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Stanford Coal Divestment Upsets Kentucky Senate Race

Stanford Coal Divestment Upsets Kentucky Senate Race

The blow-back from Stanford University‘s May 6 decision to become the first major university endowment to divest of the stocks of coal-mining companies may hurt the general election prospects of Kentucky Democratic Senate hopeful Alison Lundergan Grimes, who has a one-point lead in the polls against Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell.  

Three days before the vote to divest, Ms. Grimes held a sold-out fundraiser sponsored by Progressive Women of Silicon Valley in wealthy Atherton, just five miles from the Stanford campus. Being associated with rich Californians known for opposing Kentucky coal mining jobs will undoubtedly be a major challenge for Grimes to overcome in the November election.

On the eve of the May 20 Super Tuesday Primaries, Allison Grimes in Kentucky and Michelle Nunn in Georgia were expected to have the best shot at upending Republican Senate seats.  The importance of Grimes’s candidacy was described by the Progressive Women of Silicon Valley and the Peninsula Democratic Club in the Stanford area invitation as: “This is a very strategic race, like Wendy Davis running for Governor in Texas. Please come support Alison–she is a rising star in the Party.” 

Stanford University trustees’ vote to divest the stock in coal-mining companies was the first by a major university and will symbolically “lend support to a nationwide campaign to purge endowments and pension funds of fossil fuel investments,” according to the New York Times.  Stanford first adopted its Statement On Investment Responsibility regarding endowment investments in 1971, in response to human rights concerns regarding South Africa’s apartheid policies. 

But the scope of Stanford’s investment responsibility was expanded to focus on ethical concerns regarding endowment-held securities whose business policies and practices could cause “substantial social injury.” The University President now appoints an Advisory Panel on Investment Responsibility & Licensing composed of 12 members nominated by the Stanford Faculty Senate, the Associated Students of Stanford University, Stanford’s Alumni Association and senior administrators. 

According to the Times, the Advisory Committee’s report that coal is a major source of carbon pollution linked to climate change persuaded the trustees to remove companies “whose principal business is coal” from their investment portfolio. 

Following Kentucky press inquiries from a coal-friendly newspaper, Ms. Grimes complained to Stanford University’s President, John Hennessy:

This step is bad environmental policy and bad energy policy, and it sets a poor standard indeed for national good citizenship. Drying up investment in mining and burning coal–which is what divestment policies such as yours aim to do–would inflict severe economic harm on my state of Kentucky and on other coal-producing states. That is particularly true for Appalachia, a region already beset by economic hardship. Divestment–which, as I say, is intended to produce financial ruin–cannot be justified when its impact will be to push tens of thousands of one’s own countrymen to the brink of poverty, and perhaps beyond. Mining coal is a legal enterprise that for generations has provided a roof over many Kentucky families’ heads, put food on their tables, sent their children to college and kept their utility bills affordable. These are good, honest, hard-working Americans.

Stanford’s decision to divest affects a very small portion of the endowment’s $18.7 billion holdings, but it is a major victory for the rapidly expanding student-led divestment movement that is active at roughly 300 universities. Harvard and other Ivy League schools have been resisting student pressure, but Stanford’s move to divest will add tremendous pressure to conform. 

Grimes has been an excellent campaigner with her constant attacks against long-time incumbent McConnell’s record on labor, women’s rights and jobs. She calls herself the right candidate to turn around high unemployment in her state. But eastern Kentucky has lost 40 percent of its coal-related jobs in just the last two years, according to Jason Bailey, director of the Kentucky Center for Economic Policy.”

The Kentucky Gannet newspaper commented that Grimes’s “position on climate change has been vague at best,” although her “defense of coal has been full-throated.”  Up until the last week, Grimes has avoided being associated with what locals call President Obama’s “War on Coal.” Yet being connected with an up to $2,600 a plate fundraiser with Californians that claim Kentucky coal causes “substantial social injury,” will be a substantial social issue in the November Senate race.

Photo: Wikimedia Commons

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