An advisory committee struck by University of Toronto president Meric Gertler has recommended that the country's largest university should divest its investments from fossil fuel companies that "blatantly disregard" the international effort to combat climate change.
In a report released Wednesday, the 10-person committee named Exxon Mobil Corp., ConocoPhillips Co. and a number of coal producers including the world's largest producer, Peabody Energy Corp., as "clear examples" of companies whose shares should be sold. "We recognize we're not a big player but [divestment] is part of a sea change that says we should be doing more of this and less of that," said Bryan Karney, who headed the committee and serves as chair of the university's division of environmental engineering and energy systems.
"Specifically, we think divestment is a binary decision that says these are activities that we should not be doing."
Mr. Gertler – who called climate change "one of the most pressing issues of our times" – said he would be studying the report and responding in the new year. "We have to make our policy decision with the most complete information available to us," he said. University of Toronto Asset Management had $7.4-billion in assets under management at the end of 2014, including endowment and pension funds. It owns the specific shares mentioned through a pooled fund, rather than directly.
Universities across the world have been under pressure from divestment campaigns in recent years. More than 30 such campaigns are under way at postsecondary institutions in Canada alone, but few have met with unqualified success. In February, the University of British Columbia's board of governors will vote on whether to divest $100-million in coal, oil and gas investments from its endowment. In two referendums, more than three-quarters of students and about two-thirds of faculty voted in favour of asking the university to divest its fossil fuel holdings.
Others, such as the University of Calgary and Dalhousie have so far ruled out divestment.
Mr. Karney said the committee singled out Exxon, Conoco and the coal producers as companies that were particularly egregious in their disregard for efforts to limit global warming. The panel – comprising professors and students from a variety of disciplines – accused Exxon of "alleged funding of disinformation" about climate change.
Exxon spokesman Alan Jeffers said the company "unequivocally rejects these allegations" that it financed a disinformation campaign. Mr. Jeffers said the company has long acknowledged the reality of climate change and proposes a revenue-neutral carbon tax as a means of addressing it.
He said the U of T committee did not contact the company for its position. "If they have questions about what we're doing, they should come to us," he said.
Mr. Karney said the committee was not making a blanket condemnation or call for divestment of all fossil fuel companies, including Canada's oil sands producers that are often the target of climate change activists. Indeed, it concluded that fossil fuels will remain critical part of the energy mix for many years. "A blanket divestment strategy would be unprincipled and inappropriate in the committee's view," the report said.
The committee chair said Canada's oil sands companies have indicated "they're aware of these concerns and appreciate these concerns and we certainly hope they'll get on board for saying we need to do a better job, we need to be sustainable, we need to be better at communicating."
He added that the university should not just focus on divestment but provide leadership in research, action and teaching in how the society as a whole confronts climate change.
With a file from education reporter Simona Chiose in Toronto.