#21 Fossil Fuel Industry “Colonizing” US Universities

by Project Censored
Published: Updated:

Without the public’s awareness, fossil fuel interests—representing oil, gas, and coal companies as well as utilities and investors—have “colonized nearly every nook and cranny of energy and climate policy research in American universities,” two researchers at Stanford University and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) reported in the Guardian in March 2017. Fossil fuel interests dominate energy and climate policy research at the nation’s most prominent universities, including Harvard, MIT, Stanford, and the University of California, Berkeley. “The very experts we assume to be objective, and the very centers of research we assume to be independent,” Benjamin Franta and Geoffrey Supran wrote, “are connected with the very industry the public believes they are objectively studying. Moreover, these connections are often kept hidden.” The result is more than a “conflict of interest,” Franta and Supran reported. These are “industry projects with the appearance of neutrality and credibility given by academia.”

As an example of such “colonizing,” Franta and Supran described in detail a February 2017 event, “Finding Energy’s Rational Middle,” hosted by Harvard Kennedy School’s Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs. Although the event was billed as a “Shell-funded project,” the extent of Shell’s involvement was not fully disclosed. The Harvard event featured a documentary film, The Great Transition, produced by Shell and directed by a vice president of an oil and gas company funded by Shell. The Kennedy School has received at least $3.75 million from Shell, Franta and Supran reported.

The report also detailed how the Shell documentary provided supposedly objective scholars’ assessments while failing to disclose their fossil fuel industry connections. The people shown in the documentary consistently expressed skepticism about renewable energy solutions and promoted being “realistic” about fossil fuels, while advocating natural gas as a great transition to “clean” energy—without mentioning that methane emissions have even greater impacts on global warming than carbon emissions do. Franta and Supran documented some of the film’s participants’ undisclosed connections to the fossil fuel industry; for example, Amy Myers Jaffe, who is identified in the film as the executive director of energy and sustainability at the University of California, Davis, is also a member of the US National Petroleum Council. In the film Jaffe says, “We need to be realistic that we’re gonna use fossil fuels now, because in the end, we are.” Michelle Michot Foss, identified as the chief energy economist at the University of Texas at Austin’s Center for Energy Economics, is also a partner in a natural gas company, and Chevron, ExxonMobil, and the Koch Foundation, among others, fund the Center where she works.

As Franta and Supran noted, the fossil fuel industry often employs the tactic of claiming to promote a “rational middle” between total dependence on nonrenewable energy and total independence from it, and in practice this tactic is used to undermine the shift to renewable energy sources. In this case, the report explained, Shell and allied figures were able to deploy the tactic with “Harvard’s stamp of approval.”

Beyond Harvard, Franta and Supran documented that the MIT Energy Initiative is “almost entirely funded” by fossil fuel companies, including Shell, ExxonMobil, and Chevron. MIT has received $185 million from David Koch, the oil billionaire and climate change denial financier, who is a life member of the university’s board. ExxonMobil funds Stanford’s Global Climate and Energy Project. UC Berkeley’s Energy Biosciences Institute (EBI) was initiated thanks to a $500 million deal signed in 2007 with BP. BP appoints half of the voting members of EBI’s Governance Board.

Franta and Supran called for universities to stop ignoring the problem of climate change and confront it, either by disclosing financial funding from the fossil fuel industry in order to reduce conflicts of interest, or by prioritizing sponsors and personnel who are “less conflicted.”

Corporate news coverage of how the fossil fuel industry has captured energy and climate policy research at US universities is rare, and when the topic is addressed coverage gives the impression of isolated incidents. In 2010, for example, the Los Angeles Times emphasized the benefits of BP’s partnership with UC Berkeley. (See Michael Hiltzik, “Campus Is Oddly Silent on BP,” Los Angeles Times, August 1, 2010, B1.) After the Center for American Progress released a 2010 study that documented the fossil fuel industry’s strong grip on university research, this topic received some coverage in the corporate press, including SFGate, but, as with previous coverage, these reports tended to focus on individual cases rather than systemic patterns.

Greenpeace’s PolluterWatch website maintains an interactive database of the Koch Foundation’s funding for colleges and universities, which totaled over $144 million between 2005 and 2015.

Benjamin Franta and Geoffrey Supran, “The Fossil Fuel Industry’s Invisible Colonization of Academia,” Guardian, March 13, 2017, https://www.theguardian.com/environment/climate-consensus-97-per-cent/2017/mar/13/the-fossil-fuel-industrys-invisible-colonization-of-academia.

Student Researcher: Zeinab Benchakroun (College of Marin)

Faculty Evaluator: Susan Rahman (College of Marin)