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Stanford will divest stakes in coal. Will it matter?

Stanford University

The Oval, the large grassy area at the top of Palm Drive, acts as a front lawn to Stanford's Main Quad. Stanford University announced today that they will divest itself of carbon- producing fossil-fuel investments.

 

Stanford will be the first major university to divest itself of carbon-producing fossil-fuel investments - but only coal producers. So how easy will it be for Stanford to cancel out coal-related investments? After all, coal is used widely by utilities and still generates nearly 40 percent of U.S. electricity. 

Kristoffer Inton, an equity analyst with Morningstar, says not investing in coal is as easy as "If you don’t want it -- don't buy it... Clearly if you don't want to invest in coal, you can not invest in the coal miners,” he says.

Companies that mine coal, like Peabody and Consol Energy, are listed individually on the S&P 500 so they’re easy to target, says Inton. But avoiding the energy source gets more complicated if you try to become a coal vegan, even avoiding companies that burn it – like steel manufacturers and utilities.

Inton notes that for investors, institutional or otherwise, not buying coal investments right now is not a hardship. Prices are down.

“Any time there’s been press on potential EPA regulations or anything like that, we’ve always seen a direct impact on coal miners’ stocks,” he says.

But even if more institutions like Stanford stop investing in coal, it’s not likely to have much impact on sellers. David Beard, managing director of energy equity research at Iberia Capital Partners, says look no farther than conscience investing campaigns of the past.

“I don’t see any real economic impact just given how the stock of Coke and Pepsi and Philip Morris have performed over time," he says. "And just because you sell a stock, it really doesn’t affect how much money a company has in their bank account to invest in their business.”

Beard says the bigger risk for energy companies would be a global carbon tax, which would raise the cost of electricity. But in the meantime, he notes, for coal producers, it's business as usual.

“It’s supply and demand, if the price is higher than the cost, people will mine it.”

About the author

Sally Herships is a regular contributor to Marketplace.

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