An article written for The Guardian by Benjamin Franta and Geoffrey Supran accuses many of America’s top universities of being little more than shills for fossil fuel companies when it comes to studies about climate change. They say that energy companies have ripped a page directly out of the tobacco industry playbook. The strategy calls for flooding academia with so much money to fund energy and climate change research that the universities have lost all semblance of impartiality and are simply reporting results pleasing to their industry paymasters.
Want an example? In February, Harvard University proudly screened a new film called The Great Transition as part of what it calls its Rational Middle Energy Series — programs designed to explore the future of energy. Harvard says the series is predicated on “a need and desire for a balanced discussion about today’s energy issues.” The screening took place at the Harvard Kennedy School’s Belfer Center.
What Harvard Didn’t Say
Here’s what the people who watched the film were not told. Shell was the sponsor of the event and was also the producer of the film. The director is vice president of a family owned oil and gas company and has received nearly $300,000 from Shell. The Harvard Kennedy School has received at least $3.75 million from Shell. The discussion panel at the screening included a Shell vice president.
Want more? The film claims natural gas is clean energy but does not mention the deadly methane emissions that fracking to release natural gas from the ground causes. It goes on to say that renewable energy solutions are “a very long time off.” Richard Newell, identified as a former administrator at the US Energy Information Administration, is featured in the film. “You can get 50% reductions in your emissions relative to coal through natural gas,” he says without mentioning that the Energy Initiative he founded and directed at Duke University was funded to the tune of $4 million by an executive at a natural gas company.
In the film, Michelle Michot Foss is skeptical about battery production for renewables. She is identified as the chief energy economist at the Center for Energy Economics at the University of Texas at Austin. That is true but what is not said is that “the Energy Institute she founded at UT Austin is funded by Chevron, ExxonMobil, and other fossil fuel interests including the Koch Foundation, or that she’s a partner in a natural gas company,” according to Franta and Supran.
Fossil Fuel Company Influence At Other Universities
The authors say the problem is endemic throughout academia. At MIT, for example, its Energy Initiative “is almost entirely funded by fossil fuel companies, including Shell, ExxonMobil, and Chevron. MIT has taken $185 million from oil billionaire and climate denial financier David Koch, who is a Life Member of the university’s board.” MIT’s chairman told the Boston Globe, “I don’t see a conflict.”
At Stanford, the Global Climate and Energy Project is funded by ExxonMobil and Schlumberger. Its founding and current directors are both petroleum engineers, one of whom is also a director of Stanford’s Precourt Institute for Energy, which is named after the CEO of a natural gas company now owned by Shell. Across San Francisco Bay, UC Berkeley’s Energy Biosciences Institute is the result of a $500 million deal with BP. That arrangement gives the company the power to decide which research projects get funded and which don’t.
American Climate Research Corrupted By Money
“Fossil fuel interests – oil, gas, and coal companies, fossil-fueled utilities, and fossil fuel investors – have colonized nearly every nook and cranny of energy and climate policy research in American universities, and much of energy science too. And they have done so quietly, without the general public’s knowledge,” say the authors of The Guardian article.
“This norm is no accident: it is the product of a public relations strategy to neutralize science and target those whom ExxonMobil dubbed “Informed Influentials,” and it comes straight out of Big Tobacco’s playbook. The myriad benefits of this strategy to the fossil fuel industry (and its effects on academic research) range from benign to insidious to unconscionable, but the big picture is simple: academia has a problem.”
Actually, academia doesn’t have a problem. America has a problem. It is common knowledge that fossil fuel money has bought and paid for the winning electoral campaigns of most member of the US Congress. Now we learn that the corrosive power of oil and gas money has reached deep inside our institutions of higher learning as well. When one considers the emissions from extracting, transporting , and consuming fossil fuels contribute to illness, disease or premature death for many Americans, the actions of fossil fuel companies should be condemned by all as a direct threat to the public good.
Are There Legal Remedies For Academic Cheating?
The attorneys general of New York and Massachusetts are battling in court right now to find out what ExxonMobil knew and when it knew it. If they are successful, civil or criminal litigation could result. In criminal law, the doctrine of depraved indifference could potentially be used to prosecute oil and gas company executives both past and present. Based on the information presented by Franta and Supran, some university administrators could be the target of investigations by state attorneys general as well.