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Advocates for renewable energy gathered outside Main Hall at the University of Montana on Tuesday to call on school administrators to wipe the university’s endowment portfolio clean of fossil fuels.

Holding protest signs and singing folk songs, the advocates – more than 100 in number – said the time has come to write a new chapter in the university’s history, one that doesn’t include fossil fuels.

“We can choose to continue to invest in an antiquated, dirty system that we know is irrevocably changing the face of this planet and our very life-support system, or we can choose to invest in cleaner, renewable technology,” UM alum Bryony Schwan told the crowd.

Advocates suggested that roughly 8 percent of UM’s $150 million endowment portfolio is invested in fossil fuels. An exact figure from the University of Montana Foundation wasn’t immediately available on Tuesday.

“This is the most important moment in our future,” said Nick Triolo, a graduate student who led the rally on behalf of Reinvest Montana. “This is an institution whose origin story is based on a pretty dependent sustenance of fossil fuels. Let’s be honest about it, own it, honor it, and move on from it.”

More than 400 divestment campaigns are taking place across the country, advocates said, and 13 schools have already cut ties with the fossil fuels industry.

The push toward divestment at UM found its legs last year and has since blossomed into a coalition of community supporters, many of whom participated in Tuesday’s rally.

“People are not able to acknowledge – our leaders are not able to acknowledge – something that you all know,” said state Sen. Dick Barrett, D-Missoula. “We will not – we cannot – address the problem of climate change without reducing the use of fossil fuels.”

Barrett added that the livelihood of many Montanans remains tied to resource extraction and the fossil fuels industry. The state’s economy remains tied to fossil fuels, he said, creating a dependence not easily broken.

“All of our fortunes are based on the health of the fossil fuel industry,” Barrett said. “That degree of dependence that we have is what prevents us from actually grappling with the problem we have, and it puts us in a state of denial.”

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While most at the rally stood in support of divestment, not all students back the movement, including Lauren Meyer, who quietly held a sign reading “I Love Fossil Fuels.”

“We wanted to show not everyone agrees that we should be divesting from fossil fuels,” said Meyer. “We think the UM Foundation should be free to invest wherever it thinks it will be most beneficial for the endowment fund, and that we shouldn’t be damning the fossil fuels that sustain all our lives.”

Connor Sheffield expressed similar thoughts.

“We are going to stand up for the free markets and let the free markets make the decisions, not a political agenda,” he said. “I don’t want them thinking everyone’s going along with it. We may be a minority here, but we care about our future.”

The issue is a complex one that pits environmental health against social justice and state economics.

The Montana University System does not dictate where schools invest, and Kevin McRae, spokesperson for the Office of the Commissioner of Higher Education, said advocates have not called upon the MUS to divest from fossil fuels.

“If we did not invest in those sectors, I’m not sure how we’d reconcile our use of fossil fuels without making some type of moral judgment,” McRae said. “We heat our buildings with fossil fuels, we plow snow from the sidewalks for the benefit of students with fossil fuels, and one can assume that some of those advocates drove to the rally on fossil fuels.”

Even so, McRae said the MUS has moved to reduce its consumption of fossil fuels by retrofitting old campus buildings and by making other energy upgrades.

New building mandates put in place by the state require certification in Leadership in Engineering and Environment Design, including the new $32 million Missoula College building planned for East Broadway.

The Payne Family Native American Center at UM received LEED status, and Gaines Hall and the Cooley Lab at Montana State University are also LEED certified.

“The university system is cognizant of the subject of clean air and carbon emissions,” McRae said. “The university system also appreciates the interconnection of ecological, social and economic issues.”

While UM President Royce Engstrom was not available for comment, he said in a prepared statement that he appreciates the passion of divestment advocates and has asked them to engage in a larger discussion focused on the issue’s complexities.

Engstrom said it’s not appropriate for the university to divest at this time. The school lauds itself as being an economic contributor, but also one of the nation’s leading environmental universities.

“Both the UM Foundation and the university recognize the legitimacy of the issue and the sincerity of student concern,” Engstrom said. “They are motivated by a sincere dedication to the environment and to the university. I’m interested in the group having a broad discussion this year about the complexities of this important issue.”

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Reporter Martin Kidston can be reached at 523-5260, or at martin.kidston@missoulian.com.

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