May 3, 2024 - Energy & Environment

New documents shed light on oil industry's academic support

Illustration of an oil drum wearing a mortarboard tassel.

Illustration: Shoshana Gordon/Axios

Over decades, major oil and gas companies have poured millions into academia to back up their policy stances, boost their influence and track new technology.

Why it matters: Newly released House and Senate documents shed fresh light on companies' motivations for providing funding for external research programs — a practice long accepted and disclosed, but nonetheless opaque.

Zoom in: For example, BP has funded research on climate science, energy and policy at Princeton University, via their Carbon Mitigation Initiative, for more than two decades.

  • Along with ExxonMobil, BP supported Princeton's highly influential "Net-Zero America" report that came out in 2020.
  • It helped inform the White House's approach for its landmark climate law enacted in 2022. BP's internal communications made it clear that the company saw access to a Biden administration-in-waiting as a good use of their investments.
  • "If Presidential elections go the way it looks now, I would not be surprised to see some of our friends in senior government policymaking roles as well!" wrote Robert Stout, then head of BP's US policy, in a 2020 email.
  • BP did not respond to Axios' request for comment.

The big picture: The documents were released as part of an investigation by Democrats on the House Oversight and Governmental Affairs Committee as well as the Senate Budget Committee.

  • They show that BP, for example, does not just view its spending on Princeton's programs as a way to keep current on climate science and policy.
  • It also sees it as an opportunity to bolster its views on natural gas and carbon capture and storage techniques, for example.
  • In that same 2020 email, Stout referred to the CMI's work as "increasingly synergistic" with BP's stances, "as of course we had planned."
  • Documents describe the Princeton-BP tie-up as a "genuine collaboration," which the company felt contrasted with its funding of some other higher education institutions that received less money over a shorter period.

The intrigue: BP's investment in CMI's work over the years has been complemented by more policy-oriented research, as the company supported programs at Harvard's Kennedy School of Government and Tufts University's Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy.

  • One internal memo, addressed to Dev Sanyal, then executive vice president of gas and low carbon energy at BP, laid out the case for renewing a program at Fletcher that cost the company about $200,000 per year in 2016, and a $400,000 program at Harvard.
  • Such relationships, plus the investment in Princeton can "provide BP access to unparalleled expertise at the forefront of research in the areas of climate change science, technology and policy," the memo states.

Yes, but: BP also saw the projects it funded as a way to push its priorities with academic backing, rather than just gaining information from universities.

  • "It has also been an opportunity for us to provide business perspectives to help shape international policy thinking in low carbon energy discussions," the memo states.
  • About its relationship with Harvard, an internal document notes what makes the school so attractive for BP: "Harvard is a revolving door for US government officials."

Follow the money: Stanford University is looking into fossil fuel industry funding of its Energy Modeling Forum, after E&E News reported on documents showing the program offered the American Petroleum Institute, an oil and gas lobbying group, pre-publication access to its research.

State of play: House and Senate Democrats, in a joint committee report, say the documents show how fossil fuel companies use academic partnerships as a way to "enhance their credibility, shape academic research programs to provide studies supportive of a prolonged life for oil and gas, leverage the resulting research to their advantage, and bolster access to policymakers."

Our thought bubble: The industry's academic ties provide new evidence of companies using their funding to advance their business aims. They are reminiscent of playbooks followed by other sectors involved in polarizing business activities.

  • However, these relationships aren't illegal, and it is ultimately up to individual institutions to put conditions on the funding or turn it down altogether.

The bottom line: It is only when viewed from a 30,000-foot level that a broader, more problematic picture emerges, given how much fossil fuel companies knew about climate change as early as the 1950s, and the tactics they have pursued since to delay action.

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