April 30, 2002

Cornell Greens Influence BP Vote

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In the wake of international debate over the sanctity of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge (ANWR), members of the Investment Committee, in a proxy vote earlier this month, voted its shares in the British oil corporation BP — formerly known as British Petroleum — in favor of Resolution 14, a proposal intended to protect the area. Cornell University owns over 185,000 shares in the BP corporation.

Resolution 14 called for BP’s commitment to study the full costs of oil exploration in the ANWR, including consideration of environmental and social impacts. The resolution also demanded that the corporation only pursue development of this and other sites after compiling a comprehensive environmental risk assessment report that would consider sustainable development and loss of profitability resulting from negative publicity.

In spite of the enthusiasm for the resolution on Cornell’s campus, at the London shareholder meeting on April 18, the resolution did not pass, with 1,290,371,100 shares voting in favor and 11,270,949,142 against it.

The “resolution failed by a wide majority. It was more symbolic than anything … the kiss of death was that members of the board of BP — the decision-making body — were against it,” said Alex Bomstein ’04, a member of the Cornell Greens, the organization that influenced members of the administration and the University Investment Committee to participate in the proxy vote.

“Most shares are held by large shareholders: large corporations, pension funds,” he added.

Every other resolution, totaling 13, passed. One such resolution opens the way for BP to buy its own stock, according to Bomstein.

While the resolution ultimately did not succeed in changing corporate policy, Cornell’s decision to vote in favor of the environmentally and socially protective proposal passage stands to many as a testament to the University’s commitment to the environment as articulated in President Hunter R. Rawlings III’s 1997 promotion of environmental responsibility.

Persuasive efforts of the Cornell Greens, a campus environmental organization, influenced the decision of the Investment Committee, led by James S. Clarke, chief investment officer, in favor of the resolution.

The Greens first learned of the proxy vote and the BP shareholders’ meeting from the organization Ecopledge.com, a nation-wide group that works to encourage environmentally responsible business practices and increase student awareness.

In an effort to see that Cornell partook in the proxy vote, several members of the Greens, including Bomstein, Lindsey Saunders ’03, Christelle Munnelly ’05 and Odette Mucha ’05, met with Harold Craft, vice president for administration and chief financial officer.

According to Bomstein, the Greens felt comfortable meeting with Craft because, “We have a history of working with him, through him. We had to convince him it’s in Cornell’s interest to vote. He was the first stage in the process.”

“[Craft] thought it was a very sensible idea and even said he’d vote his own shares of BP in favor of 14,” Mucha said.

Craft then referred the student-activists the University Investment Committee.

Later that week, the group met with members of committee. The students were supported by a statement from the Student Assembly (SA) that encouraged passage of the resolution.

Bomstein explained that the support of the SA showed, “that we’re not just some students off the street but that we have a backing, that the representatives of the student body believe that this is a good idea, too.”

“[The actual meeting was], pretty fun. It seemed like a losing battle while it was going on but they were willing to listen to us certainly judging by the results,” Bomstein said.

While BP’s resolution to protect the ANWR failed, the corporation’s ability to explore the ANWR was blocked when the Senate voted against a proposal by President Bush and resolved to block oil and gas exploration in the area.

“Eleven percent of the shareholders voted in favor of Resolution 14 which was considered a victory by the environmentalists. The efforts were by no means a waste. The message that the environmental community sent to the oil companies, as well as to the rest of the world, and maybe even the U.S. government, was that we must start taking responsibility for the future of the globe,” Mucha said.

Resolution 14 did not mark the first attempt made by student activists to influence University investments.

“Cornell doesn’t have the best track record of voting responsibly,” Mucha said in reference to failed attempts by student groups in the 1980s to make Cornell divest in a corporation that was allegedly funding the continuation of apartheid in South Africa.

Student efforts proved more successful in a 1999 campaign against policy of Home Depot. In May of that year, the University voted on a resolution with Home Depot, “to get them to stop using old growth wood — wood from forests that have never been cut — and that worked,” Bomstein said.

After the successful passage of Resolution 14 by the Investment Committee, student groups have greater encouragement that future efforts may also evoke environmental and social change.

“I hope this is a sign of good future prospects of student involvement in University operations,” Bomstein said.

According to many student activists, the University also stands to benefit from further environmental policy.

“Cornell is one of the largest research institutions in the country. Our school prides itself on being ahead of the field in cutting edge technologies and innovations. Renewable energy is going to be a huge market, and Cornell could take advantage of that. It’s definitely in Cornell’s best interest to support sustainable methods of energy,” Mucha said.

“I think this vote shows [the University’s] commitment to environmental sustainability and their commitment to having funds invested responsibly. I think it’s the start towards socially responsible investments, this is barely a drop in the bucket,” said Lindsey Saunders, a member of the Cornell Greens. “While this is really great … there’s still so much to be done.”

Archived article by Laura Rowntree