When Colleges Ditch Coal Investments, It’s Barely A Drop In The Bucket

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If the students at Stanford University believe they sent the coal industry a strong message this week, they should think again. The school's decision to eliminate coal from its portfolio did not send shock waves through the industry. In fact, representatives say it will have no financial impact on the industry at all. Nor will it curb the growing demand around the world for coal-generated electricity.

"It strikes us as a politically expedient course of action rather than a rational response," says Luke Popovich, a spokesman for the National Mining Association. Even if more universities decide to follow suit, it won't have a material effect on coal companies, he says.

University endowments commanded nearly $450 billion last year, according to the National Association of College and University Business Officers. Of that, only about 5 percent of the money is invested in energy, including everything from coal to solar.

Popovich says coal is simply too cheap, too abundant and in demand to be affected by university divestitures. There are 3 billion people on the planet living with little or no reliable electricity, he points out.

"They won't have electricity anytime soon, certainly not in their lifetimes unless coal generates it," Popovich says.

Beyond that, Stanford's decision isn't contributing to a real solution to the underlying environmental problem, he argues.

"If the challenge in the near future is to, if not eliminate entirely the CO2 from coal combustion, then where can we look for that sort of leadership unless we're looking at institutions like Stanford?" Popovich says.

That is a sentiment echoed by Brown University President Christina Paxson, who, last fall, explained the university's decision not to divest.

Written By: Yuki Noguchi
continue to source article at npr.org

17 COMMENTS

  1. Wow, a spokesman for the National Mining Association thinks that universities divesting of coal is a bad idea. I’m shocked. If you went back in time far enough I’m sure you could find the same kind of rhetoric from the government of South Africa about the initial first organizations (which my guess is were also universities and similar groups that have some notion of social responsibly investing) that divested from that nation because of Apartheid as well.

    I do agree with the shill to some extent, these kinds of divestments are a drop in the bucket. Also, the pressures to keep using coal will be more difficult to overcome than the pressure to not trade with one relatively small nation. But every bit helps and I think these things are a good sign. On their own they won’t make a big impact (they also won’t cost the universities much — there are plenty of other things to invest in) but they are a step in the right direction and they should be encouraged not mocked.

  2. Red Dog has it right. I’ve heard this sort of argument about divestment many times. I remember hearing it as a college student in the late 80s when the cause was ending apartheid. And since the Stanford announcement last week it’s quickly become a go-to talking point. But it also misses the point entirely. It isn’t about drops in buckets. It’s about moral leadership and raising awareness.

    There’s an argument that’s so common I suspect it has a formal name (though I don’t know it) that runs something like this: “You can try all you want to make the world better, but you’re nothing but a drop in the bucket. Your actions are irrelevant. Nothing you do can possibly change the status quo.” This argument, successful though it unfortunately is in persuading people to apathy, is and always has been bullshit. In fact, it’s designed at its core to induce that apathy. Don’t believe it.

    • In reply to #2 by wetbread:

      It isn’t about drops in buckets

      Rain is entirely composed of drops, so we can conclude that it has no effect. After all, I can go out in the rain and laugh off the drops that fall on me, or use an umbrella. Thus rain is pointless and should stop bothering. Anyway, isn’t too much rain exactly the same as too much sunshine? We’d be better off without either.

  3. I don’t think Popovich said it was a bad idea I think he said he didn’t care one way or the other. The energy endowment percentage is trivial and these mining people know that.

    On the other hand coal fired plants in areas not caring about endowment divestments are growing.

    Symbolism might be lost on these people, an energy source that is cheap, clean and available would mean much more. Perhaps the universities should put that divested money there.

  4. This weeks science show abc radio national

    [The science show] (http://www.abc.net.au/radionational/feed/2885480/podcast.xml)

    had an excellent talk about solar technology in Australia. In short what is killing the coal plants (hurting them anyway) has been the fact that they make their biggest profits in the afternoon and during the evening. The take up of photovoltaics has impacted on the afternoon chunk as this reduces a major income source for them. Looks like affordable battery systems will soon be available too. Electric cars as they come will also provide a ready made battery pack (albeit at the expense of range – but smart chargers can shuffle power in and out as needed) This will result in people being able to drastically reduce their reliance on coal. Coal may not be dead for some time but it is starting to look seedy and in a decade or so it’ll be coughing up blood. If only we in Australia could get our climate change denying govenrment to wake up and smell the future comming.

  5. In short, if we do not find another source of energy cheaper than coal we never get rid of it, no matter what anyone says, no matter how our temperature rises. Consumers want cheap electricity and the coal industry is there to provide. Reality is harsh for the environment. =/

    • In reply to #6 by giovani.milchareck:

      In short, if we do not find another source of energy cheaper than coal we never get rid of it, no matter what anyone says, no matter how our temperature rises. Consumers want cheap electricity and the coal industry is there to provide. Reality is harsh for the environment. =/

      Bullshit. First of all alternative energy is far more popular with US consumers than coal:

      Gallop poll: Americans (including Republicans) want more clean energy

      Second, when you talk about cost you should factor in things like the cost of cleaning up toxic spills of coal sludge ponds that are polluting drinking water all over the south. Not to mention the cost of climate change, asthma,… Also, the US gives oil and gas companies all kinds of tax breaks an other incentives. They’ve been doing that all through history. And it’s very common to give new emerging technologies various incentives to get them going, that is what enabled the Internet to take off initially. So giving some incentives for renewables is nothing different than what is always done to encourage new business. The real difference is that there is an entrenched powerful lobby that cares more about profits than consumers.

    • In reply to #6 by giovani.milchareck:

      In short, if we do not find another source of energy cheaper than coal we never get rid of it, no matter what anyone says, no matter how our temperature rises. Consumers want cheap electricity and the coal industry is there to provide. Reality is harsh for the environment. =/

      Coal is VERY EXPENSIVE once you take the cost of environmental and infrastructure damage into account! When lots of people see the increasing floods, fires, hurricane/cyclone damage, crop failures and droughts, they will understand that “cheap coal” is not really cheap at all!

    • In reply to #6 by giovani.milchareck:

      In short, if we do not find another source of energy cheaper than coal we never get rid of it, no matter what anyone says, no matter how our temperature rises. Consumers want cheap electricity and the coal industry is there to provide. Reality is harsh for the environment.

      You may be right but I hope that you are not. There was a time when slavery was the cheapest form of labour, that is now considered unacceptable. Perhaps we need to associate the burning of fossil fules with slavery, both are are based on short term greed.

    • In reply to #6 by giovani.milchareck:

      Consumers want cheap electricity and the coal industry is there to provide.

      There are 100s of planning applications for wind turbines in Aberdeenshire, Scotland alone. Not only is wind energy easy to access it is also very much sought after.

      Here

  6. We should continue to use coal until we are fully commited to moving full speed ahead with clean, safe nuclear power. Nuclear power is cleaner and safer than coal but right now we have political roadblocks retarding progress in nuclear power. We should of course not waste government money on things like solar and wind power.

    • In reply to #8 by Robert.H.Biggadike:

      We should continue to use coal until we are fully commited to moving full speed ahead with clean, safe nuclear power. Nuclear power is cleaner and safer than coal but right now we have political roadblocks retarding progress in nuclear power.

      At least we have in the dumb cultures of the world! The Chinese are going for Thorium nuclear, (http://www.itheo.org/thorium-energy-conference-2012), while the French are already 75% nuclear and part tidal..

      We should of course not waste government money on things like solar and wind power.

      That is just plain silly nonsense! The investment in Solar, wind, geothermal, ground heat storage, and tidal power is sound, and while it has initial set-up costs, it is comparative in the long term, and avoids the vast costs of damage from CO2 generated climate change.

      Reducing power consumption by better regulated buildings and more efficient appliances is even more cost effective.

      We know it is cheaper to throw your toxic waste over your neighbour’s fence than to pay for cleaning it up, but only if pathetic governments let people get away with it! Once the carbon polluters have to pay for the damage they cause, other forms of power generation will be much cheaper.

      As I pointed out in this earlier discussion(http://www.richarddawkins.net/news-articles/2014/5/5/climate-change-is-clear-and-present-danger-says-landmark-us-report#comment-box-30), Much of the coal reserves listed as “assets” on company books, cannot be safely burned, and so are worthless. The bankers and insurance industries are starting to take an interest in protecting their investments from the bursting of this “sub-prime-like” bubble!

      Carbon bubble makes Australia’s coal industry ripe ‘for financial implosion’

    • In reply to #8 by Robert.H.Biggadike:

      We should continue to use coal until we are fully commited to moving full speed ahead with clean, safe nuclear power. Nuclear power is cleaner and safer than coal but right now we have political roadblocks retarding progress in nuclear power. We should of course not waste government money on things like solar and wind power.

      Oh? Solar and wind power have drastically dropped in price per kilowatt by massive amounts in the last decade. They are already cheaper than coal and safer than both coal and nuclear. In the next decade they will be cheaper than both. I’m all for nuclear being continued to be used where it already is in place but it strikes me certainly here in Australia where we have plenty of wind and sunshine that spending government money on a bunch of nuclear reactors would be foolish considering the decades required to build and pay off the equipment. Given the massive reductions in prices over recent years it is more than likely that in the long term it would cost much more to go nuclear.

      Many hundreds of millions of dollars over the years has been and continues to be thrown at the coal industry, If my tax dollars are going to go towards a power industry I’d much rather it go to renewables.

  7. @OP – Popovich says coal is simply too cheap, too abundant and in demand to be affected by university divestitures. There are 3 billion people on the planet living with little or no reliable electricity, he points out.

    “They won’t have electricity anytime soon, certainly not in their lifetimes unless coal generates it,” Popovich says.

    What a load of propagandist biased garbage!!!

    For many third world countries, the last thing that remote areas need is a heavy grid infrastructure based on coal! The remote areas need local photovoltaic solar systems, while the cities need big 24/7 solar thermal powered turbine generators, local hydroelectric, or local wind turbines.

    In sunny climates solar thermal systems can power turbine generators just as well as coal, but without the CO2 pollution.

    http://cleantechnica.com/2013/10/14/worlds-largest-solar-thermal-plant-storage-comes-online/

    The 280 MW Solana Generating Station constructed by Spanish group Abengoa has six hours of molten storage capacity that will allow it to produce energy into the evening, and deliver output according to the needs of the customer.

    “Solana is a monumental step forward in solar energy production,” said Don Brandt, the president of APS, the local utility. “This provides a huge boost toward our goal to make Arizona the solar capital of America.”

    Solar power tower From Wikipedia,

    The US National Renewable Energy Laboratory (NREL) has estimated that by 2020 electricity could be produced from power towers for 5.47 cents per kWh.[1] Companies such as ESolar (backed by Google.org) are continuing development of cheap, low maintenance, mass producible heliostat components that will reduce costs in the near future.[2] ESolar’s design uses large numbers of small mirrors (1.14 m²), which reduce costs for installing mounting systems such as concrete, steel, drilling & cranes.

    Combined tidal and off-shore wind systems like this one are a good answer in suitable locations.
    http://www.offshorewind.biz/2012/02/01/atlantis-to-install-tidal-power-farm-in-gujarat-india/

  8. @OP – “It strikes us as a politically expedient course of action rather than a rational response,” says Luke Popovich, a spokesman for the National Mining Association.

    “OOOOh! It threatens my profits and my industry! Let’s indulge in Dysfunctional Psychological Defense Mechanisms and pretend that dumping the pollution and holding the mining industry to account for the damage they cause, is “irrational”! “

    Environmental management 1.01 – “The polluter must stop polluting and pay for the clean-up”.

  9. We should remember that there are other community costs from coal mining as well as derelict landscapes and CO2 and SO2 pollution. -
    Especially if this clown Popovich, is suggesting coal is a means of providing electric power in third-world countries at present lacking electricity and the transport networks to move massive tonnages of coal!

    Rescuers are hunting desperately for scores of Turkish coal miners still missing after an explosion caused a pit to collapse, killing at least 245. – http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-europe-27408394

  10. UK “needs more home-grown energy” – http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/science-environment-27435624

    In just over five years Britain will have run out of oil, coal and gas, researchers have warned.

    A report by the Global Sustainability Institute said shortages would increase dependency on Norway, Qatar and Russia.

    There should be a “Europe-wide drive” towards wind, tidal, solar and other sources of renewable power, the institute’s Prof Victor Anderson said.

    The government says complete energy independence is unnecessary, says BBC environment analyst Roger Harrabin.

    Britain has just 5.2 years of oil, 4.5 years of coal and three years of its own gas remaining.

    France fares even worse, according to the report, with less than year to go before it runs out of all three fossil fuels.

    Professor Anderson said: “Coal, oil and gas resources in Europe are running down and we need alternatives.

    “The UK urgently needs to be part of a Europe-wide drive to expand renewable energy sources such as wave, wind, tidal, and solar power.”

    Meanwhile the carbonaceous Luddites and Dozy-Dave gas-fracking Cameron, sit in denial, and actually “see no problem” with importing polluting fuels, while fiddling and prevaricating instead of getting on with building renewable technology systems.

    The government recently announced it was cutting subsidies for large-scale solar energy and the Conservatives have said there will be no funding for new onshore wind farms if they win the next election.

    Ministers are hoping that enough shale gas – extracted by fracking – will be obtained to make a difference, the BBC’s environment analyst Roger Harrabin says.

    They are also offering incentives for more oil research in the North Sea – and trying to persuade the USA to export more gas, he added.

    The Global Sustainability Institute’s research covers environmental, societal and economic challenges facing the world.

    A Department of Energy & Climate Change spokesperson said the premise of the report was “nonsense”.

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