Climate

Oil Companies Can Sponsor Academics To Write Contrarian Studies, Investigation Finds

CREDIT: Andrew Breiner

PARIS, FRANCE — A series of emails published in conjunction with a Greenpeace UK Energy Desk undercover investigation reveal a willingness by prominent academics to accept funding from fossil fuel companies in exchange for producing scientific studies that sow doubt about mainstream climate science. The academics also revealed a willingness not to disclose the source of funding for the studies.

One of the academics highlighted in the investigation is William Happer, a professor of physics at Princeton University, who is scheduled to testify Tuesday during a Senate subcommittee hearing on climate science convened by Sen. Ted Cruz (R-TX).

“We now know that professors at prestigious universities can be sponsored by fossil fuel companies to write reports that sow doubt about climate change, and that those professors will keep that funding secret from the public,” Ben Stewart, the head of media for Greenpeace, told ThinkProgress. “The question now is very simple: Down the years, how many so-called scientific reports that skewered the debate on climate change were actually paid for by oil and coal companies?”

Greenpeace UK reporters posed as a Beirut-based public relations company representing a Middle Eastern oil and gas company and approached two academics — Happer and Frank Clemente, Professor Emeritus at Penn State University — asking if they would be willing to write papers promoting the benefit of CO2 and coal in developing countries. Both professors agreed, with Happer saying that he would only work with the company if they shared his view that CO2 is beneficial for the planet. Both also agreed that they would not need to disclose the source of the funding — ostensibly from a Middle Eastern oil and gas company — in their final reports.

“There is no requirement to declare source funding in the U.S.,” Clemente wrote. “My research and writing has been supported by government agencies, trade associations, the University and private companies and all has been published under the rubric of me as an independent scholar — which I am.”

When asked if the paper that Happer agreed to write could be peer-reviewed, Happer told the undercover reporters that getting peer-review on a paper touting the benefits of CO2 might be difficult.

“That might greatly delay publication and might require such major changes in response to referees and the journal editor that the article would no longer make the case that CO2 is a benefit, not a pollutant, as strongly as I would like, and presumably as strongly [as] your client would also like,” Happer wrote.

He did offer, however, to put the paper through an informal review process, wherein it would be looked at by members of the Global Warming Policy Foundation (GWPF) — a major climate-denying think tank. Happer told the undercover reporters that the paper could then be referred to as having gone through a peer review.

Happer also asked that his fee be paid not to him directly, but to the CO2 Coalition, a nonprofit created in 2015 for the purpose of “educating thought leaders, policy makers, and the public about the important contribution made by carbon dioxide and fossil fuels to our lives and the economy.” Happer serves on the CO2 Coalition’s Board of Directors.

When asked to confirm that the organization would not have its name associated to the donation, Happer contacted William O’Keefe, Chief Operating Officer of the George C. Marshall Institute (O’Keefe used to be a registered lobbyist for Exxon from 2001-2005).

O’Keefe told Happer that they are “under no obligation to identify donors, except to the IRS.” O’Keefe also told Happer that “if the person participates in the Donors Trust, he/she can make the donation through that and have complete confidentiality.”

Donors Trust is a secretive funding channel through which contributions from donors are distributed anonymously — Mother Jones has called it “the dark-money ATM of the right.” According to the Guardian, as of 2010, Donors Trust had given $118 million to 102 think tanks or action groups that work in casting doubt on the climate debate.

In a conversation with Donors Trust, Greenpeace’s undercover reporter asked if they could give money through Donors Trust even though they purported to be representing a non-U.S.-based company. A representative for Donors Trust told the reporter that the money could come from a foreign body if they were extra cautious, though the preference would be that the money came from a U.S. account. In an on-the-record conversation with Greenpeace following the investigation, Peter Lipsett, director of growth strategies at Donors Trust, said that Donors Trust “only [accepts] donations in U.S. currency and drawn from U.S. banks” and “has never accepted secret donations from foreign donors.”

According to Greenpeace’s Stewart, the investigation “exposes a network of academics for hire,” explaining that the work done by Greenpeace adds to an investigation carried out earlier this year by the New York Times that exposed the fossil fuel funding received by Wei-Hock Soon, an aerospace engineer at the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics.

“When so-called scientific reports are published by climate skeptic organizations, then the public should be wary and they should ask questions about that research,” Stewart said. “If fossil fuel companies want to pay for research that defends their position, then they should be up front and say they are funding it. The public has a right to know.”