Big Oil “Colonizing” US Universities

by Vins
Published: Updated:

What remains of Harvard Kennedy School’s integrity after it hosted Shell Oil-sponsored film screening, which claimed to present a “rational middle” discussion about energy’s issues, in February 2017? As Benjamin Franta and Geoffrey Supran, researchers at Stanford University and Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) respectively, write, Big Oil often employs the tactic of claiming a “rational middle” to undermine renewable energy. In this case, Franta and Supran report, Shell was able to deploy this tactic with “Harvard’s stamp of approval.”

Franta and Supran report in the Guardian that the event’s panel included a Shell Executive Vice President, that Shell was the producer of the film series, and that the film’s director, who received $300,000 from Shell, also runs a family oil and gas company—all in addition to the fact that Shell, along with other fossil and gas companies, already sponsors all Harvard’s research on energy. Then, Franta and Supran describe how the film provides supposedly objective scholars’ assessments. These figures consistently express skepticism about renewable energy solutions and promote “realism” about fossil fuels, while advocating natural gas as a great transition to “clean” energy–without mentioning the methane emissions that have a much worse impact on global warming than carbon emissions.

The documentary does not disclose that the experts featured in the documentary are closely tied to Big Oil. Shell, Chevron, ExxonMobil and the Koch Foundation fund their research. 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; and Michelle Michot Foss, identified as the Chief Energy Economist at the University of Texas-Austin, is also a partner in a natural gas company.

According to Franta and Supran, the conflict of interests has become endemic in academia. Big Oil has effectively “colonized” energy and climate policy research in US universities in order to get them aligned with its interests. Exploring other prestigious universities, Franta and Supran reveal that MIT’s Energy Initiative is almost exclusively sponsored by the fossil fuel industry, including Shell, ExxonMobil, and Chevron. And, the famous climate change denial billionaire David Koch is a life member of the university’s board. On the West Coast, ExxonMobil funds Stanford’s Global Climate and Energy Project and Precourt Institute of Energy. UC Berkeley’s Energy Biosciences Institute was initiated thanks to a $500 million deal signed in 2007 with BP. As a result, BP appoints half of the voting members of the Governance Board of the Energy Biosciences Institute.

Franta and Supran call for universities to confront the problem, either by disclosing financial funding from fossil fuel industry in order to reduce the conflicts of interest, or by prioritizing other sponsors and personnel.

Up to one month after the event, the Harvard Shell-sponsored event has not been mentioned in any corporate media outlet. As for the broader issue of the large-scale domination of academia by Big Oil, corporate media coverage gives the impression that these are isolated cases. In 2007, the Sacramento Bee criticized the BP-Berkeley alliance as a challenge to public-private partnerships, while in 2010 the Los Angeles Times emphasized the benefits of BP-Berkeley partnership in the aftermath of BP oil spill disaster in the Gulf of Mexico (Michael Hiltzik, “Campus Is Oddly Silent on BP,” Los Angeles Times, August 1, 2010, B1).

After the liberal think tank Center for American Progress released a 2010 study that documented Big Oil’s strong grip on university research, this topic received some coverage in the corporate press, including outlets such as San Francisco Chronicle, and the New York Times, but, as in previous coverage, these reports tended to focus on individual cases rather than systemic patterns.

Source: Benjamin Franta and Geoffrey Supran, “The Fossil Fuel Industry’s Invisible Colonization of Academia,” Guardian, March 13, 2017,

Student Researcher: Zeinab Benchakroun (College of Marin)

Faculty Evaluator: Susan Rahman (College of Marin)