Exxon in the classroom: how big oil money influences US universities

Students at Princeton describe unease that Exxon employee had an office on campus, while dozens of universities have big oil links

Oliver Milman

@olliemilman Mon 27 Mar 2023 04.30 EDT (TheGuardian.com)

The lecturer looked, and sounded, the part. Sporting a pale blue shirt and Princeton University ID badge, he had his own office on campus, a short stroll from the room where several dozen students were gathered to hear him confidently talk about the challenges in moving away from fossil fuels.

Tim Barckholtz is not a Princeton professor, however. He is a senior scientific adviser at ExxonMobil, the oil giant that has done so much to both perpetuate and downplay the climate crisis. Barckholtz, an affable figure who has fronted adverts for Exxon touting its emissions reduction research, spent around six months sitting in and contributing to lectures and research groups, based in his own office space at the elite university.

In September, with the university poised to cut its extensive ties with certain fossil-fuel companies including Exxon, Barckholtz even taught a class of engineering students on “negative emissions technologies”, during which, over pizza and soda, he criticized the divestment decision, warned that the transition away from oil and gas will be “very difficult” and that the unfolding climate emergency was “not our fault”.

“It’s hard for me to figure out who wins [from divestment],” Barckholtz told the class, a recording of it shows. “There are, like, 10 people who win. They are sleeping better at night, but technology is the loser.” Barckholtz then noted that Exxon makes the type of rubber that goes into most car tires. “Are all of the Princeton security cars going to go back to the Flintstones and have no tires?” he asked. “There are some parts of this they didn’t think through completely.”

Asked by a student about the Paris climate agreement, Barckholtz expressed doubt that it could be met, as it was too hard to ditch fossil fuels. “I’m not optimistic, I’m going to call it the way I see it,” he said. “The system is just too big to be flipped.”

“A few of the students thought it was weird he was in the class and that he then taught the class,” said Claire Kaufman, a second year master’s student in public affairs who said she started talking to Barckholtz during one of the first negative emissions technology classes and was “quite shocked” to discover he was an Exxon employee.

Group of five students standing for a portrait in front of an old university building
Members of Divest Princeton. Clockwise from left, Aaron Serianni, Alexander Norbrook, Nate Howard, Eleanor Clemans-Cope and Claire Kaufman. Photograph: Lauren Lancaster/The Guardian

Dozens of US universities, however, retain links with the fossil-fuel industry in a variety of ways, despite the growing pressure on them to cut them. Several host Exxon representatives on campus and even provide them with office space, similar to Princeton’s previous arrangement, a Guardian investigation has found.

According to Kaufman, Barckholtz told her Exxon had no interest in renewable energy – aside from, perhaps, offshore wind – beyond using it as a public relations exercise, and that he was looking to fund the work of the professor whose class he sat in. He showed her his Princeton office space, which included a list of a dozen Exxon-funded research projects on a whiteboard.

He later told the class that he was there to “scout out” useful things for Exxon’s nearby research center in New Jersey, and that the company has had someone, like him, monitoring Princeton classes for the previous five years. (In 2015, Princeton said it was “delighted” to forge a new “e-filliates” partnership with Exxon). Barckholtz did not respond to questions from the Guardian over his role at Princeton.

“The fact there was an Exxon employee in this undergrad class blew my mind,” said Kaufman, who is also an organizer at the Divest Princeton group. “It’s weird and problematic he then took the class, but the biggest issue is that public opinion is against Exxon so they are looking to install themselves as impartial-looking bodies in classrooms.

“This is not a neutral industry. It has an agenda, it wants to shape the conversation around climate change and energy. They aren’t putting people in classrooms for fun.”

Barckholtz has since vacated his office, following Princeton’s announcement on 29 September that 90 companies, including Exxon, would not only be divested from its endowment but also would have research funding ties cut, following years of pressure from students for Princeton to follow other major universities in dropping fossil-fuel investments.

But Exxon, which is among a group of oil and gas companies that have funneled more than $700m into research partnerships with leading US universities since 2010, still maintains close ties to dozens of universities, and has a regular on-campus presence at a clutch of prestigious colleges.https://interactive.guim.co.uk/uploader/embed/2023/03/archive-zip/giv-13425CZIwawia5111/

At MIT, Exxon is provided office space through its funding of the MIT Energy Initiative research collaboration, and company representatives “come to campus from time to time to meet with principal investigators who are doing sponsored research and student fellows they sponsor”, a university spokesperson said.

Ellie Rabenold, an engineering student and part of the MIT Divest group, said she was unaware that Exxon had office space at her university, and that divestment is a “touchy subject” for members of the faculty that have been bankrolled by various fossil-fuel-funded initiatives. In 2019, an auditorium at MIT was set to be named after Shell, another oil company, until a student and faculty backlash forced a rethink.

Exxon researchers do not have their own office space at Stanford, a university Exxon has given $120m to over the past two decades for climate and energy research, although the company’s researchers are often seen on campus. At other universities, Exxon employees are present at jobs fairs, or as guest speakers or to treat students to meals.

“I see something with Exxon on it once a week, at least. They have a very evident presence on campus,” said Evan Montoya, a third-year student at Georgia Tech. “They definitely have a substantial influence here.”

Even as elite American universes such as Harvard have bowed to pressure to divest their multibillion-dollar endowments from fossil fuels, and student activists take recalcitrant holdouts to court, oil and gas companies continue to exert a grip upon campus life, through funded research and the physical presence of oil and gas industry employees in lectures and meetings with faculty.

Fossil-fuel firms have purposely sought to “colonize” academia with industry-friendly science, rather than seed overt climate denial, according to Ben Franta, a senior research fellow at the University of Oxford who has studied industry’s influence over universities.

Their research dollars, he said, had effectively discouraged academic endeavors that challenge the core business model of burning oil and gas, instead shifting the focus to favored topics such as capturing carbon emissions from polluting facilities, a still niche technology that would allow industry to continue business as usual.

Tim Barckholtz at Princeton in an office and in a university class.
Tim Barckholtz at Princeton in an office and in a university class. Photograph: Divest Princeton

“When you have these companies in class and on campus, it’s like an audition for academics to get research grants,” Franta said. “Sometimes a researcher who’s funded by industry does drift into an anti-industry posture, and then they just cut off their funding. You have professors who will quietly say: ‘I think divestment is a great idea, but I can’t support it because I’ll lose my research funding from oil companies.’

“A standard strategy that industries under threat try is to influence what gets studied and what doesn’t get studied, and how the problem is framed. The tobacco industry did the same thing. For Exxon to have someone with an office at Princeton, and for that person to teach a class, is a shocking example of this.”

The reach of fossil fuels into academia “never ceases to amaze me”, said Robert Brulle, an environmental sociologist at Brown University. “You can barely study climate change at elite universities and not be funded by fossil-fuel companies,” he added. “They drive all this study into carbon capture, so that influences policy and becomes a part of the Biden administration’s agenda. The influence is profound, and the students are right to be wondering what kind of education they are getting here.”

Researchers have stressed that proper academic guardrails ensure no funder dictates outcomes they desire and that important, scientifically sound studies have come from work backed by arm’s-length fossil-fuel interests. Exxon has financed studies and research groups into areas such as carbon capture and dangerous chemical exposures, often alongside other independent researchers.

Concrete building under a blue sky
Andlinger Center for Energy and the Environment at Princeton has received fossil fuel funding and has produced annual reports in which Exxon expresses gratitude for ‘access to extraordinary talent and facilities’. Photograph: Lauren Lancaster/The Guardian

Princeton denies Exxon has had an undue influence over the university’s Andlinger Center for Energy and the Environment, which has received fossil-fuel funding and has produced annual reports in which Exxon expresses gratitude for “access to extraordinary talent and facilities”. Barckholtz sat in some class meetings but “did not play a role in developing the course or its learning objectives”, a Princeton spokesperson said.

Barckholtz was a “fun and productive collaborator” on a project to burn biomass such as forests for energy and capture and bury the resulting emissions, said Eric Larson, a senior researcher at the Andlinger Center. More than a dozen Exxon-funded research projects at Princeton, including work on technologies to offset or capture carbon emissions, will have to be funded by other means itself following the disassociation, a move that Larson considers unnecessary and potentially counterproductive.

“We chose the project, and Exxon was interested enough to support it. My research agenda isn’t impacted at all by who is funding it,” Larson said. “I’m OK with taking Exxon stock out from the Princeton endowment – that’s a way to make a statement – but this was taking research money away from work designed to decarbonize our society as rapidly as possible. We need everyone inside the tent to solve this problem, including the fossil-fuel industry.”

An Exxon spokesperson said that the company “enjoyed a long and fruitful relationship with Princeton, but it has become clear that there are individuals associated with the university who are choosing to put their individual views above the opportunity to accelerate the energy transition we all seek”.

Student walking in concrete building
Claire Kaufman at the Andlinger Center for Energy and the Environment. ‘The fact there was an Exxon employee in this undergrad class blew my mind.’ Photograph: Lauren Lancaster/The Guardian

Exxon, which has provided more than $10.7m in research funding to Princeton over the past 10 years, had more than 25 research projects with the university, the company spokesperson added.

But even Princeton has not jettisoned all fossil-fuel partners. Its Carbon Mitigation Initiative will continue to be financed by BP, which has given $26.4m to the university over the past decade and does not fall under the precise terms of the divestment, which was only aimed at companies with coal or tar sands assets, rather than all oil firms.

Other oil and gas companies, such as Shell, may even join as partners under these terms in a new “energy research fund”. Princeton’s ties to the industry are deep and historical – letters buried in the university’s library archive show its leadership aggressively courted Exxon in the 1970s, complaining in one instance it has “not received its fair share from Exxon”. One PhD student told the Guardian she was almost certain her work was being funded by fossil fuels, but that she had not received a straight answer from the university over this.

Michael Oppenheimer, a Princeton climate scientist, said he was disappointed the university’s trustees did not enact a divestment broad enough to also evict businesses such as BP, but that it is difficult to criticize researchers for getting funding where they can.

Group of five in a courtyard
Student members of Divest Princeton. Photograph: Lauren Lancaster/The Guardian

“They have to live with whatever decisions they make. I try to not judge others,” he said. “Personally, I would never take a penny from Exxon due to their disinformation on climate change. You can talk to the devil sometimes, but you don’t have to take to take money from the devil, and the devil is Exxon.”

The presence of carbon-intensive industries in Princeton classrooms has not dissipated, either. Two weeks ago, a class called Oil, Energy and the Middle East featured a guest appearance from Sheikh Nawaf Saud Al Sabah, chief executive of the Kuwait Petroleum Corporation, who told the gathered students that “we are never going to get out of fossil fuels: we need them for plastics and medicine … we are too reliant upon them”, according to Frida Ruiz, a sophomore in mechanical engineering who took the class.

Just before the class, Ruiz was perusing the shared class materials on a Princeton phone app, and saw a professor had posted a cartoon mocking supporters of fossil-fuel divestment, showing them near-naked and befuddled without any of the modern appliances that require fossil fuels.

“I thought, ‘Huh, I guess I now have a sense of what this class is going to be like,’” Ruiz said, adding she heard later it was meant as an example of industry propaganda.

 Are you a student at a US university where fossil fuels industry staffers have an on campus presence? If so we would like to hear from you. Contact oliver.milman@theguardian.com

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