

“The ANU itself thinks it has responsibility to lead on sustainability issues. Just look at all its commitments to being a sustainability 'role model',” Tom Swann, a member of Fossil Free ANU, who lodged the FOI request told NM. “Failing to take leadership will damage ANU's reputation, because it will get left behind. That's already starting to happen.”

This month, San Fransisco State University became the first public university to divest from coal and tar sands companies, with more divestments from other fossil fuel companies to come. Other universities in the U.S. have also announced that they will divest their endowments from fossil fuel companies, including Vermont’s Sterling College, and Hampshire College.

It’s not just universities that have taken this step. In Australia, the Uniting Church blacklisted mining and coal seam gas companies from its investment portfolio.

Swann thinks that universities should be transparent about their investments: “I see no reason why universities shouldn't disclose where they put our money. The ANU has been forced to do this, and really they should be publishing it proactively.”

“There is a general issue here: are universities public institutions expected to be open in their financial operations, or are they like corporations selling services on their own terms?”

Where do other Australian universities stand on ethical investment? When approached for comment, neither the University of Sydney nor Melbourne University told NM whether or not their endowment funds include shares in fossil fuel companies. However, both universities have environmental, social, and governance principles that are – in theory – applied by their investment managers.

The ANU has no such policy at present, although the ANU intends to roll out its first Socially Responsible Investment (SRI) Policy later this year. 

“It is a new policy, one that will replace the informal ethical investment guidelines that have been in place for more than 20 years,” a university spokesperson said.

Swann sees this as a small victory for Fossil Free ANU, but emphasises that public input will be essential in making sure this SRI policy is more than mere lip-service. “We will be doing everything we can to make sure it knows the ANU community doesn't think it's 'socially responsible' for it to invest in fossil fuels," he said.

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Posted Thursday, June 27, 2013 - 23:01

Excellent article . By investing in gas company shares the ANU (at which I worked as a Research Fellow over 40 years ago) is variously irresponsible, anti-science, anti-youth, anti-Planet, anti-Humanity and anti-Biosphere.

Thus Australian Treasury modeling indicates that under climate criminal Labor Carbon Tax and ETS policies Australia's Domestic GHG pollution will increase from 578 Mt CO2-e in 2010 to 621 Mt CO2-e by 2020. Labor's climate criminal policy of unlimited coal, gas and iron ore exports means that Australia's Domestic plus Exported GHG pollution will increase from 1,512 Mt CO2-e in 2009 to 2,578 Mt CO2-e in 2020.

Climate criminal Lib-Lab support for unlimted coal, gas and iron ore  exports means that Australia will exceed by a factor of three (3) the whole world's terminal greenhouse gas (GHG) pollution budget that must not be exceeded if the world is to have a 75% chance of avoiding a catastrophic 2C temperature rise. It is estimated that climate change inaction may result in the avoidable deaths of 10 billion people this century (see Gideon Polya, "100 Reasons Why Australians Must Reject Gillard Labor", Countercurrents, 24 June 2013: http://www.countercurrents.org/polya240613.htm ).

Despite the worsening global warming crisis due to ever-increasing greenhouse gas (GHG) pollution, the world is paradoxically experiencing a gas boom and a gas a rush throughout the world. While the world urgently needs to implement 100% renewable energy and concomitantly decrease and eventually cease GHG pollution, massive corporate spin falsely asserts that “gas is clean” and that a first step to a clean energy future is to replace coal burning for power with gas burning.  These are extraordinary falsehoods because methane (CH4; a major constituent of natural gas) leaks (2-8% in the US ) and has a Global Warning Potential (GWP) 105 times greater than that of carbon dioxide (CO2) on a 20 year time frame and considering aerosol impacts.  Thus, depending upon the degree of gas leakage, burning gas for power can be much dirtier GHG-wise than burning coal (see Gideon Polya, "Expert Witness Testimony To Stop Gas-Fired Power Plant Installation" , Countercurrents, 14 June 2013: http://www.countercurrents.org/polya140613.htm ).

Thanks to its management (from where do our universities dredge up these people?) ANU is evidently joining other Austtralian universities at the bottom of the barrel. Thus the University of NSW just gave an honorary doctorate to an  extreme right wing Australian politician involved in the war criminal illegal invasion oif Iraq that killed 2.7 million people through violence or war-imposed deprivation (see "Iraqi Holocaust Iraqi Genocide": https://sites.google.com/site/iraqiholocaustiraqigenocide/ ); Curtin University has ordered its academics to re-apply for their jobs (!!!) ; and 18 Australian Universities fund the academic-based web magazine The Conversation that has an appalling record  of censorship not just of academic opinion but of anti-racist Jewish Australian opinion (see "Censorship by The Conversation": https://sites.google.com/site/mainstreammediacensorship/censorship-by   ).