On November 12th, representatives from Beyond Coal addressed the University of Illinois Board of Trustees with the most recent of many pleas for university investments to be diverted from coal to renewable energy. Laden with wit and relevant historical references, the organization’s riveting speech was best when delivered by Beyond Coal’s Director of Communications, Cary Shepherdd, but is sure to compel online readers, such as yourself, as well.
Watch the video here at 1:05
Address to The University of Illinois Board of Trustees
Written and delivered by Cary Shepherd
Good afternoon ladies and gentlemen of the board, I’d like to thank you for allowing me to be the 217th mustachioed liberal college student to steal another five minutes of your lives at one of these meetings. My name is Cary Shepherd, and I am the Director of Communications for the Urbana campus registered student organization Beyond Coal. The purpose of our organization is to inform the public about the coal industry and work with our University to adopt policies that minimize our endorsement and use of coal as an energy source.
Today I would like to talk to you about divesting our endowment funds from companies heavily involved in the coal industry. This is not the first time that our organization has spoken at one of your meetings, so I want to thank you for your patience with us and willingness to discuss this important issue. Today however, I will be addressing a new aspect of this issue. You have already heard about coal’s carcinogenic properties and its propensity to accelerate global warming in past presentations, so while we remain steadfast in our assertion that this is the most important reason we must lead the charge towards cleaner sources of energy, the focus of this brief is why coal is a financially poor investment for our endowment. However, while finance will be the focus of this presentation, it is important to note that coal is the most carbon intensive energy source, because that will play an important role in the financial analysis I am about to present.
As you are well aware, the purpose of our university endowment is not to flip stocks inside of a quarter. Our endowment is meant to financially safeguard our University for generations to come. Nobody in our organization is saying that coal is not profitable today or that we could stop using coal immediately as an energy source. We are saying that we must look to the future and invest responsibly.
The debate on energy is changing, and in a democracy, the debate matters. One month ago, the Pentagon, yes the Pentagon, held a press conference in which Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel released a report indicating that climate change poses an immediate threat to national security, with increased threats from terrorism, infectious disease, global poverty, and food shortages. If there was ever an indication that the current administration may be politically positioning itself to take aggressive action against climate change through regulation of carbon emissions, this is it. This is that indication.
Now, I had to make a few brief changes to this presentation because while I was putting on the finishing touches, the New York Times broke a story that the United States and China have been in secret negotiations to sign a treaty that aggressively overhauls international standards on carbon emissions. This happened three days ago. Once again, coal is the most carbon-intensive energy source on the market today. China is currently the world’s largest user of coal, and the United States is not far behind. The coal market will not just shrink in the United States, it will shrink internationally. We are at an important moment in history. Today is the day that just because coal has been a reliable source of energy for over 100 years, we have no certainty that this will remain the case. And personally, I’d like to see our endowment outlast the coal industry.
Again, we acknowledge that the energy we use must be produced somehow, so logically just because regulations of coal are increasing does not mean that it will become financially unprofitable. However, this in combination with other rising energy sources does indicate that. Coal’s claim to the throne of affordable energy king is no longer certain into the future. While our organization does not endorse the increased mining of natural gas through hydraulic fracturing, it is clear to see that this industry is growing exponentially across North America. All current financial indications point towards an energy industry squeeze of coal by natural gas in the 21st century. Furthermore, the technology to increase efficiency from nuclear and solar energy is advancing rapidly, again eating away at the segment of the energy market that coal once occupied comfortably.
I am a history major, and one of the most important concepts I have learned at the University of Illinois is how to use comparative history to understand the causes of similar events over time. When our university was founded in 1867, one of the largest energy sources in the country was oil. This had been the case for over 100 years. But it was not oil from the ground, it was oil from whales. Over the course of the following 50 years, increased competition from new energy sources such as petroleum and the increased regulation of the whaling industry drove that industry into the ground. Today, coal is being crowded out of the market by new and more efficient energy sources, and the regulations surrounding the extraction and burning of coal can be seen tightening on a regular basis. So let me ask you, would you have advised the University to invest in whaling companies in 1867? Would you advise investment in coal today?