Fossil fuel divestment campaign targets UCL and BHP Billiton

Date of publication: 
23 October 2014

University College London under fire for sustainability institute funded by mining giant BHP Billiton, which faces protests at its London AGM

The fast-growing campaign to persuade investors to dump fossil fuel stocks has set its sights on a twin target of the world’s biggest mining company and one of the globe’s best universities.

The mining giant BHP Billiton will face protests at its AGM in London on Thursday over its £6m association with University College London (UCL) and the effects of its activities around the world.

The fossil fuel divestment campaign began in the US, where cities, churches and universities have shed their stocks, and has spread rapidly to 50 universities in the UK, with Glasgow the first breakthrough. This week has seen protests against UK banks, which have provided £66bn of funding for fossil fuel extraction.

UCL is doubly implicated in the devastation that BHP Billiton in causing in countries like Indonesia and Colombia, both through its investments, and through its funding of UCL’s Institute for Sustainable Resources,” said Pekka Piirainen from the Fossil Free UCL campaign.

“Glasgow University has shown great leadership in being the first university [in Europe] to choose to stop profiting from the destruction of the climate – there’s no reason why UCL can’t do the same.”

UCL’s acceptance of funding from BHP Billiton led to the resignation of vice-dean Professor Jane Rendell in 2013.

A leading environmental scientist at UCL, Simon Lewis, said: “When I heard BHP Billiton is the founding funder of UCL’s Institute for Sustainable Resources, I didn’t believe it. It sounds like the environmental equivalent of a tobacco company sponsoring an Institute for Cancer Research. BHP Billiton mines enormous quantities of coal, a fossil fuel that needs to be phased out if international agreements to limit climate change are to be adhered to.”

A spokeswoman for UCL said: “UCL is committed to an investment policy that is guided by ethical considerations. We are currently engaged with the Fossil Free UCL campaign, who have asked us to consider a number of investments, and this is process is ongoing.”

She said: “The funding [from BHP Billiton] are used entirely at the discretion of UCL’s Institute for Sustainable Resources and are not influenced by or a reflection of the company’s business practice.”

The BHP Billiton AGM will also hear protests from people affected by its operations around the world. Rogelio Ustate Arregocés, has travelled from Colombia, where his village Tabaco was destroyed by the opencast Cerrejón coal mine, one of the largest in the world and part-owned by BHP.

“Where Tabaco stood is a hole, a sterile place of sadness and fear,” said Arregocés, who is being hosted by the World Development Movement. He accused BHP of breaking promises made about relocation, compensation and employment and will demand the provision of new land so the hundreds of families displaced can return to farming and fishing. “We want freedom, in our own territory.”

“I want to tell all investors in BHP to withdraw their money because of the damage this multinational does,” Arregocés said. Pius Ginting, from Friends of the Earth Indonesia, will also use proxy shares to tell the BHP Billiton AGM that the company should give up its huge areas of coal mining permits in the rainforests in the heart of Borneo. UCL declined to meet Arregocés or Ginting.

A spokesman for BHP Billiton said: “Cerrejón continues to engage with all the local communities to understand their individual concerns and develop tailored solutions to meet their needs whenever possible. There are a variety of challenges some of which pre-date our involvement.”

On the company’s project in Borneo, called IndoMet, the spokesman said: “Any development by us is subject to detailed environmental and social impact assessments and feasibility studies, including ensuring all appropriate permits are in place. All mined areas will be rehabilitated post-mining.”

The spokesman added that it had no involvement in directing research projects at UCL’s Institute for Sustainable Resources.

Another critical voice at the BHP Billiton AGM will be Ian Dunlop, a long-time former Shell employee and former chair of the Australian Coal Association, who will warn the company that shareholder value is at serious risk because of climate change.

“The opportunity for value destruction is enormous,” said Dunlop, who is seeking election to the BHP board. “BHP are ahead of much of the industry but that is not saying much, as the rest are all in denial.”

“The phase out of coal will be much more rapid than they expect,” he said. “BHP look at it as advanced, incremental change from business as usual, but they have to look at it as a paradigm shift.”

Analysts at Carbon Tracker argue that international action to combat global warming will leave at least two-thirds of known coal, oil and gas unburnable and valueless. The governor of the Bank of England, Mark Carney, said earlier in October the “vast majority of reserves are unburnable.”

BHP Billiton is recommending shareholders vote against Dunlop, stating he lacks the “overall skills and experience profile required”. Dunlop’s attempt to join the board on 2013 was opposed by 96% of shareholders.

“We accept the IPCC assessment of climate change science, which has found that warming of the climate is unequivocal, the human influence is clear and physical impacts are unavoidable,” said the BHP spokesman, citing the company’s recent sustainability report. “Energy coal makes up 25% of the energy mix and in many regions is the source of affordable energy that offers security of supply. This is likely to remain the case for some time.”


The shocking cost of Scotland’s love affair with ethically dirty coal

Colombian campaigners travel to Scotland to urge investors and politicians to boycott fuel for nations’ power stations ‘stained by blood’

Exclusive by Rob Edwards Environment Editor, The Herald Sunday –

25 October 2014

Scotland is being urged to stop burning “ethically dirty coal” from Colombia.

The country is also being asked to pull the public sector’s multi-million pound investment in the vast Cerrejón mine in the La Guajira region of Colombia. The mine, which covers 69,000 hectares, has forcibly displaced farming communities, polluted water supplies and destroyed sacred sites, according to Colombian campaigners who are due in Scotland this week.

“The coal which is used to warm your houses on cold nights is the same coal which has taken our homes from us,” says Rogelio Ustate from the Federation of Communities Displaced by Mining in La Guajira (Fecodemigua).

“The coal that comes from Cerrejón is dirty coal, stained by the blood and sweat of the people of La Guajira. In Europe, people enjoy light at the suffering of these communities.”

He alleges that children have died because of a contaminated river, and that the mine uses huge amounts of water leaving people dying of thirst. “Coal mining in Colombia has led to the destruction of the social fabric … and the destruction and disappearance of sacred sites,” he says.

According to government figures, nearly four million tonnes of Colombian coal was imported to Hunterston in north Ayrshire in 2013. A substantial portion ended up being burned in Scotland’s biggest power station at Longannet in Fife.

The Cerrejón mine is one-third owned by BHP Billiton, a £40 billion Anglo-Australian mining giant. Research by the Sunday Herald has revealed that in 2013, Scotland’s main public-sector pension scheme covering 430 bodies invested £64 million in the company.

The Scottish Parliament is part of a pension scheme that invests £327,000 in BHP Billiton, while Edinburgh University invests just under £1m and Glasgow University last year invested £80,000. Francisco Tovar, also from Fecodemigua, called on BHP Billiton investors to consider the livelihoods that the mine was threatening. “The suffering, the hunger and the pain cannot be justified by any profit made,” he said.

Tovar and Ustate protested at BHP Billiton’s annual meeting in London on Thursday, and are due in Scotland this week to talk to MSPs, coal-mining communities and the public. Their tour has been organised by campaigning groups in the UK, and they will be joined by environmentalists from Indonesia worried about the company’s coal plans for Borneo.

One of the organisers, Coal Action Scotland, demanded that Longannet cease burning Colombia coal. “By burning this coal, Scotland is complicit in the human rights abuses and massive environmental damage caused by open-cast mining in Colombia,” said the group’s Oliver Munnion.

Demands to disinvest from BHP Billiton have been backed by John Finnie MSP, who joined the Scottish Green Party earlier this month. He praised Glasgow University for its recent decision to stop investing in fossil-fuel companies, and urged the Scottish Parliament to follow suit.

The parliament, however, pointed out that its pension scheme was pooled and independently managed. Edinburgh University is currently reviewing whether to disinvest from fossil-fuel companies.

Scottish Power, which operates Longannet, confirmed that it imported coal from Colombia, but declined to say how much. “Our coal procurement contracts include clauses which assert that suppliers must have good practices for supporting and respecting the protection of human rights,” said a company spokesman.

BHP Billiton accepted that there had been problems in Colombia, but insisted it “cared deeply” about the criticisms. “As a shareholder in the Cerrejón mine, we take a very active interest in the way the mine is working and the relationship with the local community,” said company chairman Jac Nasser. “We know progress has been made and that the Cerrejón management team is absolutely committed to maintaining and improving its relationship with the local communities,” he added. “We recognise that Cerrejón is operating in an extremely difficult socio-political environment and that this history is long and complex.”

The company pointed out that the mine made a major contribution to the economy in Colombia. In 2013, it created more than 14,000 jobs directly and indirectly, and paid $650 million (£400m) in taxes and royalties.