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A national debate over university investments in industries that contribute to climate change has come to Utah, a state heavily invested in the fossil fuels blamed for elevated levels of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere.
After a year of campuswide discussions, the University of Utah's Academic Senate on Monday will weigh competing resolutions on the question of "divestment." One argues the U. has a moral obligation to drop its stake in coal and other carbon-belching industries even though such a move would anger Utah's political leadership and alienate some corporate supporters that donate to the school and provide research grants.
The Senate's more moderate resolution urges "a transition towards climate responsible investment opportunities," such as renewable sources, energy conservation and emission reductions.
The Academic Senate's president, Bill Johnson, a geology professor who has helped referee the discussion, opposes divestment, arguing it is a divisive political gesture while accomplishing nothing to reduce actual carbon emissions.
"There are good arguments on both sides of the issue," Johnson said. "If there is so much good we could do without making this political statement, why should we? Why don't we focus on working to reduce carbon emissions?"
The state's flagship university manages more than $2 billion in investments, including an endowment worth more than $700 million. About $42 million, or 7 percent, is parked in the energy sector, according to a report released last year by an ad hoc school senate panel exploring investment responsibility.
The report urged greater transparency into specific companies the U. invests in and how those investments perform, while calling for principle-based policies to guide investments.
"Like other institutions, we have discovered that it is a complicated matter. ... The Senate asked two committees to work together to examine how endowment investment decisions might be made consistent with the university's longstanding and continuing commitment to sustainability," U. spokeswoman Maria O'Mara said. "We respect the thoughtful process that the Senate has engaged in and look forward to its recommendations."
The U.'s Investment Management Office handles campus endowments, while the school's board of trustees ultimately decides investment policies.
Both resolutions to be considered Monday in the Academic Senate are premised on the scientific consensus that burning oil, gas and coal has increased atmospheric concentrations of carbon dioxide to dangerous levels. Utah lawmakers generally dismiss these concerns and have passed numerous resolutions challenging federal policies aimed at curbing carbon emissions.
The Legislature's stance gives even greater impetus to divest, according to one campus proponent, librarian Joan Gregory.
"We are in this cycle, this situation where the fossil fuel industry is deciding everything. It's deciding funding for the university, who is in our Legislature," said Gregory, who chairs the senate's ad hoc Re-Investment Dialogue Committee, which is proposing the divestment resolution "That's the reason divestment is so important. We have to break the cycle."
Her committee's resolution says the U.'s integrity is at stake.
"Divestment is one of the most powerful statements that an institution can make with its money. Divestment makes a statement and that statement leads people and institutions to take action," it states.
The resolution invokes divestment campaigns that decades ago targeted South Africa and contributed to peaceful regime change in a country long ruled by an oppressive white minority. But while apartheid was easy to condemn in 1985, fossil fuels have enabled modern life as we know it and underpin the economies of several Utah counties.
Other academic senators are concerned that if the U. takes a political stand against fossil fuels, it would be expected to use its investment decisions against social ills arising from other industries, such as agriculture and pharmaceuticals.
Several prominent universities, such as Standford, Georgetown and the University of California system, sold investments in coal in 2014, while hanging onto billions in other fossil fuel investments.
But the politics of coal divestment is much more treacherous in Utah, where lawmakers deploy public dollars to shore up the flagging coal industry and to fix the Uinta Basin's oil-transportation bottlenecks.
"We understand the moral aspect," Johnson said. "It is hypocrisy to force an institution to divest when personally you don't. It doesn't mean they don't believe in climate change. I suspect every one of us does. The question is what do we about it. I think it's a diversion."
Divestment proponents contend the use of fossil fuels is a "structural issue," not always subject to individual choices.
"The real hypocrisy is in our universities agreeing that we must transition to a low-carbon world as soon as possible, while at the same time betting that the fossil fuel corporations we invest in will continue to deliver a steady cash stream to us now and in the future," states the reinvestment resolution. "We have no right to invest in the destruction of the climate our students will inherit."
Brian Maffly covers public lands for The Salt Lake Tribune. Maffly can be reached at email@example.com or 801-257-8713. Twitter: @brianmaffly