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Who is Arun Majumdar? Incoming Sustainability School dean has a history of embracing industry partnerships

May 23, 2022, 11:29 p.m.

As co-director of Stanford’s Precourt Institute for Energy, Arun Majumdar embraced collaboration with industry — including fossil-fuel companies. Under his leadership, Precourt received a $20 million grant from Shell when the company became a founding member of Precourt’s Strategic Energy Alliance, which coordinates exclusive research partnerships between Stanford and global companies.

Now, as Majumdar steps into a major role as the inaugural dean of Stanford’s Doerr School of Sustainability, his stance on industry collaboration remains strikingly similar. In a recent interview with The New York Times, Majumdar said that under his leadership, the Doerr School would work with and accept donations from fossil-fuel companies — a position for which he has faced criticism. In Majumdar’s view, Stanford must engage with fossil-fuel companies that are committed to being part of the solution if it wants to make strides in the fight against climate change.

But to some students and activists at Stanford and beyond, Majumdar’s strategy is a sham. In their eyes, he is catering to industry interests and failing to support the transformative change that is necessary to address the climate crisis.

In alignment with his previous statements, Majumdar, who will formally assume his role when the school launches on Sept. 1, told The Daily that he still believes we need “gigaton-scale” industries to solve a “gigaton-scale” problem.

“No single institution can do it,” he said. “You need partnerships, and you need coalition-building.”

Majumdar’s view on tackling climate change stems from his experiences in academia, government and industry.

With a background in mechanical engineering and materials science, Majumdar worked in senior roles at the Department of Energy (DOE) and as the Vice President for Energy at Google before coming to Stanford in 2014. He currently runs the Magic Lab at Stanford and is a senior fellow at the Hoover Institution, where he co-chairs the George Shultz Energy and Climate Task Force.

His experiences in these roles have led him to believe that we need an “all hands on deck” approach to solving the climate crisis, he said. For Majumdar, those hands include fossil-fuel companies.

“If you are to look at what is needed to make a dent in this challenge that we face, you need the government, you need industry, you need academia,” he said.

“From a climate scientist’s point of view, it’s a scam”

Dan Zegart, a senior investigator at the Climate Investigations Center, started digging into Majumdar’s record when the new dean was being seriously considered for President Biden’s energy secretary. (Majumdar was not ultimately selected, but he currently chairs now-Secretary Jennifer Granholm’s advisory board.) 

For Zegart, one of the most salient aspects of Majumdar’s background is his close relationship with former energy secretary Ernest Moniz: Majumdar was the vice chairman of Moniz’s advisory board from 2014 to 2017, and the two still serve on the board of the private equity firm Lime Rock New Energy together.

Majumdar and Moniz are “from the same neighborhood” when it comes to climate solutions and industry collaboration, Zegart said. “What they represent is the oil and gas industry’s chosen ‘solution’ to how to decarbonize.”

Zegart pointed to efforts such as carbon capture and sequestration (CCS) — the process of capturing carbon dioxide before it enters the atmosphere — as examples of supposed solutions that, in Zegart’s view, keep fossil-fuel companies happy. These approaches allow major companies to maintain their mission and continue oil and gas exploration, Zegart said.

Majumdar, who is listed on Stanford Energy’s website as a top CCS researcher, has long embraced carbon capture as a key strategy for quickly achieving net-zero emissions. In a 2018 paper, he presented a framework for reducing atmospheric carbon dioxide concentration at a gigaton-per-year scale — including by leveraging technologies like CCS to meet the pace and scale of emissions reduction. Under Majumdar’s leadership, Precourt collaborated with Moniz’s Energy Futures Initiative to produce an action plan for CCS in California. 

Former Secretary of Energy Steven Chu — under whom Majumdar served as the founding director of the Advanced Research Projects Agency-Energy (ARPA-E) and as acting undersecretary of energy — echoed Majumdar’s thoughts on industry collaboration. Chu, who praised Majumdar’s appointment and called him someone with “natural leadership qualities,” said that industry leaders are best positioned to aid the carbon-free transition, which includes CCS.

“We’re not here to help them find more oil and gas. We’re here to help them find a better solution,” Chu said. “And if they’re willing to give us money to find better solutions to a carbon-free world, that’s a good thing.”

Still, Zegart isn’t convinced.

“People like Majumdar are industry-leaning technocrats first, and the rest of it is basically an add-on,” Zegart said. “From a climate scientist’s point of view, it’s a scam. This is not going to lead us to a green future.”

“A clear vote of no confidence”

When Ph.D. students Celina Scott-Buechler, Yannai Kashtan and Jayson Toweh read Majumdar’s interview in The New York Times, they were disappointed, but unsurprised.

Scott-Buechler, a first-year Ph.D. student in the Emmett Interdisciplinary Program in Environment and Resources (E-IPER), said Majumdar’s comment about fossil-fuel companies represents a “clear vote of no confidence” in the new dean’s leadership.

While she said she had been willing to work with Majumdar despite his fossil-fuel ties, his mention of the Doerr School’s willingness to partner with and accept money from the industry during his interview is, in her eyes, a signal “that this is something that he’s serious about and that is a priority for him and that is misaligned with the student body.”

In a survey of nearly 60 students conducted by the Graduate Student Advisory Committee, students in Stanford’s climate-related departments said that the new school rejecting funding from “problematic/polluting industries” like fossil fuels was their number-one priority, according to results provided to The Daily.

Kashtan, a second-year Earth Systems Science Ph.D. Student and a Knight-Hennessy Scholar, said that Majumdar’s willingness to accept fossil-fuel money is a “massive missed opportunity” to incorporate student feedback. It also represents a failure to take into account “a growing body of scholarship documenting the insidious role of fossil-fuel industry funding both in shaping research agendas in their favor and also in laundering the industry’s public image,” he said.

“Given [Majumdar’s] statement, I think I have zero confidence in his leadership to affect any meaningful changes on climate with any kind of timeline that makes sense for 1.5 degrees,” Kashtan said, referring to the warming limit goal set in the Paris Agreement.

Kashtan and other graduate activists have compiled data on industry-funded initiatives at Stanford, documenting the benefits that such funding affords industry partners, such as early access to research, shaping agendas and access to students.

“We’re really working with individuals and corporations that aren’t really trying to make a big difference,” Toweh, a first-year E-IPER Ph.D. student, said. “They’re really just trying to have some nice PR, to have a nice project that they can have on the side.”

According to Majumdar, however, Stanford has safeguards in place to prevent donors from influencing research. He emphasized that faculty maintain authority and independence to direct their research and are required to disclose industry funding.

“A gigaton-scale problem”

At an Academic Council meeting on fossil fuel divestment in June 2020, Majumdar expressed the same sentiment he holds today: “Just to remind people, this is a gigaton-scale problem that we’re dealing with,” he said. “And to think that we can get there quickly without gigaton-scale industries is unrealistic.”

Just weeks before that meeting, Stanford’s Board of Trustees voted against divestment, despite years of activism from the group Fossil Free Stanford (FFS). Most recently, against the backdrop of the new Sustainability School, FFS and the Climate Defense Project filed a joint legal complaint against Stanford, arguing that the University’s refusal to divest contradicts its responsibility to promote the public interest as a public charitable corporation.

FFS is not the only climate activist group to have sounded alarms about Stanford’s industry ties. National advocates aired similar concerns about Majumdar’s ability to address the climate crisis when he was being considered for energy secretary. In a December 2020 press release, the activist group Greenpeace wrote that they would “be watching vigilantly to ensure that his extensive ties to the fossil fuel industry and other corporate interests do not get in the way of the necessary transition to a renewable energy economy.”

In addition to overseeing the $20 million grant from Shell to Precourt, Majumdar has also advised a range of private energy companies, including Breakthrough Energy Ventures, Envision Energy, First Light Fusion and the New Energy Group of Royal Dutch Shell.

Majumdar has made clear time and again that he believes a transition to a carbon-free economy is only possible when big industry players are involved.

“Our thinking is that if companies want to be part of the solution to remove CO2 from the atmosphere and to decarbonize our economy, then we will work with them,” he said. “We will work with them if they want to be part of the solution. But they have to commit to that solution not just in words, but in action.”

“We do not inherit this earth from our ancestors, we borrow it from our children”

Majumdar and Stanford President Marc Tessier-Lavigne both have daughters who work in sustainability. Ultimately, this issue is personal — and it’s one they know young people care about. 

“I personally believe and I think all of us believe that the issue of climate change and the need to create a sustainable future for our planet and for our children and their children is the defining issue of the 21st century, and that we as a University have a responsibility to tackle it head on,” Tessier-Lavigne told The Daily. “And that’s what we are trying to do through this school.”

Majumdar echoed this responsibility. 

“As the saying goes, we do not inherit this earth from our ancestors; we borrow it from our children,” he said.

According to the President, Stanford plans to track the Doerr School’s environmental impact. The extent to which future collaborations with fossil fuel companies affect this impact, if at all, remains to be seen.

Georgia Rosenberg is the Vol. 261 executive editor for print. She was previously a Vol. 260 news managing editor and a Vol. 258/259 desk editor for university news. Contact her at grosenberg 'at' stanforddaily.com!

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