Energy & Environment

Dartmouth to wind down fossil fuel investments

A photo of the Sherman Fairchild Sciences complex at Dartmouth College in Hanover, New Hampshire, taken from the tower of Baker tower. Photo via Wikimedia Commons

Editor’s Note: This story by John Lippman and Claire Potter first appeared in the Valley News Oct. 8.

In the wake of similar announcements by other universities and years of protest from activist alumni, Dartmouth College said Friday that it would end investments in fossil fuels as part of an array of plans “to help address the ongoing climate crisis, both locally and globally.”

On the eve of its Homecoming Weekend in Hanover, New Hampshire, Dartmouth announced on its website that it would no longer invest in private funds with fossil fuel holdings, a wind-down that nonetheless is expected to take several years until the contracts expire. (The college in 2017 said it would no longer make new direct investments in companies with fossil fuel interests and then early last year said it would pull out of those direct investments altogether.)

Private funds with fossil fuel investments account for less than 5 percent of the college’s $6 billion endowment, according to Dartmouth, which would put the value of the holdings at about $300 million or below.

“Our research led us to pivot away from fossil fuels and seek investment opportunities in the clean energy sector,” Alice Ruth, CEO of Dartmouth’s investment office, which manages the college’s endowment, said in the announcement. She added that fossil fuel investments will decline “over time to zero.”

Dartmouth did not define how long “over time” means, although private equity funds generally have life cycles — that is the time participants are required under contract to remain invested or risk penalties for an early exit — of up to 12 years.

Harvard last month said it also would wind down its investments in fossil fuels, joining other universities, such as Oxford, Cambridge, Brown and Cornell, the New York Times reported.

In recent years Dartmouth also has taken various measures aimed at reducing its campus carbon footprint, and Friday’s announcement “anticipates” advancing the college’s previously stated goal to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 80 percent by the year 2050. Instead, it is now aiming to get to net-zero emissions by then, Dartmouth said.

“As the consequence of a rapidly warming planet becomes clearer every day, coupled with rapid development of exciting, new technologies, we must aim higher and be more ambitious in our goals,” Dartmouth President Phil Hanlon said in the announcement.

The college also noted that it previously has committed $400 million in investments out of its current $3 billion “Call to Lead” fundraising campaign to fund academic research, education programs and centers aimed at climate change solutions.

That includes $200 million for the Thayer School of Engineering’s new Center for Engineering and Computer Science complex; the $80 million donated by the family of Canadian oil giant Irving Oil for the Irving Institute for Energy and Society scheduled to be completed this year; and a gift for the Revers Center for Energy from Tuck School of Business alumnus and ArcLight Capital co-founder Daniel Revers.

Some Dartmouth graduates have been pushing for divestment for nearly 10 years, and they saw Dartmouth’s announcement about fossil fuel investments as a hard-won victory.

“For Dartmouth to divest means that we have gotten to a point in our community, our institution, that community members — our students, our faculty, our staff and our alumni — understand that climate change is a deeply moral issue and systemic issue rooted in injustice,” said Leehi Yona, a 2016 alumna who founded the student activist group Divest Dartmouth in 2012.

She said that the college’s announcement came as a “surprise” considering the pushback activists faced over the years.

“Some people thought that it was not a worthy goal, that it was too radical and extreme,” she said as she described Divest Dartmouth’s early days.

Since 2012, she said that student activists have garnered thousands of signatures on petitions and organized protests, including a 400-person protest in 2016.

Morgan Curtis also was one of the movement’s early leaders, and also welcomed the news. After she graduated in 2014, she started Dartmouth Alumni for Climate Action, which now has about 600 members. She went so far as interrupting Hanlon’s speech to reunion classes in 2019 with a statement of her own, and a large orange banner announcing “DIVEST.”

“It’s about the social license it gives the fossil fuel industry when an institution of higher learning says this is a valid way to make money to educate future generations,” she said. “Divestment says, ‘We no longer say this is a viable industry for the future.’ ”

But not everyone in the Dartmouth community supports the decision to move the endowment out of fossil fuels, noting the investments have been highly profitable in the past.

“My argument is primarily financial,” said Ishaan Jajodia, a 2020 graduate. “The college has a moral imperative to ensure people get as much financial aid as possible. The endowment is not anything more than a tool. … I would be more concerned about the best-performing stocks I could get.”

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