Campaign calls for TRU to take a stand against climate change

Some students want the university to divest from oil and gas, but TRU says it won’t

Kevin Pankewich and Tristan Muhr are two of the student organizers behind the campaign calling for TRU to distance itself from the fossil fuel industry. (Sarah Kirschmann/The Omega)

Kevin Pankewich and Tristan Muhr are two of the student organizers behind the campaign calling for TRU to distance itself from the fossil fuel industry. (Sarah Kirschmann/The Omega)

Campaigners are once again calling on TRU to sell off its oil and gas holdings in response to continuing concerns over climate change.

As of April 2015, energy-related holdings made up 2.9 per cent of TRU’s investments.

The campaign was started last April by the TRUSU Socialists Club and an information session was organized by students and club members Kevin Pankewich and Tristan Muhr. They called on the university to sell off any oil and gas-related holdings it has.

“We’re saying it’s not okay to have investments in the fossil fuel industry in the midst of a climate crisis,” Pankewich said.

However, TRU’s vice-president of administration and finance Matt Milovick stated in no uncertain terms that TRU will not consider divestment, no matter how many people support it.

“Divestment, as a strategy in terms of oil and gas – it doesn’t work. It’s an ideal…our society is still fossil fuel dependent,” Milovick said. “These campaigns tend to be very ideological.”

Pankewich and Muhr gave the example of divestment’s role in ending apartheid in South Africa to show how successful it can be. However, Milovick gave the same example to underscore a different message. He pointed out that our society and economy would collapse if oil and gas were cut off in the same way as South Africa was in the 1980s.

TRU is clearly not in a position to single-handedly bring down the fossil fuel industry. However, this raises the question of what divestment would accomplish.

“Divestment is an attack on the cultural capital of the fossil fuel industry, rather than the capital itself,” Pankewich said.

The campaign organizers see being invested in the fossil fuel industry and being a sustainable institution as mutually exclusive.

“We should be looking for alternative [funding]…that promotes environmental sustainability,” Muhr said.

According to Milovick, this is easier said than done.

“There aren’t too many ‘green funds’ that have a sustainable return, and we do have a responsibility as financial managers to ensure that there is that return,” he said.

Milovick also explained that it would be technically difficult for TRU to guarantee it was “completely oil and gas free,” as there is constant movement in their bonds, holdings and mutual funds.

Instead, he sees TRU as doing enough by following the United Nations principles for responsible investment (PRI). PRI is “the best outcome we can hope for. It balances our environmental, social and governance responsibilities while ensuring there is a return,” Milovick said.

Kinder Morgan has also pledged money to TRU if the Trans Mountain pipeline is constructed, and KGHM Ajax Inc. has partnered with the school to research mining reclamation. Pankewich doesn’t believe an institution can be neutral on an issue in which it has a financial stake, however.

“When a company does that, they’re trying to buy support from an otherwise critically thinking institution,” he said.

The movement has so far focused on educating people about climate change and the divestment movement. Approximately 45 students were at the first information session, along with faculty members Michael Mehta and Cynthia Ross Friedman. While TRUSU has no official position on the campaign, individuals inside it have shown their support.

Muhr sees investment in fossil fuels as more than just a financial decision.

“It’s about picking a side,” he said. “Are you going to pick the side of the big money, or are you going to pick the side of the future?”

The club will hold a documentary night and divestment information session on Oct. 20 at 7 p.m. in the Irving K. Barber Centre. The group’s regular meetings are open to the public and are normally at 7:30 p.m. on Thursdays in the TRUSU Boardroom.