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Billionaire David Rubenstein and Carlyle Group have massive investments in fossil fuels.

The Carlyle Group’s co-founder and co-chairman David Rubenstein (Image: World Economic Forum – Flickr)

Across the U.S., dozens of universities and colleges are home to vibrant campus movements calling on their institutions to divest from the fossil fuel industry that is driving our global climate crisis. Some universities – from Harvard to Rutgers, the University of Michigan to the University of California – have already announced that they are divesting from fossil fuels. 

The University of Chicago is not one of these schools, despite strong demands from the campus community for the prestigious university to divest. And worse, UChicago just appointed a huge Wall Street fossil fuel profiteer as the new chairman of its Board of Trustees.

David Rubenstein is the billionaire co-founder and co-chairman of the Carlyle Group, one of the world’s biggest private equity firms. Carlyle currently oversees $325 billion in assets. This includes billions invested in fossil fuels and some of the dirtiest oil and gas operations in the US.

In March 2022, the University of Chicago Board of Trustees elected Rubenstein as its new chair, and Rubenstein’s three-year tenure as chair officially began several weeks ago, on May 26.

Rubenstein has been a big donor to the university, his alma mater, and even has a massive “David Rubenstein Forum” named after him. The Forum has a “Sustainability” page that lauds the Forum’s “sustainable design.” 

But there is nothing “sustainable” about Rubenstein and Carlyle’s massive oil and gas investments. 

All this raises important questions: can the University of Chicago ever make significant progress on climate issues and divestment with a fossil fuel baron like Rubenstein at the helm of the school’s governing body?

Moreover, by burnishing Rubenstein’s reputation with a coveted board chair position, is the University of Chicago greenwashing a fossil fuel profiteer during a time of escalating climate catastrophe?

Carlyle’s dirty investments

Carlyle has one of the largest fossil fuel portfolios of any private equity firm in the world. It has billions invested in fossil fuels across more than two dozen oil and gas companies. Here are a few examples:

  • Carlyle and Rubenstein have plunged $1.24 billion into a joint partnership with Hilcorp Energy, the largest private US oil company and one of the dirtiest carbon emitters around. Hilcorp’s operations emit much more methane than Bg Oil powerhouses like ExxonMobil – and methane has more than 80 times the warming power of carbon dioxide.
  • Carlyle and Rubenstein have a huge stake in NGP Energy Capital, a Texas-based firm that owns dozens of oil and gas companies. One example of an NGP portfolio company is Permian Basin oil producer Blackbeard Operating, which has been found to emit substantially more methane than Chevron!
  • Until recently, Carlyle was the majority stakeholder in Philadelphia Energy Solutions, the dirtiest oil refinery on the eastern seaboard (now-shuttered after a major fire). The refinery, which hovered over the predominantly Black neighborhood of Grays Ferry in South Philadelphia, faced major environmental fines under Carlyle’s management and was responsible for the bulk of toxic air emissions in Philly. In 2018, Reuters documented how Carlyle loaded PES with debt and extracted enormous payouts that contributed to the refinery’s 2018 bankruptcy.

These are just a few of the dozens of Carlyle’s fossil fuel investments. You can read more about all these investments on pages 16-21 of Private Equity Stakeholder Project’s 2021 report on private equity’s role in driving the climate crisis.

Rubenstein’s love for oil and gas

David Rubenstein seems to personally have a special love for oil and gas. For example, during an interview in 2016 – just two years after the publication of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s alarming fifth assessment report on our climate crisis – Rubenstein raved about fossil fuels, saying “We do think that carbon-related energy is one of the next areas to invest in in the world.”

Later in the interview, when asked about which ways of doing oil and gas investing he likes the best, he responded, “That’s like asking me which one of my children I like the best.”

Recently, under growing pressure to distance itself from fossil fuels, Carlyle Group has instead doubled-down on oil and gas and opposing divestment.

The universities, museums and galleries that greenwash Rubenstein

It’s not just the University of Chicago that provides green cover for Rubenstein as he and Carlyle strive to continue their fossil fuel business and oppose divestment. Indeed, Rubenstein is one the most well-connected business tycoons in the US, with board seats at prestigious universities, cultural institutions and think-tanks that include:

  • National Gallery of Art (Chairman)
  • Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts (Chairman)
  • Economic Club of Washington DC (Chairman)
  • Council on Foreign Relations (Chairman)
  • Brookings Institute (Chairman Emeritus)
  • Lincoln Center for the Performing Arts (Director)
  • American Academy of Arts and Sciences (Director)
  • Johns Hopkins Medicine (Trustee)
  • Harvard University (Corporation Member)

To top it off, Rubenstein is also good pals with President Joe Biden, who spent last Thanksgiving at Rubenstein’s Nantucket compound.

Protesters call out Rubenstein’s fossil fuel profiteering

But not everyone is happy that these institutions are burnishing Rubenstein’s reputation at the same time he and Carlyle Group plunge billions into fossil fuel operations whose pollution is intensifying our climate catastrophe.

For example, protesters with the Clean Up Carlyle campaign* have taken action at DC-area institutions that count Rubenstein as their chairman, including the Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts, National Gallery of Art, and Economic Club of DC.

The Kennedy Center went so far as to host an exhibit “to visualize the climate crisis – its causes and consequences” all while Kennedy Center Chairman David Rubenstein and Carlyle are investing and profiting from the very industry that is driving that climate crisis.

Divest Harvard has also called for Rubenstein to resign from the Harvard Corporation – one of the school’s two governing bodies – if he does not recuse himself from decisions related to the university’s response to the climate crisis. 

While the University of Chicago has made various gestures around climate, it remains steadfast in its refusal to divest from fossil fuels – and all this, despite growing demands from its own campus community to divest and evermore examples from peer institutions that are divesting.

And now, David Rubenstein – a billionaire who has professed his adoration for oil and gas, and who is coming from a private equity firm that opposes divestment and has stated its determination to remain invested in fossil fuels – is leading the University of Chicago’s board.

The University of Chicago – like other institutions mentioned above – wants to have it both ways: it wants to maintain a reputation as an enlightened institution that makes gestures around climate and sustainability, while it also wants to continue to invest in oil and gas and to give its top governing position to an unapologetic fossil fuel profiteer.

Unfortunately, our planet, and the frontline communities that are most vulnerable to the impacts of climate change and fossil fuel pollution, need more than this from one of the world’s leading universities.

*Disclosure: LittleSis actively supports this campaign