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A students walks on campus at Stanford University in Palo Alto, Calif. The university announced on May 6 that it would divest its $18.7-billion (U.S.) endowment of stock in coal mining companies. (THOR SWIFT/NYT)
A students walks on campus at Stanford University in Palo Alto, Calif. The university announced on May 6 that it would divest its $18.7-billion (U.S.) endowment of stock in coal mining companies. (THOR SWIFT/NYT)

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Stanford’s snub to coal is typical of Silicon Valley Add to ...

Stanford’s snub to coal is typical of Silicon Valley. The black rock is an easy target for the university’s $18.7-billion (U.S.) endowment, which is bigger than the top five U.S. coal firms combined. But shouldn’t the principle behind it, reversing global warming, also apply to oil companies, including Stanford donor Chevron? Like Valley tech tycoons, the Palo Alto school seems to shun some evils only so far.

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There are plenty of reasons to dislike coal. The fossil fuel is dangerous to extract – killing about 300,000 miners through accidents and black lung disease since 1900, according to a 2011 Harvard University study. It generates 130 million tons of waste annually and is estimated to cause 11,000 premature deaths a year from lung cancer and other maladies. Yet Stanford entered morally fuzzy territory by pinning its coal boycott on “the availability of alternate energy sources with lower greenhouse gas emissions.”

In theory, such logic should mean ditching oil and natural gas too. While coal accounted for 32 per cent of America’s carbon dioxide emissions from fossil fuels in 2013, that was trumped by oil on 42 per cent.

Coal is a far easier target. The value of the nation’s five most valuable coal firms comes to a mere $18.6-billion. And the largest, Consol Energy, at $10.2-billion, gets around 40 per cent of its earnings from natural gas. Even those without ecological concerns have good reason to abandon coal. As seams of Appalachian lignite are exhausted, costs are climbing. Meanwhile margins on Powder River Basin coal are thin due to high transport costs.

If Stanford really wanted to show its green bona fides, ditching Big Oil would have been the way to do it. The top five U.S. oil and gas companies alone are worth $900-billion. But that would have made the decision difficult for the university endowment’s stock pickers. Stanford would also have had to contend with any fallout from Chevron, whose headquarters are 65 kilometres away from campus. The company has funded faculty positions and contributed to new laboratories at the University’s School of Earth Sciences.

Easy moralizing is something of a Silicon Valley habit. Tech bosses have often failed to live up to their statements about helping humankind. Some have engaged in exploitative manufacturing practices, shown a disregard for customers’ privacy, and trampled on shareholders’ rights. In this context, Stanford’s cost-free swipe at coal feels right at home.

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