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Credit: Seyoung An

On April 5, 2010, an explosion ripped through the Upper Big Branch coal mine in Raleigh County, W. Va., killing 29 out of the 31 miners on site. This explosion was only one in a seemingly endless string of mine disasters in Appalachia, and the fifth fatal mine explosion in the United States in the previous decade. The blast occurred due to a buildup of coal dust and methane gas in the mine shafts — conditions that could have been prevented were the adequate ventilation systems in place. 

An independent investigation found Massey Energy, the mine’s operator, to be directly responsible for the blast. In 2015, Massey CEO Don Blankenship was convicted of willfully violating mine safety laws. While Blankenship was one of the only individuals to go to prison after this disaster, the entire executive body of Massey Energy was complicit in Blankenship’s disregard for human life.

Mine explosions are far from the only ways in which the coal industry inflicts harm upon individuals and communities around the world. Mountaintop removal, which involves using large amounts of explosives to blow off mountaintops in order to access thin coal seams within, causes nearby communities to experience a 50 percent increase in cancer rates and a 42 percent increase in birth defects. Michael Hendryx of the Indiana University School of Public Health estimates the number of coal-mining-related deaths in Appalachian communities near mountaintop removal sites to be in excess of 1,200 per year. Coal combustion is even more deadly than mining itself, as the pollution it creates accounts for an estimated 420,000 additional deaths per year globally. The mortality rate of coal combustion is almost 700 times higher than that of wind energy and over 1000 times higher than that of nuclear. 

The influence of the coal industry also infects our government and policymakers. According to the Oxford Handbook of Climate Change and Society, “individual corporations such as ExxonMobil and Peabody Coal … provided funding for individual contrarian scientists, conservative think tanks active in climate change denial, and a host of front groups.” In 2017, the coal mining industry donated $5,661,500 to politicians who, almost without fail, vote against environmental regulations.

So, what does Penn have to do with this? 

Penn has a $12 billion endowment that is managed by the Board of Trustees. An estimated $300-400 million of this is invested in the fossil fuel industry, a category under which the coal industry falls. Investing in this industry, specifically the coal industry, means that Penn is effectively funding and condoning all of the aforementioned activities. This means that, through its investments, Penn is actively supporting the political corruption, air pollution, and climate change that this industry is responsible for amplifying. 

Late Friday evening, members of Fossil Free Penn submitted a proposal to the Board of Trustees calling for the divestment of Penn’s endowment from coal and tar sands companies and reinvestment of a portion of these funds into renewable energy. If approved, coal and tar sands divestment would end Penn’s sustained contribution to these destructive industries, allowing Penn to more legitimately stand on the right side of history. 

One counterargument to divestment is that we must maximize our endowment, as a large endowment means a university can have flexibility to fund various projects and initiatives. Fortunately, coal and tar sands companies actually represent the most fiscally risky of all established energy sources and the coal industry especially in terminal decline. By the end of 2017, following a mere 2.4 percent drop in domestic coal consumption, United States coal production dropped 38 percent below its level a decade earlier. In that same time period, the number of domestic coal-fired power plants in the United States fell from 600 to 360, and, notwithstanding the Trump administration’s pro-coal, “Energy Dominance” agenda, 27 of those closures took place in 2017. These massive declines in production negatively affected coal-stock performance. In fact, between 2012 and 2017, investors in the Dow Coal Index would have lost 75 percent over the last five years versus a positive 99 percent return on the S&P 500. Given the direction of the global energy economy, investing in these industries is clearly unwise. 

The time is long overdue for Penn to divest from coal and tar sands companies. No longer can we allow our university to tout “on-campus sustainability” while remaining complicit in the corruption and destruction caused by these industries. It is time to move forward toward progress and not remain stuck in the past. It is time to divest. 

ZACH RISSMAN is a College senior from Summit, N.J. studying biological basis of behavior. He is the Trustee Coordinator for Fossil Free Penn. His email address is zrissman@sas.upenn.edu.

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