Facing protests, UMaine System committee recommends dropping coal investments

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BANGOR — The University of Maine System should cut some investments in coal mining companies out of its portfolio and prevent future investments in the industry, a committee of the system’s board of trustees recommended Wednesday.

In a 4-0 vote, the system’s Investment Committee backed a “coal divestiture policy,” which will appear on the consent agenda — typically reserved for issues that are likely to pass without further discussion — at the January 2015 board of trustees meeting.

The decision was hailed by student demonstrators as a victory in their efforts to influence the operations of the University of Maine System and its board of trustees, which has been under fire amid plans for cost-cutting, especially at the University of Southern Maine.

The divestment policy directs the University of Maine System’s equity and fixed income investment managers to cull investments in coal mining companies from the system’s portfolio and to “negatively screen” for coal to prevent such investments in the future.

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The University of Maine System has a total of about $1.7 million tied up in coal investments, most split between the managed investment pool and the operating fund, both of which have a coal exposure of about 0.3 percent, according to a report by New England Pension Consultants.

“The threat and potential costs of climate change, the steady decline of coal as a nonrenewable resource, and the emergence of new green technologies are risks that were all considered as part of the Investment Committee’s development of this action item,” University of Maine System spokesman Dan Demeritt said.

If the policy is adopted, it will result in the system divesting about 30 percent, or $502,000, of its coal investments, according to Demeritt. The policy does not liquidate coal investments that are included in mutual or commingled funds, according to the system. Demeritt said this policy divests from coal wherever there is a “straight-line opportunity” to do so.

The University of Maine System proposal was modeled after one Stanford University adopted earlier this year.

Last month, a group called Divest UMaine held a demonstration outside Fogler Library on the University of Maine campus, calling on the system to divest itself from all fossil fuel investments. The group is an offshoot of a larger national movement calling on institutions and endowments to rid their portfolios of investments in the top 200 publicly traded fossil fuel companies.

“I think this is a major victory for student organizing,” said Meaghan LaSala, a University of Southern Maine student and one of about 50 students and faculty who attended Wednesday’s meeting in support of the divestment plan. “The fact that (the committee’s decision) was unanimous, I think, is very important.”

The divestment groups have argued that public institutions such as the University of Maine System and its campuses shouldn’t be investing in limited, environmentally harmful energy sources, namely fossil fuels, and instead should be putting public money toward renewable energy.

“This is an important first step,” LaSala said, but the group plans to continue to push for divestment from other fossil fuels as well.

Wholesale divestment of fossil fuels is a much more complicated matter, according to the University of Maine System.

NEPC found fossil fuel “exposure,” or the percentage of a portfolio invested in a particular security, in three areas — the managed investment pool, pension fund and operating fund. The managed investment pool has 3.2 percent exposure to fossil fuels, totaling about $8.7 million in investments. The pension fund has 1 percent fossil fuel exposure, totaling $397,000. The operating fund has 0.3 percent fossil fuel exposure, totaling about $742,000.

The consulting firm warned the University of Maine System that divesting in full from coal or all fossil fuels could have negative effects on the rest of the system’s portfolio, limiting its ability to manage risk, diversify and seek returns.

The University of Maine System argues it has been fighting climate change for years by investing in sustainability across its eight campuses. The system has reduced its carbon emissions by 22 percent since 2006, investing millions of dollars into upgraded heating plants, natural gas conversions and public transportation initiatives.

“Maine’s public universities are taking meaningful steps to reduce our carbon footprint and to reduce energy consumption,” Demeritt said. “All of our campuses are utilizing renewable energy sources and upgrading campus infrastructure, yielding both cost savings and carbon avoidance.”

If the University of Maine System OKs the divestment, it would join a small but growing list of higher education institutions to do so. That list includes Maine’s College of the Atlantic and Unity College.

This wouldn’t be the system’s first divestiture. More than 30 years ago, the then-young University of Maine System voted to divest about $1.9 million that had been invested in banks and business in South Africa as a protest against its racial segregation policy, apartheid.

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