Well-Heeled Activists Are Trying to Eradicate Planes, Trains, and Automobiles

Published January 19, 2015

“Planes, trains, and automobiles” is not just the name of Steve Martin’s 1987 everything-goes-wrong comedy film, it is also a growing casualty list of the foundation-led anti-fossil fuel campaign called the Divest/Invest movement.

The new crusade urges universities, churches, pension funds, and other big institutional investors to divest themselves of all holdings related to fossil fuel, to fight global warming. In the past two years, dozens of public and private institutions have announced plans to divest fossil fuels from their portfolios.

The campaign made headlines at the September 2014 United Nations Climate Summit, where the “Divest-Invest Global Movement” delivered more than $50 billion dollars in divestment pledges.

Stigmatizing Proving Effective

The Stranded Assets Promgramme at Oxford University published a report entitled “Stranded Assets and the Fossil Fuel Divestment Campaign” that found dumping stocks may not even be necessary to destroy the oil and gas industry, because “stigmatizing” can do it even more easily.

According to the paper, “The stigmatization process, which the fossil fuel divestment campaign has now triggered, poses the most far-reaching threat to fossil fuel companies and the vast energy value chain. Any direct impacts pale in comparison.” Stigmatization often leads to calls for restrictive legislation affecting stigmatized firms, and an overly restrictive regulatory regime or outright bans could be fatal.

The problem for the public is if the divest/invest movement is successful there are no good alternatives for the critical roles fossil fuels serve in the world. Stigmatizers lie when they say fossil-free alternatives are available for everything. They are not.

No Fuel, No Goods

If the fossil fuel supply chain collapsed due to lack of capital, Americans’ 254.4 million registered cars and trucks would become huge lawn ornaments. There is not enough biofuel in the world to satisfy U.S. transportation demand, much less the global demand.

If fossil fuels are halted, say goodbye to convenient shopping and hello to long lines and shortages: Store shelves would become as empty at the nation’s trucks’ fuel tanks. America’s 26.4 million registered commercial trucks and 2.4 million heavy-duty trucks that deliver more than 70 percent of all our freight, including our food, would cease delivery due to lack of fuel.

Shipping would also grind to a halt as the nation’s 39,000 merchant ships and the estimated 40,000 ships from other countries become floating relics. Technically, the entire fleet could go nuclear, but it’s not clear enough uranium and shipyard capacity exist for some 80,000 retrofits or new builds. And most environmentalists loathe nuclear power even more than they hate fossil fuels. The divestment war would just shift to nuclear.

Rail lines carrying our bulk cargoes would also roll to a stop. Experiments with hydrogen-fueled locomotives are being conducted, and none of these Hindenburg-on-rails experiments have exploded yet. However, safe, commercial hydrogen rail technology is years or decades away.

Without fossil fuels the entire airplane fleet will be grounded. Jet fuel is a high-energy, freeze-resistant mixture of a large number of different hydrocarbons, including emerging biofuels. Even the synthetic fuels under study are all hydrocarbons. Jet fuel must be freeze-resistant, because the atmospheric temperature at cruising altitudes is about 50 degrees below zero Fahrenheit, and even in-wing heaters can’t keep gel-prone fuels from clogging.

Anybody who recalls the closure of U.S. airspace after the September 11 terrorist attacks may remember fondly the quiet skies with no contrails, but investors, including retirees and retirement funds, lost $1.4 trillion in one week.

In addition, there are also no ready replacements for fossil fuels in the manufacture of plastics, lubricants, asphalt for paving roads, wax for sealing frozen food packaging, fertilizer, linoleum, perfume, insecticides, petroleum jelly, soap, vitamin capsules, pharmaceuticals, and the 6,000 other petroleum products we all use.

Full divestment in fossil fuels would result in the collapse of modern civilization into unimaginably horrendous chaos.

Big Money Behind Campaign

The Divest/Invest movement can be traced to a single private foundation, the little-known Washington-based Wallace Global Fund II, with 2012 assets of $115,471,213.

The WGF’s millions came originally from the 1920s-era Hi-Bred Corn Company of Henry A. Wallace, who parlayed his wealth into political power as U.S. Secretary of Agriculture, Secretary of Commerce, and Vice-President of the United States under Franklin D. Roosevelt, and the ultra-Leftist Progressive Party’s 1948 presidential nominee.

The current executive team divested the fund from coal holdings because it conflicted with their ideological goal of eliminating use of coal. Then they began to spread their gospel. In June 2011, WGFII convened a group of college students and environmental activists at its offices to launch a coal divestment campaign on the nation’s campuses.

According to the Fund’s IRS disclosures, they gave more than twenty cooperating groups substantial grants in 2011 and 2012, including the Sierra Club Student Coalition, $180,000; the anti-corporate lawsuit group As You Sow, $160,000; and Bill McKibben’s 350.org, $205,000, to front the campaign. The campaign quickly expanded from coal to all fossil fuels.

McKibben, a widely read environmental doomsayer, gets the credit for starting the Divest/Invest movement, largely because of notoriety built by his many foundation supporters and his scary articles in Rolling Stone and Grist. Thus far, however, even McKibben has only been able to secure 13 divestment commitments, all from small colleges with small endowments.

Trustees of big universities have thus far refused to join the divestment movement because they have a legal, fiduciary trust to keep their institutions solvent. May it always be so!