URBANA — Students at the University of Illinois are urging trustees not to invest the UI's money in coal, saying the fossil fuel accelerates climate change and endangers the environment and human health.
The university has no direct investments in coal, a spokesman said Friday, but it's not ready to make any changes to its investment policy.
The group UIUC Beyond Coal sponsored a rally Friday in front of the absent Alma Mater statue, asking the university to divest of any holdings in coal operations.
Speakers cited a litany of complaints about coal, from groundwater contamination to hazardous emissions that contribute to global warming to toxic waste from the coal ash left after coal is burned.
Sophomore Drew O'Brien said people around the world are affected by climate change, caused in part by energy use in the United States.
"We cannot just stand by and let that happen any more. We want to stop letting our money go to coal companies," he said.
The Illinois Student Senate passed a resolution last week demanding that the UI not invest directly in coal-mining or coal-utility companies. Students plan to ask UI trustees to support the resolution at an upcoming meeting, said Katie Mimnaugh, graduate student in natural resources and environmental sciences.
UI officials said Friday the university has no direct investments in coal companies, and at most has about $8 million invested indirectly through stock market index funds in a group of companies identified by coal opponents as the "Filthy 15."
Peter Newman, UI senior assistant vice president for treasury operations, said the university's active endowment is about $375 million, and no more than 1 percent to 2 percent of that is invested in those companies through index funds, which are tied to general stock market performance.
"They're passive investments. The index managers buy the whole market," Newman said.
The rest of the UI's $1.7 billion endowment is managed by the UI Foundation, which also has no direct investments in coal, though it may have some indirectly invested through index or managed funds, said spokesman Don Kojich. The foundation has no policy regarding investments in energy companies or fossil fuels, Kojich said.
"Our board has the fiduciary responsibility to try to secure the best returns possible, and in turn those revenues are redistributed and reallocated back to the university," he said.
University spokesman Tom Hardy said the UI has reduced its use of coal-generated power as part of sustainability initiatives and agreed to stop using coal at Abbott Power Plant by 2017.
"We've made a commitment to increased renewable energy," Hardy said, adding, "At this stage, we're not ready to say we would change our current investment management policy for our active endowment."
At the rally, Mimnaugh said, "Just because the university doesn't use coal doesn't mean it's not culpable."
Brian Perbix of the Prairie Rivers Network said coal mines pollute Illinois waterways with arsenic, mercury and other toxins, and when they close after two or three decades, those problems are left behind.
Coal slurry — the liquid and solid waste byproduct of coal mining — can endanger water supplies, Perbix said. He cited a case in 2008 when a wall holding back 80 acres of sludge from the Tennessee Valley Authority's Kingston power plant sent 500 million gallons of waste spilling into the surrounding area.
Phillip Gonet, president of the Illinois Coal Association, said the United States has the most stringent regulations in the world covering coal-mining and coal-fired power plants. Operators have to meet standards for dealing with coal ash and wastewater, and refuse ponds are monitored, he said.
Coal provides low-cost energy that's vital to the U.S. economy, Gonet argued. About 42 percent of the nation's energy comes from coal, a figure that was closer to 50 percent before natural gas prices dropped, he said.
Environmental advocates favor renewable energy sources such as wind and solar energy, blaming fossil fuels for global warming.
"If you don't like coal, and you don't like natural gas, and you don't like nuclear, how are you going to keep the lights on? How are you going to power your computer?" Gonet said.
The coal industry contributes an estimated $1.6 billion to the Illinois economy, according to state figures. About 38 tons of coal will be mined this year, though most of that is shipped overseas or to power plants with scrubbers to remove the sulfur dioxide, officials said. Most Illinois power plants use lower-sulfur coal from Wyoming to meet federal emission standards, Gonet said.
Students at the rally said the coal issue goes beyond economics, calling it a human-rights issue. For instance, coal emissions are linked to asthma in children, they said.
"The university is going to make this an issue about money. Your job is to make them defend coal's crimes against nature and crimes against future generations. Every day, the coal industry is literally killing the planet," said retired UI Professor Clark Bullard of the National Wildlife Federation.
He likened it to anti-apartheid campaigns of the 1980s and 1990s, when students persuaded the UI and other universities nationwide to divest from companies that did business in South Africa.
Among the speakers at Friday's rally was Charles Goodall, one of the farmers who founded standuptocoal.org, which is fighting efforts by Sunrise Coal to buy water from the village of Homer for its proposed mine in Vermilion County.
He said coal mining threatens clean water and farmland itself, and in a world facing continued population growth "food production trumps coal production," Goodall said. "We must protect our land; we must stand up to coal. The university must see coal for what it is, an energy source from a bygone era."
Tyler Rotche, president of UIUC Beyond Coal, said the UI was one of the first campuses to sign on to the Beyond Coal campaign. Two institutions, Unity College in Maine and Hampshire College in Massachusetts, have already agreed to divest from coal, he said.