Yale’s responsible investments committee will not recommend divestment from Exxon Mobil, dealing a major blow to campus activism surrounding the issue.
“Exxon does not appear to be engaging in any conduct or activity that would warrant divestment,” Chairman of the Advisory Committee on Investor Responsibility Jonathan Macey LAW ’82 told the News on Friday, less than a day after President Donald Trump withdrew from the Paris climate accord.
Since the beginning of 2016, the ACIR — a committee consisting of students, faculty and staff that serves as the conduit between the Yale Corporation and the campus community — has researched Exxon and discussed the possibility of divestment with the student activist group Fossil Free Yale. Last December, the ACIR was close to recommending divestment to the Corporation before changing course and committing to further research. Yale holds an undisclosed number of shares in Exxon, the largest oil company in the world.
In March, the ACIR met with three senior executive from Exxon to discuss the company’s longstanding support for the American Legislative Exchange Council, an interest group that denies global warming and lobbies against legislation designed to combat climate change.
According to “The Ethical Investor” — the decades-old manual that guides the University’s investment decisions — Yale is obliged to divest from companies that cause “grave social injury.” In April, Macey told a group of student activists that the divestment recommendation would come down to whether the ACIR determined that Exxon was using ALEC as a front to perpetuate climate change denial.
In a phone interview on Friday, Macey said Exxon passed that test. The committee formally decided not to recommend divestment in April, shortly after a meeting between FFY and University trustee Catharine Hill GRD ’85, who serves on the Corporation committee that oversees Yale’s investments.
“[Exxon] seems to be certainly no worse than any other fossil fuel company, with respect to their position on climate change. There doesn’t seem to be any basis for singling them out for divestment,” Macey said. “Exxon does support ALEC, but that does not provide a sufficient ground for divestment.”
The ACIR’s decision came as a surprise to student activists, who were optimistic that the University would divest after months of discussion. Nathan Lobel ’17 — the former policy coordinator for FFY — said the ACIR told his organization that “there was a strong case against Exxon” in the summer of 2016.
“They were going to plan to make a recommendation to the Corporation before their December meeting, then at the last minute, for whatever reason, they were much more hesitant,” Lobel said.
In April, Susan Wang ’18, the sole undergraduate representative on the ACIR, told the News that the committee delayed its decision so members could meet with Exxon officials.
“We figured we had not yet talked to Exxon directly about these issues, and figured a meeting with them was warranted,” Wang said.
FFY’s decision to specifically target Exxon dates back to 2014, when the Corporation rejected a proposal calling for Yale to divest from the entire fossil fuel industry. Over the past two years, and with the encouragement of the ACIR, student activists have focussed on Exxon’s history of climate change denial, rather than the environmental impact of greenhouse gas emissions by the industry as a whole.
“We weren’t the ones who chose Exxon,” Lobel said. “We said that fossil fuel companies are doing this, and [the ACIR] said, ‘We want you to forget about the other companies for now, let’s just look at Exxon.’”
The news of the ACIR’s decision not to recommend divestment comes just as Yale begins to respond to President Donald Trump’s withdrawal from the Paris accord. The University is considering joining a group of more than 80 universities that have committed to fulfilling the United States’ obligations under the accord, despite the White House announcement. The University has already reduced its greenhouse gas emissions by 24 percent since 2016 and plans to become completely carbon neutral by 2050.
Exxon could not be reached for comment on Friday evening. But the company publicly supports the Paris accord, and Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, the former chairman and C.E.O. of Exxon, was one of several officials in President Trump’s inner circle urging him to honor the agreement.
“Exxon and many energy companies are also investing and have started commitments to transition to renewable energy,” Vice President for Communications Eileen O’Connor told the News on Friday.
But Lobel said Exxon’s support for ALEC — as well as its history of climate change denial, documented in newspapers like The Guardian and The Los Angeles Times — outweighs the company’s public statements.
“It’s astounding to me how ready [University President Peter Salovey] and the Yale administration and the Yale PR department are to boast, when they’re unwilling to make the strong political statement that we need climate action,” he said.