It’s time for the UT System to divest from fossil fuels

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Photo Credit: Alexandra Vanderhider | Daily Texan Staff

The University of Texas System is making money. A lot of it. Several recent articles by the Texan covered recent growth of our endowment fund to $31 billion, surpassing Yale to rival only Harvard in size. The UT Investment Management Company, created by the Board of Regents in 1996, has achieved huge year-over-year growth in our endowment funds led by Thomas Britt Harris IV. We know that much of this wealth is gained from investments in fossil fuels, but are we okay with what that means for UT’s environmental impact?

UT’s relationship with the fossil fuel industry should not be a surprise as the flagship institution of a state famous for its oil boom. Today, perhaps the most prominent leadership figure connected to oil and gas and the UT System is Kelcy Warren, who is awaiting Senate confirmation to the Board of Regents following his appointment by Gov. Greg Abbott. Warren is the founder and CEO of Energy Transfer Partners — responsible for the Dakota Access Pipeline routed through disputed indigenous lands, sacred sites and underneath Lake Oahe, the primary source of water for the Standing Rock Sioux and millions of people downstream. Despite a historic display of peaceful resistance and solidarity among hundreds of Native and Indigenous communities at Standing Rock, Energy Transfer Partner — in collaboration with local, state and federal police, as well as private security forces — proceeded with the pipeline’s construction anyway. While this recent episode, which gained international attention, signals Warren’s strong commitment to fossil fuel interests, he is not alone among UT System leaders and key decision makers with ties to the industry. Other regents, members of UT’s Investment Management Company Board and UT Administration have ties to fossil fuel industries, and Exxon, ConocoPhillips and British Petroleum sit as elite level donors to McCombs school, among others.

Beyond the administration and donors, the UT endowment funds are loaded with fossil fuels investments across the world. Among the listed investments in public audits are numerous domestic and international petroleum companies, oil field services providers and coal-burning energy providers. Beyond the directly visible, untold investments in fossil fuels lie within hedge funds under layers of privacy. All told, it is fair to say that directly within our investment portfolio lies tens of millions of dollars wrapped up in fossil fuels, directly contributing to our worsening climate crisis. We see a similar disregard for the environment in UT’s land usage. Millions each year are made leasing University Lands in West Texas to fracking and drilling under the direction of Mark Houser, himself a former energy executive. 

So, what is the responsibility of our University in a time of climate crisis? As a top-tier modern university, dedicated to high quality education and research, the UT community should reflect seriously its relationship with the fossil fuel industry. From a moral angle, with conservative estimates giving us 12 years to fully address the existing causes of excessive carbon emissions, we must act to reduce our part in global emissions if we say we take the health of the environment seriously. Financially, as climate change worsens and green technology continues to improve, this is in fact a sound investment that will allow our endowment funds to continue to grow. A meaningful first step in committing to sustainable investment practices is signing on to the United Nations’ Principles of Responsible Investment initiative that assists institutions in centering environmentally and socially conscious investments. Without enforcement and oversight by both the student body and administration themselves, this would not go far enough. 

Over the next few years, we must begin to take the prospect of fully divesting the UT system’s financial assets from fossil fuels seriously. Endowment funds, land, donorships — all of it. This is not without precedent. Many schools and institutions across the country and world have begun to take such action. These successes were not without conflict between students and administrations, but the result has been a growing tide of divestment across American universities. To achieve this at UT will require mass movement by both students and faculty alike. As is clear from the appointment of Regent Warren, the statehouse and financial interests stand starkly against any movement towards divestment. It must be asserted that as students and workers within the University System we have a right to assert by what principles and ethical standards we invest our endowment. If we in the Heart of Texas can stand up to fossil fuels, students all over the country will see that a sustainable future is possible. What starts here can change the world or it can help destroy it. We must decide which. 

Bicart is an international relations and global studies junior. Costigan is an educationalpsychology graduate student