UON and Fossil Fuels: Can we cut our coal ties?

Shea Evans investigates just how interconnected our university is with the mining sectors and chats with the students who want to sever those ties.

Our town of Newcastle and its coal industry were born at the same time. In 1797, Lieutenant John Shortland was pursuing a group of convict runaways from the Sydney settlement. On his return, he entered the inlet of what he called ‘a very fine river’ (that is, the Hunter River) and discovered coal there. The rest, as they say, is history, and coal remains to this day one of the largest industries of the greater Newcastle and Hunter Valley. An increasingly large number of people, however, believe that divesting from coal is the only way to ensure for ourselves a clean and sustainable future.

According to its Facebook page, Fossil Free UON is “part of the international Fossil Free network – a collective of grass-root groups formed to tackle institutions that are profiteering off investments in the fossil fuel industry.”

Fossil Free UON claims that there is an invested and ongoing relationship between UON and the fossil fuel industry, that this is morally wrong, and that there is real evidence to back it up. The group’s Facebook page expresses a desire for the university to, “divest from any ties that connect them to fossil fuels, whether it’s banks or companies,” and asks students for their help in doing so.

The group, about 30 members strong with a core crew of 15, has several goals and concerns in relation to our university and environmental sustainability.

“Our broad umbrella goal is to promote environmental sustainability among the student body of UON,” Fossil Free UON secretary Justin Chey said.

Further goals, he said, are “to also provide training for campus organising which crosses over with community organising. Our main objective is to get UON to cut its investments with the fossil fuel industry, that’s our final campaign goal.”

The group is hoping that a recently submitted GIPA (Government Information Public Access) request will shed fresh light on the situation. The information request, if accepted, will allow them to ask for specific university documents that are otherwise unavailable for viewing. These documents, the group maintains, may contain new information about UON’s relationship with the fossil fuel industry.

“We are awaiting a response,” one member of the group,  Keira Dott, said. She also said that she doesn’t expect much to come from it, saying that the university hasn’t wanted to give them any information.  She did say that she was hopeful about what the information, if it is released, will mean for Fossil Free UON and other students.

“It will inform what Fossil Free UON does next and what kind of action we decide to take. I hope that it will motivate students to take more action and continue to apply pressure on the University to divest.”

Justin Chey said that GIPA requests have been worthwhile in the past: “We have seen virtually the same GIPA request submitted by the NTEU (National Tertiary Education Union) and from the result of their GIPA request we have seen that the university has received donations from oil and mining companies… It could sway the directions research take, we’re not entirely sure.”

“If an industry funds something, it is likely to be somehow skewed toward what the industry wants.”

The idea that the fossil fuel industry could be attempting to influence university research is, according to Professor Daniel Nyberg of the UON Business School, absolutely possible.

Professor Nyberg, who is researching the way corporations respond to climate change, compares the situation to the science surrounding sugar.

“If you look at the findings where ‘Big Soda’ or cigarette companies have funded the science they will have different outcomes than if there’s governmental funding,” he said.

“So if an industry funds something, it is likely to be somehow skewed toward what the industry wants. If the coal industry or the fossil fuel industry in the vicinity is funding research centres or research here it’s likely to impact it.”

Six mining companies have invested heavily in the University of Newcastle. The Our Supporters page of the Universtiy website contains a link to the ‘UON Supporter Honour Board’. The honour board is a long list of companies and individuals that have contributed to the university financially and it ranks the contributors in order of bronze, silver, gold, and platinum level donations.



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Three of the eight platinum level donators are mining companies: BHP Billiton, Glencore Coal, and NuCoal Resources. Two of the six gold level donators are coal companies: Port Waratah Coal Services, and Coal & Allied Industries. One of the 54 bronze level donators is a coal mining company: Bloomfield Collieries.

Three of these companies offer major scholarships at UON with Glencore offering one $30,000 scholarship, Port Waratah Coal Services offering two $21,000 scholarships, and Coal & Allied offering eight scholarships worth $10,000 each.

The Glencore Coal Scholarship page on the university’s website says the following: “It is the intention of Glencore to build ongoing relationships with scholars including opportunities for paid work experience and professional networking opportunities during their degree program with a view to scholars being considered for a career with Glencore upon graduation.”

Fossil Free UON is also concerned about certain members of the University Executive Council and their past involvement with the fossil fuel industry. According to staff profiles, under the ‘meet our Council members’ section of the university website, more than one member of the UEC has previously been employed by mining companies in a chief executive role.

“If the university is looking for reduced dependence or investment on fossil fuel, these board members are probably not going to welcome that as much considering the ties. You don’t bite the hand that feeds you.”

The profile for Geoff Lillis, a conjoint professor of the council, says of his previous career: “Most recently, Geoff was Managing Director and CEO of a leading international manufacturing and mining services group”

The profile of Chancellor Paul Jeans says that he is “a fellow of the Institution of Engineers Australia and the Australian Institute of Company Directors, and a Past Fellow of the Australasian Institute of Mining and Metallurgy.” His profile also highlights his more than 40 years spent working with BHP in a number of executive roles, including acting as the Executive General Manager and CEO of its Ferrous Minerals Business

The Chancellor’s profile goes on to describe a few more companies that he was the director of and it is understandable why Fossil Free UON wants more information on how these companies are tied to our university. They fear that these past allegiances from councillors could influence their approaches to climate change today.

Professor Nyberg thinks that the idea of UEC members being influenced by their past employment is “something that’s plausible” but also suggests that this influence may not necessarily be a bad thing.

“These people on the board are probably well qualified as individuals to assist the university in moving forward,” he said. “I’m definitely for divestment, however, if someone has had a history of connection to fossil fuels in the past it doesn’t disqualify them from being important or insightful in terms of how we’re going to move this university forward.”

He does admit, however, the likelihood that, “if the university is looking for reduced dependence or investment on fossil fuel, these board members are probably not going to welcome that as much considering the ties. You don’t bite the hand that feeds you.”

Professor Nyberg has never experienced any limitations on his freedom to say that climate change is real, or that divestment from fossil fuels is an absolute imperative. He maintains that, “there’s a tie in the area that probably means that certain decisions are more likely to fall in one direction. But it doesn’t mean that other decisions or areas of research are silenced in any way.”

The University is pursuing certain avenues of sustainability. In a statement, the University said that “to date the University has delivered a number of key outcomes across these areas, including the regeneration of 20 hectares of bushland at Callaghan and Ourimbah campuses to improve the campuses’ biodiversity, the installation of 170kW of PV solar across our campuses with the feasibility for another 200kW of PV solar currently being investigated, and a new Environmental Sustainable Design (ESD) Guideline Tool to improve environmental outcomes across multiple construction and refurbishment projects.”

The statement also indicates that the University is also committed through the University’s Committee on Environmental Sustainability (UCES) and Environmental Sustainability Plan (ESP) to deliver measurable improvements in the University’s environmental sustainability performance.

The question remains, though. How serious are UON’s corporate objectives in relation to environmental sustainability? Installing solar panels and regenerating bushland are two great things, but how comfortable are we with the continued investment and donation of several major fossil fuel companies to our university?

Professor Nyberg agrees with Fossil Free UON on climate change and divesting university funds from fossil fuel interests.

“I think it’s a good movement, I think it’s necessary to divest all university funding from fossil fuels,” he said. “I think that we should be transparent in terms of where money comes from, I think that should be public.”

“We have a moral obligation to speak out against this and act on it, I think that we need to do that. We need to divest, we need to take a stand, because this is an obvious scientific thing to do.”

In their statement, the university  said that “the vision of the University of Newcastle is to create a better future for its regions through a focus on innovation and impact and the work we do across a spectrum of energy research supports that vision.”

These are good points to focus on, but Keira Dott from Fossil Free UON believes that the university should, “take more time to listen to the voices of students and staff, particularly groups such as NUSA and the NTEU which represent the voices of many minorities and listen to what we want to see and happen on campus.”

The response of the student body toward Fossil Free UON has been, Dott said, “split in a few different ways.”

“There are students who believe renewables are the only way forward, that our university should be a leader in combating climate change and are angry and disappointed that our university has such strong ties and possible investments in fossil fuels,” she said. “There are people who are climate change deniers, advocates of the CSG (Coal Seam Gas) and coal industries who are sceptical of renewable energy and believe that it’s not viable.”

Dott chalks this up to the influence of industry and mining on the history of Newcastle and the surrounding area. The Port of Newcastle is the biggest coal port in the entire world, after all, and the largest port in Australia. It’s hardly surprising that some people would then be proud of that history and disagree with the idea of phasing it into the past.

Justin Chey agrees with the sentiment that some students just aren’t interested, “when we’re out on campus it can be very hit and miss. At least a significant proportion of them would be interested to hear what we’re on about.”

For now, Fossil Free UON continues to investigate university ties to fossil fuel interests. The group advertises itself as campaigning for truth and justice, and Chey asks students to “come get involved with Fossil Free UON for a more just and sustainable planet, come and find out what you can do.”

Feature Image: Supplied

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