Environmental groups request transparency in fuel investments

Environmental group representatives Tianna Shaw-Wakeman (left) and Nathaniel Hyman (right) among signers in a letter asking for relase of fossil fuel investments (Vincent Leo| Daily Trojan) .

The Environmental Student Assembly and Environmental Core submitted a letter to President Carol Folt’s office calling for USC to disclose its investment in fossil fuels. The move, according to the letter, would increase transparency with regard to the portion of the University endowment that funds the nonrenewable energy industry. 

The letter was written and signed by ECore representative Tianna Shaw-Wakeman and ESA co-executive director Nathaniel Hyman. It was also co-sponsored by members of the Undergraduate Student Government, Graduate Student Government, the Office of Sustainability and professors Rob McConnell and Stephen Gratwick.

The letter states that as USC experiences a transitional period with its new president, there is an opportunity to emphasize University-wide goals that prioritize sustainability. Hyman said a shift away from fossil fuel investment would be an important step for the University in terms of sustainability, an area that Folt has made a hallmark of her presidency.

“The University of Southern California has a tremendous opportunity through divestment to become part of that economic transition to a more sustainable and just energy economy,” Hyman said.

Folt has not yet issued a public response to this letter, but the Office of the President has reached out to the students involved and is currently working to set up a meeting. 

“I met with Dr. Folt earlier today and she was hoping to schedule a meeting with you and any of the other members of the USC community who co-sponsored the letter to discuss USC’s energy investments and our future plans,” Chief of Staff Rene Pak wrote in an email to the Daily Trojan. “As she is only 6 months into her presidency, she is just getting started with her review of this area but is in early conversations with our board and investment committee.”

Open town halls and regular letters from Folt demonstrate the current administration’s commitment to transparency, and the letter asks that this transparency extend to disclosing where the University’s endowment money is invested. 

“Endowment spending, which has historically been impervious to inquiry from students, staff, faculty and the public, must also be included in the University’s push towards transparency,” the letter read.

The University’s current endowment is $5.54 billion. If less than 1% is invested in fossil fuels, millions of University dollars are funding the industry. 

The letter asserts that although USC is lessening its carbon output and expanding the Office of Sustainability, these actions help the University catch up with other schools, not put it ahead.

“Though USC is a trailblazer in matters of development and research, USC has lacked behind peers in sustainability,” the letter read. “Divestment is our chance.”

In 2016, the University of Massachusetts divested all fossil fuel holdings, as did Syracuse University. Columbia, Georgetown and Stanford universities all divested from coal industries, with Stanford pulling $18.7 billion of its endowment from stock in coal mining companies in 2014.

USG Director of Sustainability Affairs Isabella Caltabiano, who co-sponsored the letter, said it served as a way to hold the University responsible for some of the past energy investments made by its donors. 

“It was really calling to President Folt to first just let us know what USC has invested in fossil fuel,” Caltabiano said. “If you ever look into our history, [Edward] Doheny was an oil tycoon, and there are other names, especially involved in USC’s campus, that have come from oil money.”

Hyman said the primary goal of the letter is for the administration to disclose the amount of money the University invests in what he called unclean energy — unrenewable energy that often contributes to pollution such as burning coal or gas — and the long-term goal is to use that money to fund clean energy.

“It’s important that we don’t just use those funds to divest from something that is tangibly and verifiably hurting their students and hurting the public,” Hyman said. “[It’s] also an opportunity for us to invest in renewables, which now have a pretty impressive return on investment — perhaps even more profitable for endowment than that of all the outdated, archaic fossil fuels such as natural gas, petroleum and coal.”

While the letter addresses the current administration, campus environmental leaders realize this situation was inherited.

“This letter was in no way, shape or form trying to shame President Folt that she is not doing enough,” Caltabiano said. “In comparison to the previous administration, this has really been an incredible move forward, and I think that letter was just trying to, to a degree, ask her what the student body wants and demonstrate that this is something we’re interested in.” 

As of Tuesday, the University has started conversations with the group to discuss its current divestments.