Climate activists criticize ‘U’ fossil fuel investments

Tuesday, October 8, 2019 - 6:57pm

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Design by Vivian Harber

As the threat of climate change continues to provoke protests demanding institutional action to address the issue, student activists are calling on the University of Michigan to reduce its use of fossil fuels for powering facilities on campus. 

Last week, activists wrote chalk messages on the Diag and other public outdoor locations claiming the University has $1 billion invested in fossil fuels. The 2018 Report on Investments corroborates this claim, stating the University allocated $1.12 billion dollars, toward investments classified under natural resources. The report defines investments in natural resources as “investments in companies located primarily in the U.S. that produce oil and natural gas, and companies that service those industries, as well as non-energy related investments in minerals, mining, and wetland restoration.”

Zaynab Elkolaly, student at Washtenaw Technical Middle College and cofounder of Washtenaw Climate Strike, criticized the University’s investments in fossil fuels.

“The University, from an educational standpoint, has a great environmental curriculum where students fully understand the resulting detriment that comes with fossil fuel consumption,” Elkolaly said. “Students are not ignorant, and nor is the administration. What’s appalling is that these authority figures touting their prestigious degrees and positions are still involved in the very thing that is destroying the planet, simply because of profit. The University of Michigan is notorious for exploiting students financially, and this is only part of the pattern.”

Andrew Berki, director of the Office of Campus Sustainability and member of the President’s Commission on Carbon Neutrality, explained the current University infrastructure uses fossil fuels to power and heat facilities as well as fuel vehicles. He said the Ann Arbor campus’s natural gas plant powers and heats Central Campus and the athletic facilities. The University contracts electricity from DTE Energy to power North Campus burns natural gas in boiler systems to heat North Campus buildings. 

According to Berki, the Ann Arbor campus emits approximately 640,000 metric tons of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere per year. Ninety-eight percent of Ann Arbor campus emissions are a result of burning fossil fuels to heat and provide electricity to buildings, and two percent of campus emissions come from the fuel burned to power transportation.

University President Mark Schlissel formed the President’s Commission on Carbon Neutrality to create recommendations to achieve carbon neutrality on campus. One of the goals was to reduce emissions by 2025 to 25 percent below 2006 emissions levels. In a prior interview with The Daily, Schlissel expressed his concern regarding the logistics of carbon neutrality. 

“We use steam to heat the campus, and the only efficient way so far to make steam is to burn a fossil fuel or to have a nuclear power plant, (and) we don’t have a nuclear power plant,” said Schlissel. “So, we want to understand what the condition and the cost is if we were to say we want to change the way we heat and cool the campus: would it cost us $100 million, would it cost us $1 billion?”

Berki described some of the efforts the University has taken in its push toward reducing emissions and achieving carbon neutrality. According to Berki, the University has already signed a commitment with DTE Energy to receive 200,000 megawatt-hours of wind-powered energy in the near future, which will reduce emissions by about 100,000 metric tons of carbon dioxide. The President’s Commission on Carbon Neutrality is also the process of hiring a firm to analyze the current infrastructure of how the University heats and powers Central, North and the Medical campuses. 

“They’re going to be coming up with strategies on how to move away from fossil fuels and possibly fuel our campus with carbon neutral options,” said Berki. “Of course, those strategies and options will have to meet the scale and reliability requirements to meet the mission of the institution, but that’s a huge effort that the PCCN has pushed forward, and we’re excited about it.”   

Jonathan Morris, a Rackham student in the School for Earth and Environmental Studies, was skeptical of the University’s ability to take meaningful action on reducing its carbon footprint.

“I think the President’s Commission on Carbon Neutrality is a good thing,” said Morris. “I would be a lot more excited if the University administration showed evidence that it will actually make a difference. While other universities are taking the climate crisis very seriously and fundamentally changing the way they do business, the University of Michigan seems more concerned with protecting its image and arresting students who are raising these issues.” 

Morris criticized how the previous University president’s Greenhouse Gas Reduction Committee created a 2015 report of recommendations that, according to Morris, was largely ignored.

“From my perspective, I don’t see anything different between that committee and the new PCCN in terms of accountability,” Morris said. “It would be wonderful for the PCCN to come out with bold recommendations for rapidly achieving carbon neutrality, but without any formal accountability measures in place, the University administration could just cherry pick a few things to improve the image of the University without taking meaningful steps toward decarbonization, as it did before.”

Elkolaly outlined what the University can do for improvement. 

“The U-M Carbon Neutrality Commission needs to be establishing dialogue, first and foremost,” Elkolaly said. “Students and staff have been completely in the dark and have only been responded to with unjust legal action. Once they actually agree to sit down and communicate with us about our concerns, we can take further, actionable steps.”

Berki argued reducing emissions and reliance on fossil fuels is a collective effort. All off-campus housing, he noted, is also fueled by fossil fuels, so reducing energy use off-campus and individual actions remains important to limiting emissions.    

“I think it’s all of our responsibilities — faculty, students and staff — to take ownership around the issue and to do what we can individually to help attack this problem that we have,” Berki said.

This story has been updated to reflect that the University aims to reduce emissions by 25 percent and to clarify topics discussed with Andy Berki, director of the Office of Campus Sustainability and member of the President's Commission on Carbon Neutrality.