Jeb Wallace-Brodeur / Staff Photo
State Sen. Anthony Pollina, P/D-Washington, speaks about divestment of companies that add to climate change during a news conference Thursday with activist Vermont college students at the State House.
MONTPELIER — College students gathered at the State House on Thursday in support of legislation that would divest the state pension fund of stocks from top fossil fuel companies.
If the bill passes, Vermont would be the first state to drop fossil fuel stocks from its state pension fund. Similar legislation is pending in Massachusetts and the District of Columbia, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures.
“The college divestment movement arrives at a key moment in global history with Vermont students at the helm,” said University of Vermont student Josh Gachette. In addition to the legislation, the students are pursuing changes in university endowment investments.
The student campaign Gachette belongs to pursues similar goals to 350.org, an international group founded by environmentalist Bill McKibben. McKibben lives in Ripton and serves as a scholar in- residence at Middlebury College.
To date, 21 cities and two counties in the U.S. have committed to fossil fuel divestment plans, according to organizer Alyssa Johnson-Kurts of 350Vermont, a branch of 350.org.
“Fossil fuel divestment is not the only answer,” said UVM student Caroline DeCunzo. “Divestment is not the end goal in this movement to mitigate climate change and to preserve our society and our relationships with each other.”
Vermont State Treasurer Beth Pearce said she shared climate concerns with the students but expressed concerns with divestment of fossil fuels. She said it would cause “sizable” impact, with losses up to $11 million annually for the state pension fund, and could reduce dollars available for future energy initiatives.
Pearce plans to propose the addition of a fossil-free mutual fund investment option for state pension recipients in early February that she says will fulfill fiduciary responsibility without sacrificing energy goals.
Selling fossil fuel stocks would forfeit “the ability to influence from within,” said Pearce.
Washington County Sen. Anthony Pollina, a co-sponsor of the divestment legislation, approved of Pearce’s proposal but did not consider it an alternative to dropping stocks in fossil fuels.
“I don’t think Mobil or Exxon have made one decision based on anything that Beth Pearce has told them,” Pollina said of the possibility of gaining influence through stockholding.
“It seems like state officials are starting to feel the pressure from young people across the state for fossil fuel divestment,” McKibben said in an email responding to Pearce’s proposal. “If the example of South African divestment a quarter century ago is any guide, they’ll try to do the easiest things first — letting some people invest in good stocks, for instance, and avoid really confronting the big fossil fuel interests. But I’m willing to bet that they’ll eventually come around and divest.”
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