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Benita Welter // CC0

After the University’s rejection of Fossil Free Penn’s proposal for comprehensive divestment from fossil fuels in 2015, FFP has decided to attack the divestment issue from a different angle. Its first weapon is a new proposal. 

On Sept. 14, FFP submitted a refined proposal to the Penn administration that targets divestment from the two most harmful fossil fuels: coal and tar sands. The proposal calls for divestment from the top 100 coal companies and top 20 tar sands companies, ranked by the amount of carbon dioxide that would be emitted into the atmosphere if all their reserves were to be burned.

FFP Trustee Coordinator and College senior Zach Rissman said the new proposal aims to capture the attention of trustees by highlighting the financial advantages of divestment from coal and tar sands. 

According to the University’s guidelines for divestment, proposals must show that Penn has both a fiduciary and ethical responsibility to divest. However, Rissman said he believes the administration is more interested in seeing the financial benefits.  

Coal and tar sands “while being the most socially destructive, are also the most financially risky of all energy investments,” said Rissman, who pointed out that the coal industry is in terminal decline and the tar sands industry is plagued by high construction and overhead costs.

“We realized that trustees really only care about financial arguments,” Rissman said. “They don’t really care about social arguments at all.” 

Vice President of University Communications Stephen MacCarthy did not provide additional comment other than a reference to the University guideline for divestment. 

The proposal comes just five days after the Undergraduate Assembly passed a resolution endorsing Penn’s Board of Trustees divestment from companies involved in coal and tar sands. 

FFP’s original proposal arguing for full divestment from fossil fuel industries in 2015 was ultimately rejected by the Ad Hoc Advisory Committee on Divestment in September 2016

In response, FFP led a demonstrative protest campaign. The campaign included two sit-ins in November 2016 and March 2017 in College Hall as well as a demonstration at a University Council Open Forum in February 2017. 

Credit: Luis Ferre Sadurini

Students occupied Penn President Amy Gutmann's office in a sit-in Thursday morning, demanding greater transparency on the Trustee's decision not to divest from fossil fuels.

By April 2017, Rissman said he realized that the campaign strategy was “a very unfruitful path.” The group decided to refocus its goal. 

“We started to understand that full divestment was not going to be possible in that year or the next few years,” Rissman said. “The trustees were very, very not willing to consider it at all. Neither were the administrators.”

Members of FFP spent the summer of 2018 writing a more targeted proposal that focused solely on coal and tar sands. According to FFP Student Outreach Coordinator and College junior Claudia Silver, the group is hoping that the proposal’s focused scope and research will present a more convincing argument to Penn’s administration. 

Silver, who wrote about harmful fossil fuel industry lobbying practices as part of the proposal’s social injury section, found it “illuminating” to discover how easily she could see the direct connection between politicians’ funding from the industry and environmental policy votes. 

“Whether or not it’s a political statement and it’s a political statement that Penn wants to make, it is an act that is necessary and for the good of civilization,” FFP Campaign Coordinator and College junior Jacob Hershman said.

Now that the proposal has been sent to University Secretary Leslie Kruhly, FFP plans to wait for a response before undertaking further action. The new proposal must first pass through the University Council Steering Committee’s initial determination of whether or not there is enough information to warrant further consideration. 

If passed by the UC Steering Committee, the proposal will be sent to an Ad Hoc Committee where it will undergo a full analysis. The Ad Hoc Committee will then make a recommendation to the Board of Trustees. 

The 2015 proposal spent about nine months in the Ad Hoc Committee before the University reached an ultimate decision against divestment, according to Rissman. 

In the event that the proposal is accepted, FFP members said their plan will not stop there.

“Coal and tar sands are not the entire fossil fuel industry so best case that they do accept it, that’s great and that’s going to contribute a lot to both Penn and the divestment movement as a whole,” Silver said. “But we've still got other fossil fuels to go for.”

The proposal has yet to be made public due to issues with publishing private information on specific companies that must be redacted before going public. The proposal will likely be published publicly this week.