Princeton University is taking a big step toward dissociating from up to 90 companies in the fossil fuel industry following nearly a decade of advocacy by environmental advocates.
A campus organization supporting full divestment, known as Divest Princeton, praised the school’s decision last week while continuing to urge the wealthy Ivy League university to fully separate all of its money and other interests from fossil fuel companies.
Princeton officials released a list of the targeted companies — which all have roles in the thermal coal and tar sands segments of the fossil fuel industry — in a Sept. 29 announcement. The university outlined a process for the school to end, or decline to pursue, relationships with some or all of the companies.
Princeton University has one of the largest college endowments in the world, topping $37.7 billion last year, school officials said. That is more than the gross national product of many small countries.
The school’s announcement that it is considering severing ties with some companies comes as New Jersey state lawmakers are considering a bill that would divest the state’s public worker pension fund, valued at $92.9 billion, from fossil fuel companies. Fossil fuels are the nation’s primary source of electricity and involve the extracting and burning of coal, oil and natural gas, according to the federal Environmental Protection Agency.
Climate change activists have long called on governments and institutions to divest — or pull their money from stocks and other investments tied to oil, gas and coal companies. Instead, activists want the money redirected to investments in renewable energy and other alternatives that have less impact on the environment.
Some activists have also called on universities to go beyond disinvestment and end all support of fossil fuel companies, including research partnerships.
Princeton has had “existing or recent relationships that involve a financial component” with 8 of the 90 companies targeted for possible dissociation, including Exxon Mobil Corp., Total Energies SE and Syncrude Canada Ltd., the university’s website said.
“Dissociation includes and goes beyond divestment,” Princeton spokesperson Michael Hotchkiss said.
Dissociation means refraining “to the greatest extent possible” from any financial ties to a company, including no longer soliciting or accepting gifts or grants from a company, declining to purchase the company’s products and refusing to enter into partnerships, Princeton officials said on their website.
Exxon Mobil has a current research partnership with the university’s Andlinger Center for Energy and the Environment, while Total Energies and Syncrude Canada funded research at the university in 2021, according to Divest Princeton. All three companies are on Princeton’s list of firms targeted for disassociation.
The three companies did not respond to requests to comment on Princeton’s announcement.
While praising the dissociation decision, Divest Princeton supporters expressed regret that the university’s announcement did not include two of the world’s largest fossil fuel companies, Shell and BP. Shell funded $150,000 in research at Princeton in 2021 and BP has been funding the university’s Carbon Mitigation Institute since 2000, according to the activist group.
Nate Howard, a co-coordinator of Divest Princeton and a Princeton sophomore, said the organization is “proud of what has been accomplished and although they have taken a critical step, Princeton still falls short.”
Divest Princeton said Princeton has invested $1.7 billion in fossil fuel companies.
“Divest Princeton will keep fighting for our goals of full divestment and the end to all fossil fuel funding of research on campus. We know that it’s possible: We’ve come this far,” Howard said in the statement released by the organization.
As for next steps, Princeton said it is “writing to the leaders of companies identified for dissociation, expressing Princeton’s concerns and inviting the companies to respond,” university officials said.
“If a company provides information in a timely manner that resolves the concerns or demonstrates changed behavior moving forward, it could be exempt from dissociation and removed from the list,” Princeton stated.
Even if Princeton ultimately does dissociate with a company, the university stated it will conduct annual reviews of its “fossil fuel associations” that could lead to reinstatement.
“This process will include consideration of whether companies from which the university has dissociated have sufficiently changed their practices such that they no longer meet the criteria,” Princeton officials said.
Princeton administrators did not specify the length of the initial review process or provide an overall cost estimate. The university’s board of trustees launched the dissociation review process in May 2021.
While the university would separate itself from the targeted fossil fuel companies, dissociation would not prohibit students or faculty members from inviting a speaker to campus or participating in an internship associated with the companies, campus officials said.
Research partnerships lacking a financial component would also be permitted.
Princeton adopted a sustainability action plan in 2019 and is aiming for zero greenhouse gas emissions by 2046, the 300th anniversary of the university. Greenhouse gases are gases that trap heat in the atmosphere, with carbon dioxide making up 79 percent of U.S. greenhouse gas emissions in 2020, according to the EPA.
Princeton officials also explained why they are targeting only the fossil fuel companies specializing in thermal coal and tar sands oil.
Thermal coal, which is burned for steam and used to produce electricity, emits substantially more carbon dioxide in its combustion than alternative available fossil fuels, the university stated. Tar sands oil, derived from loose sands or sandstone, produces significantly higher emissions than conventional crude oil, including in its extraction and production process.
The university is setting up a new fund to support energy research at Princeton, in part to offset research funding no longer available because of dissociation.
“Princeton will have the most significant impact on the climate crisis through the scholarship we generate and the people we educate,” said Princeton President Christopher L. Eisgruber. “The creation of this new fund is one of several ways that the university is helping to provide Princeton researchers with the resources they need to pursue this work.”
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Rob Jennings may be reached at email@example.com.