January 27, 2014

Divestment and Reinvestment: A Big Win Is On The Horizon In St. Louis

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In just three months, St. Louis, the hometown of five coal companies could also be home to the divestment movement’s next big victory. St. Louis is also my hometown, and for over a year now, I’ve been working on the citywide divestment campaign, called Take Back St. Louis. The Take Back St. Louis initiative will change the city charter to end incentives to fossil fuel companies and instead invest money in and open city-owned land for renewable energy and sustainability initiatives. 

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When I started at the University of Maryland this past semester I joined the campaign to divest my university from fossil fuels as well. I am part of the fossil fuel divestment movement because divestment is an important tactic to make the fossil fuel industry’s public reputation as toxic as their business practices. Once doing business with the fossil fuel industry is seen as morally unconscionable it’s unlikely the industry will be able to continue buying off enough public officials to keep itself in existence.

Many of us have found out through divestment campaigns just how engrained the fossil fuel industry is on our campuses. Despite overwhelming support among students, university presidents and administrations have resisted our demands, caving to the power of fossil fuels.

This is also true in St. Louis, where citizens’ voices are often sidelined and coal corporations hold tremendous power, most notably Peabody Energy, the world’s largest private sector coal corporation. Peabody has a long history of human rights and environmental abuses: for decades Peabody has been involved in the forced relocation of Hopi and Dine (Navajo) people on Black Mesa in Arizona, spent 2013 attempting to shirk paying healthcare benefits to 10,000 retired coal miners, and is by itself responsible for 0.8% of global greenhouse gas emissions, all while aggressively pursuing coal export terminals to China.

In St. Louis, Peabody spends a lot of their time trying to neutralize dissent and better their public image. Peabody gave thousands of dollars to our mayor’s reelection campaign, donates annually to groups like the Asthma and Allergy Foundation and pays to have its ads at every Cardinal’s game. Peabody officials sit on the boards of the Missouri Botanical Garden, Washington University, the United Way and the Science Center.

In return our local elected officials have lavished Peabody with millions in tax breaks to finance things like a new gym for their headquarters, including $2 million that would have gone to our woefully underfunded public schools.  Unfortunately, the subsidization of the fossil fuel industry doesn’t stop with Peabody. Just this December, the city gave our local natural gas utility, Laclede Gas, $7 million in tax breaks.

Our divestment campaign, Take Back St. Louis, is going after the tax breaks for fossil fuel companies because taxpayer dollars should never be subsidizing the climate crisis. But instead of trying to pressure our elected officials (who are firmly entrenched in the Peabody economy), we’re going around them. We collected 36,000 signatures to bring our initiative straight to voters. And on April 8th 2014, St. Louis residents will get to vote: should taxpayer dollars continue subsidizing fossil fuel companies or should money be invested in creating a local green economy?

Growing up in the St. Louis, I have seen corporations and law firms downtown receive tens of millions in tax incentives despite that most of their employees live in the suburbs. Meanwhile, in city neighborhoods people are barely scraping by, taking long trips to the suburbs to work in low-wage jobs. For many if not the majority of people in the city, food insecurity, foreclosure threats, bad public education, and vacant property are aspects of normal life. The corporate fossil fuel economy is not working, and the tax breaks to Peabody are intrinsically linked to the funding cuts to our public education system and public services.

That’s why the Take Back St. Louis ballot initiative also requires reinvestment in a local green economy. While striking the moral blow of divestment is powerful, it’s not enough. To transition to the green economy, we can’t just buy stock in renewable energy companies; we have to put money into communities most impacted by corporate power to create green jobs.

We know Peabody and others are going to spend big to beat us at the polls. But we also know that we have the support of all those fighting for fossil fuel divestment and climate justice across the country. That’s why I’m calling on campus divestment activists to come to St. Louis this March 9-15th to spend Spring Break getting out the vote on Take Back St. Louis, targeting Peabody Coal in its hometown and building grassroots power to build a local green economy.

Participants will get out the vote about Take Back St. Louis, receives grassroots organizing training, learn about and tour Midwest fossil fuel extraction, and plan an action! Dates are March 9-15th, housing will be provided and some meal on a sliding scale of $20-$300. Please apply soon, this is the first citywide divestment campaign to be brought before voters and will be a tremendous win for the climate movement if successful. Apply today!

If you’re unable to participate those dates, you’re still welcome in St. Louis and we would welcome a donation to the campaign! Only together are we powerful enough to beat Peabody’s millions. 

by Peter Thacher (University of Maryland student and member of the Take Back St. Louis campaign)

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