Big Oil Pours Millions Into Elite Universities’ Climate Research. Is Its Time Up?

A decade ago, students began calling on colleges to untangle their endowments from the companies that are the main drivers of global warming. Now, as hurricanes, floods, drought, and extreme heat make the consequences of climate change increasingly clear, activists want universities to go further by banning all funding from the fossil-fuel industry, which has injected hundreds of millions of dollars into research about climate, energy, and the environment for decades.

This nascent movement got a shot in the arm last month, when Princeton University announced that it will reject all financing, including research funding, from nearly 100 oil and gas companies — a first for a U.S. university.

Yet even as students celebrated, they noticed what seemed like a major loophole. The criteria defining which companies Princeton will disassociate from exclude one of the world’s largest oil giants, BP, which has given more than $40 million to a prominent energy-research group on campus. Under the new rules, it can continue doing so.

The partnership’s continuation speaks to the tight bonds that have formed between higher education and the fossil-fuel industry — ties so durable that they have begun to attract public attention while also resisting outright abolition.

These relationships have their advocates. Professors who receive funding say that they initiate, conduct, and publish their research independently, and that their expertise is crucial to helping the industry transition to clean energy quickly and responsibly.

But their critics accuse Big Oil of using America’s top universities to “greenwash” its reputation, all the while compromising academic freedom, spreading climate disinformation, and doubling down on the coal, oil, and natural-gas investments that pose an existential threat to humanity.

More than 750 academics have signed an open letter, circulated by a nationwide coalition called Fossil Free Research, that calls on all universities in the United States and Britain to adopt funding bans. These efforts have been variously met with delay, questioning, and resistance. Stanford University’s brand-new Doerr School of Sustainability is embroiled in pushback after announcing that it would take donations from oil and gas companies. In Britain, the University of Cambridge’s governing body delayed a vote on a proposed ban last week, and on Wednesday, the faculty of George Washington University’s Milken Institute School of Public Health also tabled a similar proposal for further study.

Princeton student protestors call for the university to divest from greenhouse gas emitters during a demonstration on campus on Earth Day 2022. (Hannah Reynolds, Divest Princeton)

Hannah Reynolds, Divest Princeton

Student protesters call for Princeton to divest from greenhouse-gas emitters on Earth Day this year.

Activists say that getting Big Oil profits out of their universities is a matter of principle. “We all attend these universities that are really fast to make claims that they are environmentally conscious,” said Jake Lowe, one of the organizers of Fossil Free Research and a senior at George Washington. “There’s just a lot of frustration about the disconnect between the images our universities try to present and the practices they continue to practice that contradict that. It definitely makes it harder to feel proud to attend a university when you feel they’re complicit in something that’s so central to all of our futures — especially because that’s what a degree is about, is our future.”

‘That Should Concern Them’

Throughout the 1980s and 1990s, the oil and gas industry’s main strategy for dealing with climate change was to deny that it existed, even though executives knew otherwise. That tactic shifted at the turn of the millennium, as articulated by an internal memo circulated by the American Petroleum Institute. It outlined steps to sow “uncertainties” about climate change in the minds of the public, the media, and policy makers, backed by a multimillion-dollar, multiyear budget.

That position, in the words of Benjamin Franta, founding head of the Climate Litigation Lab at the Oxford Sustainable Law Programme and a scholar of the history of climate-change denial and disinformation, consists of saying “‘of course we believe in climate change, and we want to be the solution to it,’” while “promoting solutions that are not very threatening to them, that are helpful to them in some sense.”

Oil companies say “of course we believe in climate change, and we want to be the solution to it,” while promoting solutions that are not very threatening to them.

The biggest line item in the API memo involved “establishing cooperative relationships with all major scientists whose research in this field supports our position.” Not long after, the industry began sinking eye-popping sums into academic partnerships. In 2002, Stanford started the $225-million Global Climate and Energy Project with sponsors including ExxonMobil and Schlumberger, the world’s largest offshore drilling company. The MIT Energy Initiative, founded in 2006, counts Shell and Eni, an Italy-based oil giant, as founding members, and had received over $145 million from the oil and gas industry as of 2013, according to a watchdog report. And in 2007, the Energy Biosciences Institute — a consortium across the University of California at Berkeley, Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory, and the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign — took flight with a $500 million, 10-year commitment from BP, which was later replaced by Shell.

A 2010 review of 10 such research collaborations, conducted by the Center for American Progress, calculated the amount of funding to be at least $883 million over a 10-year span. Because universities do not always disclose the size of donations, it’s unclear what the total is today.

As of this spring, about 4.5 percent of Princeton’s endowment, or about $1.7 billion, was directly or indirectly invested in fossil-fuel holdings. ExxonMobil has funded the Andlinger Center for Energy and the Environment since 2015, and BP, along with Ford, was a founding funder of the Carbon Mitigation Initiative in 2000. In the past five years, Princeton has received $26 million in new research funds from those and nine other oil and gas companies, according to an administration report.

Nearly a decade ago, students began pressuring Princeton to divest from fossil-fuel companies, something that hundreds of other colleges have done to date. More recently, the activists expanded their demands to include a prohibition on all research funding and other financial relationships with the sector. Following protests, letters, and an undergraduate referendum, a committee of faculty and students issued a set of recommendations to the trustees in 2021. Princeton should cut financial ties, including research funding, from fossil-fuel companies that spread climate disinformation, they said, as well as from the highest greenhouse-gas-emitting sectors. But it should also identify, and separate from, other companies that “have not undertaken an acceptable path to achieve carbon neutrality.”

The trustees instructed a faculty committee to study the first two recommendations, dropping the third, and the experts came out in favor of carrying out both. Ultimately, the board decided to disassociate only from companies active in thermal coal, saying that it emits substantially more carbon dioxide than other fossil fuels, and tar-sands oil, saying that it emits significantly higher emissions than conventional crude oil. BP does not invest in either, having exited the oil-sands business this year.

That criteria still yielded a list of 90 companies that Princeton is prepared to no longer do business with. (Before that happens, the companies are being given a chance to argue that they don’t belong on the list.) Princeton also announced that it would create a new energy research fund to offset the lost funding.

In a press release, the university said that the bar for cutting ties on the basis of disinformation is “exceedingly high.” President Christopher L. Eisgruber of Princeton said in an interview with The Chronicle that the trustees had attempted to strike the “difficult” balance between “the importance of countering and responding to and limiting human-caused climate change” and “a recognition that there’s a lot of continuing research and argument.”

Princeton’s announcement “was much bigger than what we thought would happen,” said Aaron Serianni, a sophomore and co-coordinator of Divest Princeton, a student and alumni group. The new policy, he said, will put at ease many students who conduct energy research. “They’re afraid that they’re going to be getting fossil-fuel research funding and, in a way, supporting fossil-fuel companies, when their goal is to do sustainable energy and other environmental research to create a net-zero and sustainable future,” he said.

Still, Serianni said, he is disappointed by the narrowed criteria, and he noted that the faculty committee had presented a framework for defining climate disinformation. “While it might have been more work to enact these metrics and look at specific companies such as BP,” he said, “it’s not impossible.”

Stephen Pacala, an ecology and evolutionary-biology professor, was on the committee that argued for considering disinformation. He has also directed the Carbon Mitigation Initiative since its inception, and believes that BP was rightly left off the list of companies to cut ties with, praising its goal of net-zero greenhouse-gas emissions by 2050.

Interactions with BP consist of a monthly call with him and two other leaders (where they discuss technical questions and “energy issues and trends”), as well as an annual meeting to share research results. “BP has no say in what we investigate, and everything we investigate goes in the public record,” Pacala said, referring to 50 or so faculty, staff, and students, and himself. “If they ask us, ‘What do you think about this announcement we made?’ And if we don’t like it, we tell them.”

As evidence of the center’s independence, he cited last year’s Net-Zero America study, which had backing from both BP and ExxonMobil. It calculated five ways the U.S. could decarbonize by 2050, one of them involving 100-percent renewable energy. “It’s really hard to see conflict of interest in a discovery that a transition to a net-zero system, even a 100-percent renewable, with no fossil of any kind, can be had” in the next 30 years, Pacala said.

He added, “It would be great if we could snap our fingers and have a fully renewable, inexpensive, nonpolluting, and highly reliable renewable-energy system right now, but you know, we can’t. … I want to be ethically consistent in addition to being practical.”

Others are skeptical that Big Oil’s actions are living up to its claims. A February study analyzed BP, Shell, Chevron, and ExxonMobil’s financial data from 2009 to 2020 and found none to have meaningfully invested in clean energy, despite much talk of going “low carbon.” “Accusations of greenwashing appear well-founded,” the researchers wrote.

Another study examined BP, Shell, and the Norwegian oil company Equinor’s predictions for future energy requirements and how long it will take for the world to reach net-zero emissions, and concluded that none of their scenarios were consistent with meeting the 2015 Paris Agreement. (A Shell spokeswoman said that the scenario analyzed by the second study “is not a climate target, projection, or business plan, but a potential look at the future,” and the company expects that one-third of its total expenditure this year will be on “low- and zero-carbon products and services.” An ExxonMobil spokesman said that the company has spent more than $10 billion in “researching, developing, and deploying lower-emissions technologies” since 2000 and plans to invest more than $15 billion through 2027 on “large-scale emission-reductions projects” such as carbon capture. BP, Chevron, and Equinor did not return requests for comment.)

“The fact, at the end of the day, is that BP finds value in what they’re doing there,” said Franta, the Oxford climate-change-denial researcher, of Princeton’s Carbon Mitigation Initiative. “That should concern them.”

‘The System’s Been Gamed’

Industry-backed research generally favors the interests of its funders. Often, sponsors exert influence not by instructing a scholar what to conclude, but by shaping “what topics get researched and what topics don’t get researched,” Franta said. Big Tobacco funded volumes of research about negative health outcomes tied to poor ventilation, with the goal of making it seem like secondhand smoking was, in the words of one industry memo, a “minor” problem “in a sea of indoor pollution.” Now, critics say, Big Oil bankrolls research about carbon-capture technologies, tree-planting, and other carbon-offsetting efforts to distract from its responsibility to cut emissions in the first place.

Far-right charitable organizations whose founders profit from environmental deregulation, including the Charles Koch and ExxonMobil Foundations, have poured millions into the George Washington University Regulatory Studies Center, founded in 2009, and its researchers are strident advocates of policies to that effect. The Trump administration justified rolling back regulations on greenhouse-gas emissions in part by arguing that each ton of carbon dioxide emitted by a car or a power plant in 2020 would cause between $1 and $7 in economic damages. (The Obama administration had put that cost at roughly $42.) Trump’s Environmental Protection Agency cited a journal letter by Susan Dudley, director of the Regulatory Studies Center, and other center-affiliated scholars.

“The presence of industry funding is a huge factor in shaping what we know about climate change, how we think about climate change,” Franta said.

As momentum grows — organizing is underway at Brown, Duke, Ohio State, and Tufts Universities; the Universities of California at San Diego, and of Minnesota-Twin Cities in the U.S. ; and at the Universities of Toronto and of Oxford, according to Fossil Free Research — there will probably be disagreement over how exactly to define a ban. While, for instance, the activists of Fossil Fuel Divest Harvard have proposed blocking “money from fossil-fuel companies for research related to energy policy, climate change, and the environment,” David Keith, a Harvard professor of public policy and applied physics, sees challenges with interpreting that language. He opposes industry money going to climate-policy-related research, yet “I would have no problem whatsoever with Exxon giving money to some engineering professor to work on some wastewater-treatment-safety issue that’s purely technical,” he said.

Students from Tufts and other nearby universities call for Tufts to divest from fossil fuels during a protest at Lower Campus Center on Sept. 23, 2022. (David Kim, The Tufts Daily)

David Kim, The Tufts Daily

Students from Tufts University and other colleges call for Tufts to divest from fossil fuels during a protest in September.

Keith has had to figure out his own strategy for avoiding conflicts of interest as the faculty director of Harvard’s Solar Geoengineering Research Program, which studies technologies that could help cool the planet by reflecting sunlight back into space. He bars donors whose “majority of their current profits or wealth come from the fossil-fuel industry,” based on a rubric that ranks their ties to fossil fuels and commitment to climate. (As for his own industry ties, Keith says that at universities before Harvard, he held a consulting contract for Shell and was once part of a program with funding from Exxon. He also founded the company Carbon Engineering, which provides technology to capture carbon dioxide from the atmosphere.)

Keith was not impressed with the definition used by his fellow Ivy League campus. “On the one hand, good for Princeton to actually spell out a criteria,” he said. “On the other hand, if their criteria exclude BP, then the system’s been gamed.”

Craig Callender, a philosophy professor at the University of California at San Diego and a member of its Committee on Campus Climate Change, said he’s floated the idea of requiring the chancellor to review fossil-fuel funding before the faculty could accept it, but colleagues were unconvinced whether the sector deserved to be singled out from others. Callender still favors bans, imperfect as they may be, but also thinks that academic research as a whole would benefit from a standardized policy to disclose ties with all corporations. In medicine, this is already standard: the federal Open Payments database and biomedical journals require disclosure of funding from drug and medical device makers. “Why not just have it all out in the open for everybody?” Callender said.

UC-San Diego isn’t the only campus where the idea of funding restrictions has met skepticism and resistance. At George Washington on Wednesday, public-health faculty members tabled a resolution that would prohibit employees “from accepting funding from sources blocking a just energy transition,” according to text drafted by students including Lowe, the Fossil Free Research organizer. Those sources would include any party that is “exploring, or facilitating the exploration of, new fossil-fuel reserves” or that “supports, directly or indirectly, the creation and dissemination of climate disinformation,” a definition much broader than Princeton’s. The faculty moved to form a committee to study the idea further. In an interview, Lynn R. Goldman, dean of the public-health school, said that many faculty members were confused about the details of the policy as written, including which companies would qualify. “If we are going to pass something, it needs to be crystal clear to me who those entities are,” she said.

At the University of Cambridge, which has taken at least 11.4 million pounds (or $12.7 million) for research from energy companies since 2016, a widely publicized proposed ban on fossil-fuel-industry research funding has been put on hold. On October 17, the University Council, Cambridge’s top governing body, was expected to vote on whether to send it out to the larger community of 6,000 academics for a vote later in the year.

Biomedical journals require disclosure of funding from drug and medical-device makers. Why not just have it all out in the open for everybody?

But the council instead commissioned a study in order to, according to a university spokesman, “understand the impact that” this motion “could have on the university’s ability to accelerate its contribution to the energy transition, as well as its duties associated with academic freedom.” The spokesman said that the council “shares the desire to urgently address climate change.”

The news frustrated Beth Dougherty, a law student and an organizer with Cambridge Climate Justice, who says that the decision creates delay and quells democratic debate. Also last week, she noted, Cambridge’s BP Institute changed its name to the Institute for Energy and Environmental Flows, but will continue to be funded by BP. “Cambridge isn’t really willing to put its money where its mouth is in terms of its commitments,” she said.

Discontent is boiling over at Stanford, which is starting the climate-focused Doerr School of Sustainability with $1.1 billion from the famed venture capitalist John Doerr. “Climate and sustainability is going to be the new computer science,” Doerr told The New York Times in May. “This is what the young people want to work on with their lives, for all the right reasons.”

But to the alarm of some students and faculty, the dean, Arun Majumdar, told the Times that the school would also work with and accept money from the oil and gas industry. It inherits a host of partnerships between professors and the industry, including “affiliate programs” in which companies — ExxonMobil, BP, Chevron, Shell, Aramco, and others — sponsor research groups studying subjects like deep-sea petroleum exploration research, natural-gas emissions and leakage, and oil-well testing. Memberships, which range from around $30,000 to $250,000 annually, provide donors with increasing levels of access to researchers via meetings, student-recruitment events, previews of research, and governance participation “to help establish research priorities.” The university does not disclose the total amounts of the membership fees. (Two Stanford professors who lead programs with industry sponsors declined to comment for this story.)

Stanford says that while companies “may offer suggestions,” investigators “must be free to select research and teaching topics, methodology, and participants.” Funds are pooled, and individual companies cannot direct a gift to a specific faculty member. But critics, led by a group called the Coalition for a True School of Sustainability, worry that these companies are essentially buying themselves favorable research. A letter calling for a ban on industry funding gathered 800 signatures. Protesters interrupted opening day in September and plan to livestream a talk by Naomi Oreskes, a Harvard historian who studies Big Oil’s climate-change-denial tactics, to compete with a Stanford lecture by a petroleum engineer.

Some think these protests have gone too far. In an email circulated around the Doerr school this month, obtained by The Chronicle, more than two dozen graduate students accused the activists of being “extremely aggressive and misinformative,” of “sabotaging potential opportunities to transform energy systems for a sustainable future,” and of “creating increasing physical, psychological, and emotional strain and distress.”

“We share a deep concern for the future of our planet and the prosperity of its people,” they wrote. “All community members” should “feel they belong without fear of being vilified because of their research focus.”

But the administration has signaled a potential openness to rethinking its stance. The dean clarified that industry funding will not be used for general operations and that he is conducting a campus “listening tour.” (A spokeswoman said these talks will “support the creation of a set of shared principles to further guide the school’s actions.”) And at a conference this month, Doerr reportedly said it was not definite that the school would accept fossil-fuel funding. (Doerr did not return a request for comment.)

For now, Stanford’s climate scientists-in-training are keeping their optimism in check. “We don’t have time to lose,” said June Choi, a graduate student at the Doerr School of Sustainability. And Yannai Kashtan, another student organizer, noted that Stanford can afford to lead by example. “We’re not short on cash.”

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