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Middlebury College to divest from fossil fuel companies

MIDDLEBURY — Middlebury College’s board of trustees voted unanimously on Jan. 26 to fully withdraw over time the institution’s $1.1 billion endowment’s investments in the fossil fuel industry.
The divestment vote came in the form of support for a plan called Middlebury Energy2028, which also includes new initiatives to reduce energy consumption and eliminate the use of fossil fuels on the college campus.
It was the second time the college’s board of trustees has voted on whether to divest its fossil fuel stocks: the board in 2013 rejected divestment.
President Laurie Patton said at a press conference on Tuesday that the college will withdraw about $55 million of direct investments in fossil fuel corporations over the next 15 years.
At the same time, Middlebury has not committed to divesting from general index and general equity funds, which tend to include some fossil fuel investments. Such funds account for about 1 percent of the school’s endowment, according to the college.
The announcement came just four days after the student groups Divest Middlebury and Sunday Night Environmental Group marched on Jan. 25 to hand-deliver letters of support from students and faculty for the Middlebury Energy2028initiative to school trustees.
Patton announced the resolution’s approval during a Jan. 29 press conference held in Wilson Hall, where she told about 100 students, community members, faculty and staff that the college will reduce the value of its investments in fossil fuel companies by 25 percent in five years, by 50 percent in eight years and by 100 percent within 15 years.
With the trustees’ vote in support of Middlebury Energy2028, the college has committed to using exclusively renewable energy sources not derived from fossil fuels for electric and thermal power by 2028.
MEMBERS OF THE Middlebury College student group Divest Middlebury and a key supporter prepare Tuesday for a live broadcast about the college’s decision to divest from fossil fuels. Weybridge resident Fran Putnam, front row left, is joined by students, front from left, Leith Taranta, Zoe Grodsky and Cora Kircher, and back row, Alec Fleischer, Gabe Desmond and Conner Wertz.
Independent photo/Abagael Giles
The college, according to a press release, plans to get all of its electricity from renewable resources in part by “investing in solar and, possibly, hydropower” in Vermont. Currently Middlebury College gets most of the energy it uses for heating and cooling from an on-campus biomass gasification plant, which also produces 15 to 20 percent of the college’s electricity needs. The college also intends to eliminate the use of natural gas as a supplemental energy source for the biomass plant by 2028.
Patton said that Middlebury will reduce energy consumption on its campus by 25 percent by 2028 by renovating several large academic buildings and putting in place better energy monitoring across campus. The school has also vowed to make climate change a bigger part of the curriculum by offering new undergraduate research opportunities.
The college announced it is considering a self-imposed, institution-wide carbon tax. If the college chooses that route, it would tax its own carbon emissions and put the funds toward improving its energy efficiency and expanding its use of renewable energy.
“This is a floor and not a ceiling and we hope to get there sooner than 2028,” said Patton.
She also praised students for their leadership on the initiative, to applause from the audience.
In divesting from fossil-fuel investments, Middlebury joined more than 1,000 institutions around the world that have done the same. According to the climate-activist nonprofit 350.org, the divestment movement has so far taken more than $8 trillion from fossil fuel companies.
Middlebury College’s undergraduate Environmental Studies program is the oldest in the country, and its student groups were some of the first to advocate for divestment. In 2008, the Sunday Night Environmental Group and activist, author and Middlebury College Schumann Distinguished Scholar Bill McKibben launched 350.org, now a leading national climate organization.
In 2012, McKibben wrote an article for Rolling Stone Magazine in which he argued that oil companies had more carbon in their reserves than scientists said could safely be burned, and that if they carried out their business plans, irreversible climate change was inevitable.
The article, along with McKibben’s national tour that followed, launched a global movement to persuade universities, governments and companies to divest their resources from fossil fuel investments. The article and tour also sparked the founding of Divest Middlebury in 2013.
The same year, Middlebury College issued a statement regarding divestment, saying the institution was not yet ready to take such a risk with its endowment. Six years later, as the college is working to reduce what is now an annual $11.3 millionoperating deficit by cutting staff compensation costs, it has reversed that decision.
Concluding her presentation, Patton said, “I believe the heart of education is intergenerational responsibility and (the students) have reminded us of that.”
McKibben said this week the fact that stock in the fossil fuel sector has been performing poorly over the last five-to-six years helps colleges make such decisions.
McKibben applauded Middlebury students and Patton’s leadership in encouraging conversations on campus.
“Often at a college, people are only there for four years so things tend to die out. These guys figured out how to pass the torch along so each generation of students learned from the last,” he said.
Jeannie Bartlett, co-founder of Divest Middlebury and a member of the class of 2015, attended the press conference.
“The trustees vote to unanimously support fossil fuel divestment speaks to the power of student activism,” Bartlett said. “It took seven years of student organizing and a ‘no’ vote from the trustees in 2013 before divestment was achieved. I’m thrilled that Middlebury’s investments finally say that fossil fuel extraction is unacceptable.”  
For Leif Taranta, a Divest Middlebury student-organizer, learning to speak the language of finance was a key takeaway from the effort.
“I think a big part was negotiating the line between fiduciary responsibility and social responsibility. There is a common misconception that those two things are opposed,” Taranta said. “We wanted to show that divestment is in the fiduciary interest of our institution both in terms of how fossil fuel stocks are predicted to perform in the future and the fact that if climate change continues to accelerate, we won’t have a planet to live on.”   

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