Students push for University divestment from fossil fuels, Plan Nord

Petition faces “political stigma” and inactive committee

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A group of students, Decorporatize McGill, recently launched a petition urging McGill to divest its holdings in fossil fuel companies and firms directly involved in the Plan Nord, the Quebec government’s controversial plan to develop the natural resources extraction sector in the north of the province. The petition will be presented to the Committee to Advise on Matters of Social Responsibility (CAMSR), a Board of Governors committee that last convened in April 2009.

McGill’s endowment totals $983 million, according to the December 2011 report on the Publicly Traded Equity Holdings of the University that was released after an Access to Information request filed by U3 Economics student Christopher Bangs.

The University invests in 14 companies that extract tar sands and an additional 13 that lobbied for Plan Nord, according to a statement released by Decorporatize.

McGill invests in 35 of the top 100 companies that the London-based Carbon Tracker Initiative have identified as having the largest carbon reserves in coal and the top 100 companies with the largest oil and gas reserves, according to the group.

The total amount of McGill’s endowment currently invested in fossil fuel companies and Plan Nord is not currently available – nor have smaller corporations involved with fossil fuels and Plan Nord, in which the University may also invest, been listed.

According to Curtis Murphy, a student involved in organizing the petition and the greater environmental initiative, the petition had just over 200 signatures as of noon last Wednesday and will be submitted before the end of the Fall 2012 semester. Their tentative deadline is December 16.

CAMSR will only review petitions supported by 300 signatures with a fully documented brief identifying the social injury that is effected by the investment. A company will not be deemed to cause social injury, however, if it merely does business with companies that do.

The petition is “not about forcing McGill to divest, but [presenting] an opportunity to do something positive and also live up to the values of a research institution that is interested in science and the environment,” Murphy told The Daily.

The petition is part of a greater campaign across North America, where students at 33 other universities have also begun to take action.

Murphy explained that this doesn’t have to be a choice between the environment and the economy.

“We need to question the political stigma that says we need the tar sands to power our economy,” he said.

However, political stigma may not be the only obstacle to the campaign – CAMSR’s inactivity will also likely pose a problem.

In the last five years, CAMSR has met twice: once in 2007 to consider a petition for McGill to divest from tobacco investments – which resulted in a recommendation made to the Board to divest from tobacco which was ultimately approved – and once in 2009 to consider a petition for McGill to divest from holdings in Sudan, which did not result in a recommendation.

Current CAMSR student member and Post-Graduate Students’ Society (PGSS) Secretary-General Jonathan Mooney told The Daily he has “been communicating with the Secretariat to try to move forward with the terms of reference review, but there have been some challenges in terms of scheduling.”

Last year’s CAMSR student member and former SSMU President Maggie Knight faced similar scheduling conflicts.

“The way [CAMSR] is currently structured, it is entirely reactive and has no proactive mandate,” Knight told The Daily. “Realistically, reforming this committee is unlikely to be a priority for the administration.”

However, Mooney said he is confident that the committee will meet “if the petition has met the requirements in the regulations.”

Similar motions to petition McGill to divest holdings from tar sands and Plan Nord have been submitted to SSMU and AUS during General Assemblies this year. Both passed, but only with consultative bodies since quorum was not met.