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Fossil fuel divestment prompts backlash

Jasmine Banks
Progressive Perspectives (TNS)
Texas State Sen. Brian Birdwell (R-Granbury) speaks at a Senate Committee on State Affairs hearing considering Senate Bill 1, the latest version of the election integrity bill proposed by Texas senate Republicans, at the State Capitol on July 10, 2021 in Austin, Texas. (Tamir Kalifa/Getty Images/TNS)

The oil billionaires are sweating. And it’s college students who are turning up the heat.

Texas recently passed a law to protect oil companies from divestment campaigns. It blacklists companies that have divested from fossil fuels because of what its sponsor, state Sen. Brian Birdwell, R-Texas, has called the “burgeoning fossil fuel discrimination movement.”

After the act passed in June, the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC), a fossil-fuel-funded lobbying group, tried to replicate it nationwide, calling it the Energy Discrimination Elimination Act. ALEC-drafted bills have been introduced in West Virginia, Oklahoma and Indiana. A dozen other states have signaled support.

Conservatives have spent hundreds of millions of dollars trying to influence young people and stymie progressive ideas on college campuses. So when I heard about this bill, I knew what it meant: the divestment movement is working.

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Exporting Texas’s anti-divestment law is standard for ALEC. The organization exists to draft and back conservative, hyper-capitalist legislation for state lawmakers who are willing to do the bidding of corporate lobbyists.

ALEC is part of the influence network built by oil billionaire Charles Koch. His collection of think tanks, policy shops and lobbying organizations all work to push U.S. state and federal law into pro-market conservatism, placing profit over people and our planet.

Many of these laws are deeply antidemocratic. For example, Salon reported that starting in 2020 ALEC “drove a national wave of anti-protest laws” that aim to criminalize protests of oil pipelines and other fossil fuel infrastructure. Koch’s entire business empire is built on fossil fuels; clearly, he sees something in the divestment movement that scares him.

Students began targeting the fossil fuel industry back in 2011, after Democrats failed to take any serious action on the climate despite controlling both Congress and the White House. At Swarthmore College in Pennsylvania, students decided they needed to directly confront oil, coal and gas companies. They sought to force colleges and universities to declare that they would no longer invest in fossil fuel companies.

The campaign has been more successful than the students ever hoped, helping drive the historic crash in political support for these companies. It has spread to pension funds, banks, investment firms, cities, states and entire countries. After years of student pressure, the world’s wealthiest university, Harvard, announced last year that it would divest its $42 billion endowment from fossil fuels.

The campaign has even grown big enough to start hurting the fossil fuel sector financially. As of 2021, there were 1,485 institutions publicly committed to at least some form of fossil fuel divestment, amounting to $39.2 trillion of assets under management. Both Shell and ExxonMobil admitted to shareholders that the divestment movement was making capital more expensive and some expansion projects impossible.

These stats help explain the Koch network’s growing panic. But they also prove the power of this movement, and of student organizing.

College students have been some of Charles Koch’s fiercest opponents. Research and action by UnKoch My Campus, our network of student organizers, has been critical at changing the national narrative about the Koch’s role in the so-called critical race theory debate at public schools and prompting YouTube and Google to ban ads on climate disinformation.

It’s student activists who are scaring the fossil fuel industry. And it should stay scared. That’s exactly what we need to build a more sustainable future.

— Jasmine Banks is the executive director of UnKoch My Campus. This column was produced for Progressive Perspectives, which is run by The Progressive magazine, and distributed by Tribune News Service.