From the community | Should any fossil-fuel company qualify for funding Stanford’s School of Sustainability? A response to Dean Majumdar’s letter

June 2, 2022, 7:27 p.m.

Thom Hersbach is a postdoctoral scholar at SLAC National Accelerator Laboratory. He writes on behalf of the Coalition for a True School of Sustainability; the statements in this article are personal opinions and do not reflect the official views of the US Department of Energy or Stanford University.

Stanford recently announced the launch of the Doerr School of Sustainability. Despite receiving founding gifts totaling $1.7 billion, the school’s incoming dean has indicated that the school would still work with and accept funding from fossil fuel companies. This openness to fossil fuel funding is not hypothetical: the Doerr School is currently slated to absorb numerous fossil fuel-funded programs currently housed in the Stanford School of Earth. Such funding poses serious reputational risks to Stanford and the Doerr School, which might have its name used to promote climate denial, greenwashing and policies that delay climate action. In response to this criticism, Dean Arun Majumdar elaborated that climate change requires an “all hands on deck approach.” 

Although this approach might appear reasonable, it would be prudent to verify whether fossil fuel companies are indeed honest deckhands or, instead, mutineers. After all, fossil fuel producers have known about fossil-derived CO2 emissions since the 1950s, and have denied or downplayed climate change since 1980. In fact, the industry has used Stanford’s name to suggest that fossil fuels are essential to sustain growth while avoiding economic disaster. Furthermore, in 2006, then-CEO of ExxonMobil Rex Tillerson cited a $100 million contribution to Stanford’s Global Climate and Energy Project as evidence that the company is investing in renewable research, while ExxonMobil also told investors it would dedicate 1000 times more funds over the same time period to searching for new oil and gas reserves. 

These seven decades of history are not lost on Dean Majumdar, who proposes asking four questions to suss out potential bad actors. In this article, we will answer these questions for Stanford’s fossil fuel partners in order to further our shared goal of a truly sustainable Doerr School.

According to the Coalition for a True School of Sustainability, the University’s known fossil fuel partners include: BP, Chevron, ConocoPhillips, Devon Energy, EcoPetrol, Eni, Equinor, ExxonMobil, JX Nippon (since 2020: ENEOS), Occidental, Petrobras, PetroChina, Phillips 66, Repsol, Saudi Aramco, Shell, SK Energy and Total. For simplicity, we will refer to these companies as Stanford’s “Partners.” Stanford also engages with the American Petroleum Institute, a national oil and gas trade association, as well as several other fossil-related firms not included here. 

Wherever possible, we will characterize Stanford’s fossil-fuel Partners individually to avoid painting the entire industry with the same brush. This approach aligns with Stanford’s Board of Trustees 2020 commitment to the Paris Agreement: the Board eschews blanket fossil divestments, instead encouraging a case-by-case evaluation. With this in mind, we can address Dean Majumdar’s four questions.

1. Are [a Partner’s] commitments aligned with the goals of the Paris Agreement?

The Paris Agreement aims to limit the global average temperature increase to well below 2 °C above pre-industrial levels and pursue efforts to stay below 1.5 °C. Stanford’s fossil Partners do not appear to be committed to these goals: a 2021 paper in the journal Science analyzed Stanford’s aforementioned Partners, concluding that only Occidental Petroleum comes close to meeting the Paris Goals. These findings are supported by The Guardian and Oil Change International. Notably, Oil Change International found the climate pledges and plans of eight Stanford Partners to be “grossly insufficient.” 

2. Is [a Partner] devoting sufficient human and financial resources to meet its commitments?

To reiterate, most of Stanford’s Partners’ commitments do not align with Paris goals. For these companies, any devoted human and financial resources are therefore insufficient by default. This point is underscored by Climate Action 100+, which judges none of Stanford’s Partners Capital Alignment as ‘aligned’. A 2022 scientific study reproduces these conclusions for BP, Chevron, ExxonMobil and Shell, stating that none of these companies are “currently on the way to a clean energy transition.”

3. Is [a Partner] supporting and promoting government policy that would create the business imperative for a transition to a clean economy?

To answer this question, it would be easy to cherry pick negative examples of fossil-fuel lobbying. This would seemingly disqualify ExxonMobil for lobbying against the European Union’s CO2 vehicle standards, and Shell, BP, Equinor and Total for promoting fossil gas in Europe: these obstructive actions conflict with Dean Majumdar’s personal beliefs. However, it might be more objective to judge companies for their overall lobbying behavior. To this end, LobbyMap lists the lobbying behavior of Stanford’s fossil fuel Partners. It finds most of these Partners to obstruct climate policy and five Partners to express mixed positions. Notably, LobbyMap considers the American Petroleum Institute to be “broadly hostile to climate policy in the US.” The Institute counts multiple Stanford Partners among its members

Furthermore, according to Dean Majumdar, a company sometimes needs to “produce oil and gas to avoid significant disruptions to human welfare, the economy and national security in the short term.” In this case, one should ask:

4. Does it still intend to meet its climate commitments in the long term?

Here, Dean Majumdar suggests that exceptional circumstances might justify temporarily increased fossil fuel production if producers still commit to long-term climate goals. Evaluating this question, we can assess how fossil fuel companies act during the Covid-19 pandemic or Russia’s (#3 global oil producer) invasion of Ukraine. According to Influence Map, the American Petroleum Institute has used both crises to lobby for rolling back existing or planned climate policy standards: these are not good signs.

Overall, it appears like Dean Majumdar’s questions have no positive answers. This is not to say that no well-intentioned people work at or with Stanford’s fossil fuel Partners: we personally know many such people. However, we must also recognize that the overall behavior of Stanford’s Partners appears inconsistent with Dean Majumdar’s criteria and the Board of Trustees’ commitments to the Paris Agreement. 

If Stanford engages with these Partners at an institutional level, it should therefore consider the risks. Should Stanford expose itself to what researchers describe as greenwashing and ideological climate denialism? Does Stanford intend to help fossil-fuel companies explore unconventional oil, even though the IEA deems further oil exploration incompatible with net-zero goals? Both Stanford and the Doerr School should weigh these questions carefully. 

In summary, the research cited here suggests that Stanford’s current fossil-fuel Partners do not even remotely match Dean Majumdar’s criteria and the Board of Trustees’ Paris commitment. Although our concerns with fossil-fuel engagement extend beyond merely meeting these requirements, discussing these concerns might be more appropriate once the Dean’s and Board’s minimum criteria are met. For now, accepting funding from fossil-fuel companies at the institutional level should be a non-starter if Dean Majumdar and the Board intend to follow their own guidelines.

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