Students, environmental leaders ask attorney general to investigate Boston College’s fossil fuel holdings

Sunset over Boston College's campus. On December 15, a group of environmental advocates requested Massachusetts Attorney General Maura Healey investigate the university's fossil fuel investments. (Harvey Egan/Wikimedia Commons)

By Jesse Remedios
BU News Service

A coalition of local political leaders, Massachusetts environmental organizations and Boston College alumni filed a complaint December 15 with Massachusetts Attorney General Healy alleging the university’s fossil fuel investments violate state law.

The complainants argue that, as managers of a non-profit educational institution, Boston College’s trustees are bound by state law to promote the well-being of students and advance the school’s mission of building a just society, according to a copy of the complaint obtained by BU News Service. But investing in the fossil fuel industry, they say, damages the world’s natural systems, harms vulnerable communities and imperils the university’s financial and physical well-being.

“As concerned students, faculty, political leaders, civic groups, and community members, we ask that you investigate this conduct and that you use your enforcement powers to order the Trustees of Boston College to cease their investments in fossil fuels,” the complaint states. 

Signatories include Boston city councilors Michelle Wu and Emily Norton; James Hansen, director of climate science, awareness and solutions at Columbia University’s Earth Institute; the Massachusetts Sierra Club; and more than a dozen alumni. The Climate Defense Project, a nonprofit legal group, helped prepare the document.

Boston College believes the complaint letter has no basis in Massachusetts law, university spokesman Jack Dunn told BU News Service via email December 16.

Boston College opposes fossil fuel divestment on the grounds that it “is not an effective means of addressing climate change,” Dunn said. 

The endowment exists to provide the university with a permanent source of funding, Dunn said, and “is not a tool to promote social or political change, however desirable that change might be.”

Boston College has an endowment of more than $2.4 billion, according to a 2020 factbook published by the university. The December 15 complaint estimated that $200 million of that is invested in fossil fuels, although it acknowledged the precise figure is unknown.

This is not the first time advocates have demanded Boston College relinquish its fossil fuel stocks. 

In 2019, the university rejected a student government referendum calling on the administration to divest from fossil fuels, according to student newspaper The Heights. And this past June, after the Vatican called on the Catholic Church to stop supporting the fossil fuel industry, Boston College said its position remained unchanged.

In recent years, inspired by the environmental advocacy of Pope Francis, more than 200 global Catholic institutions have shed their fossil fuel stocks, according to the Global Catholic Climate Movement, a coalition dedicated to turning the church’s environmental teachings into action. In the U.S., that includes Georgetown University –  a Jesuit university, like Boston College.

In a statement, Boston College senior Kyle Rosenthal – a member of the group Climate Justice at Boston College and one of the complaint’s organizers – expressed frustration at the university’s unwillingness to work with divestment advocates in the past. That lack of engagement, he said, pushed organizers to pursue this new legal strategy.

“We have attempted to engage with our university for decades and their refusal has forced this action,” Rosenthal said.

Organizers believe the complaint could lead to further legal action down the road, including litigation.

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