OPIRG Guelph Submission re: Fossil Fuel Divestment

“We urgently need to get off oil to prevent a climate disaster for our People, not to dig a deeper hole.” — Grand Chief Stewart Phillip, Union of British Columbia Indian Chiefs

To the members of the Ad Hoc Committee on Special Action Requests and to our community,

The OPIRG Guelph Board of Directors and unionized staff join our voices together to support the call put forward by our action group, Fossil Free Guelph. In particular, we wish to fully endorse the position and submissions made by Fossil Free Guelph throughout this process. They have carried out the mandate of OPIRG Guelph and the supposed values of this institution with care and excellence.

But this can be of no surprise, as we have always stood by their work and hope that you will as well. Instead, we wish to put into words our additional feeling towards these issues.

  • Social Injury

Using the Yale Definition of Social Injury (“the injurious impact which the activities of a company are found to have on consumers, employees, or other persons, particularly including activities which violate, or frustrate the enforcement of, rules of domestic or international law intended to protect individuals against deprivation of health, safety, or basic freedoms.”),The University of Guelph  has set out to determine if their investments in some of the largest  fossil fuel companies constitutes such damage.

Fossil Free Guelph has provided for you a review of the scientific research detailing the information on the practical impacts of climate change on the determinants of health as well as the grave threat to safety posed by shifts in climate. As well, they have provided detailed accounts of the basic freedoms undermined by these corporations throughout territories in so-called North America and beyond. Their passionate presentations and pleas to you, as well as the many sent by those who have heard their call, should be clear enough to make this case for divestment. However, for a reminder, a brief review of some of these companies:

  • Exxon Mobil has been charged with 70 human rights, environment, labour, and safety offenses
    in the US alone. In 2001, eleven Indonesian villagers filed suit against ExxonMobil in US federal court alleging that the company was complicit in human rights abuses committed by Indonesian security forces in the province of Aceh.
  • Shougang Fushan Resources produces and sells coking coal products in China. It is principally engaged in mining of coking coal and production and sales of raw and clean coking coal. Coal is the most environmentally compromising fossil fuel resource.
  • Total Energy Services and Chevron have been accused of various human rights abuses in Burma. Soldiers working for Chevron and Total Energy Services have been accused of murder and forcing locals to do unpaid physical labour in Burma surrounding the Yadana pipeline which is a joint venture between Chevron, Total, a Thai energy company, and the government of Myanmar.

And many more as laid out in the initial report and further submissions from Fossil Free Guelph, with nothing to say of the colonial abuses carried out by companies locally (which is covered in point 3 below). But, none of us have to invest ourselves in such enterprises—there are other ways forward.

  • Ethical Investments

Something raised repeatedly throughout this process is the question of “where do we invest now?” and while many opportunities have already been presented, we wish to outline two examples that come to mind.

While on a smaller scale, OPIRG Guelph itself has assets which it invests and operates. One such fund, the Dawn Gugler Activist Training Award and Trust, was established in 1999 to honour the memory of environmental activist and board member, Dawn Gugler. In recent years, we’ve undergone much review to determine where best to invest this Trust to continue the award and honour Dawn’s memory and ethics.

Our financial services repeatedly presented us with investment recommendations that did not meet the same standards of ethics that we would ask of you now—including that of fossil fuel investments. Undeterred, our Board and staff rejected these suggestions and eventually found our way to invest in solar energy projects through bonds. Bonds which, as it turns out, were safer and higher return investments. As we implement these bonds, the future for our award looks bright and continue to honour our fallen member.

On a larger scale, our friends at the British Columbia General Employees Union (BCGEU), moved twenty million (20,000,000) dollars from their general investments away from fossil fuels—both helping the climate and saving their members from unstable oil prices.

It is at this point, we should address another common question: what about the University’s fiduciary duty? To this, we’d quote Marc Lee et al, from the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives, and his 2014 report Pension Funds and Fossil Fuels: The Economic Case for Divestment. Here, Lee et al states:

We believe these 21st century risk factors for holding fossil fuel assets have not been adequately addressed by Canada’s pension funds, and they merit coherent and well-thought-out responses. What is clear is that the range of risks facing fossil fuel companies has become much more pronounced in recent years. Indeed, the growing momentum of divestment itself may be a risk factor. If a critical mass of the population come to agree that getting off fossil fuels is a moral imperative, this conviction raises the bar for what government can and will do to regulate and cap emissions. Further, it changes the parameters of acceptable behaviour in the financial marketplace. …

A warming world implies changes in the approach to fiduciary duty. Because of the long-term planning horizons of pension funds, inter-generational arguments consistent with those raised by climate change should be viewed as a non-trivial matter. …

Presently, their models assume, implicitly or explicitly, an uninterrupted expansion of Canada’s oil industry. …

Given the major role played by pension funds in the financial system, we see a role for funds to up their climate game. Divestment from fossil fuels is consistent with fiduciary duty, but funds can and should also play a transformative role in building and scaling up the green infrastructure needed for a zero-carbon world.

Our university has more power to address climate change through divestment than any mutual fund. As the CCPA argues here, participating in the sustainable revolution is not only a moral obligation (it betters the lives of people locally and globally), it is also part  of your fiduciary responsibility to this university.

  • Reconciliation

One way in which this University can support people locally and serve others is to take seriously its commitments to reconciliation with indigenous peoples and nations. However, we would argue that this is impossible while aiding and abetting corporations which actively violate indigenous land, duties to consent, and further colonial genocide.

OPIRG Guelph has supported many indigenous nations whom this university causes direct social injury by  supporting extractive industries: From Royal Dutch Shell and other companies’ role in developing ‘Chemical Valley’ surrounding Aamjiwnaang First Nation with its grave, slow, and persistent violence against the people there, to Kinder Morgan’s unrelenting and unconsented work to build pipelines through unceded Secwepemc Nation and other Coast Salish territories, which some indigenous activists are calling the next Standing Rock. These are the people and the nations which the University of Guelph has failed and continues to fail by financially supporting such companies. With every investment, this university permits and enables  violations and violence against indigenous nations.

As Call to Action 92, Point 1 in the Truth and Reconciliation Report states, the Commission calls on business and economic interests to “[c]ommit to meaningful consultation, building respectful relationships, and obtaining
the free, prior, and informed consent of Indigenous peoples before proceeding
with economic development projects” via the “United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples as a reconciliation framework and to apply its principles, norms, and standards to corporate policy and core operational activities involving Indigenous peoples and their lands and resources“.

These companies have shown no clear intention to follow through on the substance of this call. As such, until remedy is sought, the University of Guelph is directly complicit in the violation of the spirit, direction, and intent of reconciliation as laid out in the report.

While people get sick in Aamjiwnaang and the Secwepemc Nation has to fight for respect of its laws and traditions, how can it be said that the University of Guelph truly believes in reconciliation? Unless, of course, you step away from this industry and invest in reconciliation with those you have injured.

At the formation of the Treaty Alliance Against Tar Sands Expansion earlier this year (which includes well over one hundred indigenous nations), Rueben George of the Tsleil-Waututh Sacred Trust Initiative said “We are in a time of unprecedented unity amongst Indigenous people working together for a better future for everyone. The Kinder Morgan pipeline proposal in our territory represents an unacceptable risk to the water, land and people: we are proud to stand together with all of our relatives calling for sensible alternatives to these dangerous projects.”

Standing with nations like those in the Treaty Alliance and those engaging in other work to maintain their traditions and ways of life ought to be a principle goal of our University.  On its homepage, the university of Guelph claims to be “committed to one simple purpose: To Improve Life.” For this to be true however, we must first live up to our ethical responsibility both to those nations on whose lands we live, work and study, as well as the people to whom these companies have brought immense harm.

Our Shared Values

It is no boast to say that the University of Guelph has a certain reputation for developing expertise on environmental science, climate change studies, and an overall culture of environmental awareness. This is a defining feature of the institution.

OPIRG Guelph has been part of this campus culture from the beginning and helped nurture it since our founding in 1976—from our forty year old river clean-ups to the earliest climate change related initiatives on this campus (including all of the building blocks of the Sustainability Office like recycling). That said, we believe it’s time to take the work your community has brought forward to the next level—to truly take the lead in advancing environmental sustainability.

OPIRG has been here long enough to know that this university responds to sensible, powerful, evidence based research and persistent community advocacy. And look at the dividends paid by every innovation that students and your community have researched and advocated for. Can you imagine Guelph as a campus that still didn’t recycle? A campus not known for it ‘green’ attitude? We, students, staff, faculty, and community members, have built that image through work and action to change this campus for the better. What Fossil Free Guelph asks of you now is to take the next, necessary step. To maintain our values, to improve life, to do what needs to be done for this planet and all people, the University of Guelph has to take a stand. There is no do-over. There is no second chance. For years, OPIRG and groups like Fossil Free Guelph have been saying that our work to bring about environmental justice required a move to systemic thinking. Today, you can choose to tackle a system, and stand alongside countless other divesting universities, to help start a movement.

The University of Guelph alone cannot win the fight against fossil fuels, but it can be the next domino in a chain reaction that can  change our habits, our systems, and our world in good way. For the people most affected by climate change, for the nations trespassed and polluted  by industry, for the future we seek to build together… we have to act.

What that action will be, for this University, is up to you.

With hope for our future and your decision,

— OPIRG Guelph Board of Directors and Staff