Queen’s gets dirty with oil

The University should divest from environmentally harmful companies

Ryan Broe argues that Queen’s must divest in companies that harm the environment to solidify that it’s a “green” campus.
Ryan Broe argues that Queen’s must divest in companies that harm the environment to solidify that it’s a “green” campus.
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Ryan Broe, ArtSci ’15

By investing in companies that degrade and pollute the environment, Queen’s has shown it isn’t committed to sustainability on campus.

The University as an institution behaves as though it values that principle. Queen’s created a Sustainability Office in 2008, which claims its purpose is to “advance the university’s green initiatives.”

Yet Queen’s is heavily invested in environmentally damaging and socially irresponsible fossil fuel extraction companies. By doing so, Queen’s is condoning the socially injurious actions of these companies and adding to the forces that stall climate change action.

Not only do the actions of these companies damage the environments they operate in, but they also have a detrimental effect on the health and livelihoods of the people that live near them. The companies Queen’s invests in have shown a particular disregard for Canada’s Indigenous population by ignoring treaty rights.

Current investments in the University Pooled Endowment Fund (PEF) — a collection of investments the University uses for scholarships, academic chairs and other university programs — include Canadian Oil Stands LTD, Cenovus Energy and Imperial Oil.

The University currently invests in 19 fossil fuel companies, with its financial stake totalling $25.3 million.

Imperial Oil has consistently denied proven allegations of unsafe soil contamination with heavy metals in residential areas of Calgary and appealed orders to clean their pollution in 2002. The Alberta Environmental Appeals Board claimed there was “no doubt” that hydrocarbons that had appeared on residential land came from Imperial Oil’s practice of land farming prior to 1977.

People living downstream of oil sands operations are exposed to higher than normal rates of heavy metals and toxins in the soil and water, which contributes to health issues. The Alberta Cancer Board found that odours and effluence from oil operations have potential to cause symptoms such as “tiredness, coughs, diarrhea, … as well as illnesses such as asthma, heart disease, diabetes, and stroke.”

A project proposed by Cenovus Energy — a Canadian oil company that works with Alberta oil sands — was rejected by the federal government in 2012, as Cenovus aimed to drill 1,275 gas wells in a national wildlife area that was previously designated as protected. Queen’s administration can’t ignore that human-driven climate change is a pressing issue, and that these companies should be held responsible for their negative impact on the environment.

Principal Daniel Woolf addressed this by signing Queen’s onto the University and College Presidents’ Climate Change Statement of Action for Canada in 2010. Through this statement, post-secondary institutions have promised to create an “institutional climate action plan” that uses their research abilities and education to develop climate change solutions.

Queen’s also promised to work with governments and educational institutions at all levels toward solutions to climate change issues. This can be seen through its inclusion in the 2014 City of Kingston Climate Action Plan.

But any vision of a green campus can’t be fully realized until divestment occurs.

Divestment from fossil fuel industries is an inherently divisive issue. Queen’s profits from its investments in these industries. Imperial Oil’s website says it provides “millions of dollars” to universities such as Queen’s.

But evidence shows that fossil-free portfolios aren’t any riskier. In recent years, they’ve brought in greater returns than those containing companies that operate in the oil sands or elsewhere.

Collusion with fossil fuel companies isn’t only an environmental issue, but one of social justice. Companies in the Canadian oil sands disproportionately affect the livelihoods of Indigenous peoples in the north of Alberta and other frontline areas.

Indigenous treaty rights and basic dignities are simultaneously ignored and insulted by government at multiple levels, by steamrolling projects through without their consent. The Beaver Lake Cree nation of northern Alberta has been in a legal battle since 2008 with operators in the oil sands over violations of treaty rights and land use.

The Beaver Lake Cree argue that operators in the oil sands are violating constitutionally entrenched Indigenous rights to the land they live on, and the provincial and federal governments are culpable for allowing it.

Oil sands operations damage water, land and wildlife, making traditional ways of life more difficult to maintain by depleting essential resources and nutrients.

The value of oil is falling. Studies from the Carbon Tracker Initiative say that the oil sands becoming economically viable will “require [a price of] over $95 [per barrel]” of oil. This is financially irresponsible, as the current price has dropped to below $50 per barrel.

Queen’s can no longer be involved in these industries. There are simply no more excuses to stay invested in fledgling, socially unjust companies.

There are innumerable alternatives to fossil fuel industries that Queen’s can work in concert with. Fossil-free portfolios show that investment in sustainable, “green” energy is providing better returns, and social opinions are continually turning against fossil fuel operators.

As an institute of higher education, Queen’s is supposed to foster innovative thinking to solve problems around the world — and it prides itself on doing so. It’s time for the University to align its actions with those ideals.

Ryan Broe is a fourth-year political studies major.

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