Image courtesy of ExxonMobil

US Universities At The Center Of Fossil Fuel “Money For Research” Scheme

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In 2021, the US House of Representatives, then under the control of Democrats, created an oversight and accountability committee to examine the influence of fossil fuel companies on American society. When Republicans gained control of the House after the 2022 election, they disbanded the committee. But Senator Sheldon Whitehouse formed a joint committee to continue that investigation, which had subpoenaed financial records from a number of fossil fuel companies. On May 1, 2024 — which happens to be Law Day in the United States — the joint committee will release the documents it has gathered as part of a public hearing in the Senate.

“The evidence uncovered by oversight committee Democrats shows that big oil has run campaigns to confuse and mislead the public,” said Maryland Democrat Jamie Raskin, ranking member on the committee. “Today’s joint report demonstrates that big oil continues to conceal the facts about their business model and obscure the actual dangers of fossil fuels.” The documents are summarized in a committee report and were obtained from major fossil fuel companies such as Exxon, Shell, BP, and Chevron, and lobbying organizations such as the American Petroleum Institute and the US Chamber of Commerce.

They date back to 30 November 2015 — just weeks before the signing of the Paris climate accord. Most previous public documents illustrating the fossil fuel industry’s climate deception are from the 1960s and 1970s, says Geoffrey Supran, a University of Miami associate professor who studies the industry’s messaging who will testify at the hearing on Wednesday. “This is our best post-Paris agreement look at these companies’ ongoing duplicity,” he said.

Fossil Fuel Money In Academia

In early March of this year, Data For Progress and Fossil Fuel Research published a report entitled Accountable Allies: The Undue Influence of Fossil Fuel Money in Academia. Here are the opening paragraphs of that report:

In recent years, fossil fuel combustion has been responsible for approximately 73 percent of the U.S.’s greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions and 89 percent of the world’s emissions. While taxpayers have been forced to pick up the tab for the climate crisis, fossil fuel companies have continued to prosper. In 2021, leading fossil fuel companies made $205 billion in profits, of which their executives pocketed $394 million.

It’s no mistake that fossil fuel companies have continued to make major financial gains through the climate crisis; fossil fuel industry executives, knowingly, have long misled the public about their impact on it and used their profits to manipulate climate research. Many of the nation’s most prominent universities, including Harvard, MIT, and George Washington, are awash with fossil fuel funding.

New research conducted by Data for Progress confirms this, finding hundreds of millions of dollars donated from key fossil fuel companies to fund climate research at many of these academic institutions.

The Guardian says that report finds six fossil fuel companies funneled more than $700 million in research funding to 27 universities in the US between 2010 and 2020. Such funding can shift not just research agendas, but also national policy in the direction of climate solutions the industry prefers, the report claims. Those solutions typically include biofuels, carbon capture, and hydrogen. Oil majors have also invested in public policy and economics research that favors deregulation. “$700 million is probably an absolute bare minimum,” according to Grace Adcox, polling analyst for Data for Progress. “There’s so little transparency around these gifts.”

The study was created from publicly available data, including IRS form 990s from fossil fuel company foundations, annual reports from both universities and oil companies, and press releases or media coverage about big new donations. It’s an imperfect approach, but it is enough to give the public some hint of how much money fossil fuel companies are investing in research that has a real impact on policy. “These research projects have real-life implications – for example a lot of the fossil fuel-funded research has re-centered natural gas in the conversation about renewables,” said Bella Kumar, lead author of the Data for Progress report.

Fossil  Fuel Research Has Real World Consequences

fossil fuel

Real life implications? Yes, indeed. In the documents subpoenaed as part of the House oversight committee investigation into climate disinformation published in 2022, BP executives were explicit about what university funding buys them. In one email, Bob Stout, former vice president and head of regulatory policy and advocacy for BP, wrote: “… [In] addition to the value in informing our understanding of climate science and policy, these relationships [with Princeton, Harvard, Tufts and Columbia] are key parts of our long term relationship building and outreach to policy makers and influencers in the US and globally.”

Researchers at Columbia University last year published the first peer-reviewed paper that attempted to quantify those implications. Published in the journal Nature, it found that research centers accepting funding from the gas industry were far more likely to embrace fossil gas as a climate solution and to downplay the role renewable energy sources might play in the energy transition than their non-fossil fuel funded counterparts. The researchers analyzed 1,706 reports from 26 universities, in part because of the integral role a study from one of Columbia’s own industry-funded centers played in debates about climate policy. That study, American Gas to the Rescue? came out in 2014.

“It was about the benefits of American gas production and LNG to global geopolitical considerations in eastern Europe, and Ukraine specifically,” the report’s lead author Douglas Almond said. “And it got a lot of press attention and I saw it being cited by energy advocacy groups and what was startling to me about that is it was referred to as ‘the Columbia University report,’ and there was no mention of funding.” The American Gas To The Rescue? paper was also cited in various congressional hearings about whether or not to lift the US export ban for oil and gas in 2015 (which the federal government did ultimately do).

Full Disclosure About Fossil Fuel Research Funding

Some schools are taking far more fossil fuel research funding than others, and some are undoubtedly receiving far more fossil fuel research funding than what’s included in the new research published Wednesday. Others may be taking less now than they were last decade. The University of California at Berkeley is near the top of the list with $108 million in fossil fuel research funding from 2010 to 2020, but says it’s now receiving less than $10 million a year from fossil fuel companies — less than a quarter of a percent of its total research funding. “It’s worth asking why take fossil fuel money at all if they don’t really need it?”asked Ilana Cohen, co-founder of Fossil Free Research.

Some researchers argue that partnerships with the oil majors help keep their work relevant to the real world. “They provide a lot of guidance and they keep you honest,” George Huber, at the University of Wisconsin, told The Guardian. His cellulosic biofuels research has received funding from a variety of fossil fuel companies, including ExxonMobil. “Oftentimes you’ll see professors make statements about energy that are not technically correct and work on technology that can’t be implemented. And the people from industry, they understand what the technology needs to have to be implemented at an industrial scale.”

“You want a sponsor with a vested interest that is paying attention to the data and influencing research directions and informing academics of market needs,” Matthew Posewitz, at the Colorado School of Mines, said. Like Huber, Posewitz received funding from ExxonMobil for his lab, which focuses on algae research. “Academics can sometimes get into things that don’t fulfill any market need. Sponsorships can bridge that information deficit.” Of course, Exxon has since pulled the plug on its fuel from algae program, which had served its main purpose — fooling the public into thinking it is serious about transitioning away from a fossil fuel economy.

Dan Kammen, professor of energy at University of California at Berkeley and a former adviser to both the US government and the United Nations on climate, worked on the proposal that resulted in one of the largest fossil fuel gifts ever made to any university, BP’s $500 million donation to the Energy and Biosciences Institute. The institute is a consortium that includes Berkeley, University of Illinois at Champagne-Urbana, and the Lawrence Berkeley National Lab created to study biofuels. He sees schools like Posewitz’s that have a longstanding relationship with the fossil fuel industry as fundamentally different from schools like his that prioritize climate research.

“Places like Colorado School of Mines or University of Texas that actively court and work for the fossil fuel industry are a different story,” he said. But he draws a distinction between accepting fossil fuel money for research directly related to fossil fuel extraction and taking oil company donations for climate research. “It makes no sense to conduct research to expand fossil fuel extraction, but funds from companies committed to make the transition to clean energy should be welcomed,” he said.

Like the Fossil-Free Research campaigners, Kammen said there needs to be immediate improvement to transparency around who’s getting how much funding and from whom. “There needs to be full disclosure not only when you write a paper, but also around the funding of research centers,” he said. “We have clear examples where research agendas were shifted. Everyone will deny it, but the best way is to have the data open. We do not always agree on matters of policy, but we do get valuable intel on the evolving perspectives and priorities of the environmental community and are able to tell the story of what we are doing and why in a more personal and compelling way. In return they are able to give us valuable input on our strategies and messaging.”

Even critics of these funding relationships don’t necessarily think the funding itself should go away, just the strings attached to it. “Fossil fuel companies should be paying for climate solutions,” Cohen said. “But they shouldn’t have any direct role in how the production of knowledge relevant to those solutions is coming about.”

The  Takeaway

As this is being written, armed security forces and police are storming many of the universities that have been sucking off the fossil fuel industry for decades. Some of these so-called institutions of higher learning charge $100,000 a year or more for the privilege of attending them. In exchange they are supposed to teach their students how to be part of civilized society. And what a lesson they are getting. Those of you old enough to remember what happened at Kent State must be having grave concerns about how this will all end.

Today’s students are learning that any peep of protest will be met with the harshest of reactions — which is just what fossil fuel companies want people to understand. Mess with us and we will mess with you ten times as hard. We will have our minions in the police and National Guard arrest you as violently as possible, cart you off to jail, and threaten to keep you there for years or even decades to punish you for your impudence. Echoes of the civil rights era are everywhere in America today, while fossil fuel companies pursue their never ending campaign of lies, innuendo, smears, and half truths as they struggle to keep making boat loads of money at the expense of the environment and the health of millions.

Autocracy tolerates no dissent — that is the lesson today’s college students are learning at all these exalted colleges and universities across America. The ultimate lesson of capitalism is that it will crush all who oppose it with truncheon-wielding thugs committed to teaching the real meaning of democracy — it is for the rich and powerful, not ordinary people, who will only allowed to survive at the pleasure of their corporate masters.


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Steve Hanley

Steve writes about the interface between technology and sustainability from his home in Florida or anywhere else The Force may lead him. He is proud to be "woke" and doesn't really give a damn why the glass broke. He believes passionately in what Socrates said 3000 years ago: "The secret to change is to focus all of your energy not on fighting the old but on building the new." You can follow him on Substack and LinkedIn but not on Fakebook or any social media platforms controlled by narcissistic yahoos.

Steve Hanley has 5542 posts and counting. See all posts by Steve Hanley