Oil and gas companies pour money into research universities

  • ExxonMobil's new field processing facility in the Piceance Basin in western Colorado.

    Courtesy ExxonMobil Business Wire
  • A deer collared as part of a Colorado State University study funded by the company to figure out how wildlife behaves amid the area's vast network of roads and well pads.

    George Wittemyer
  • Artist Chris Drury at work on Carbon Sink on the University of Wyoming campus. Within months of its completion, the university had removed it, reportedly due to industry complaints to the State Legislature.

    Courtesy University of Wyoming Art Museum

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"We need new funding models to provide an affordable education," says Hal Salwasser, former dean of Oregon State University's College of Forestry, another land-grant school. "It's going to be coming from more private sources. I don't know of a school in the West that is not on that trajectory."

State timber taxes funnel millions annually to Oregon State's forestry research, and some companies have endowed faculty chairs and made other private contributions. But that coziness can spark controversy. In 2006, an OSU graduate student coauthored a paper in Science refuting the idea that logging burned trees stimulates new forest growth. Timber officials and some professors unsuccessfully demanded that it be withdrawn, leading critics to decry the college's industry ties. The episode triggered discussions about research principles, but didn't lead to any formal changes -- or reduce timber industry support or collaboration. "They don't get to pick the professors or the students or the research design," Salwasser says.

In 2010, the Center for American Progress, a liberal think tank, identified over 50 "partnerships" between universities and energy companies, with contributions ranging from $1 million to $500 million. Government investment in energy research and development is just a fraction of what it was in the 1970s, so such collaborations have helped foster "critical advancements" in technology. But, the report warned, "Industry funding can have a powerful distorting influence on the quality, topics, and credibility of academic research when it is not properly managed."

Recent controversies have underscored that point. The industry-supported Shale Resources and Society Institute at the State University of New York-Buffalo closed just a few months into its operation, after its first report concluded that Pennsylvania's fracking regulations effectively protected the environment and people -- meaning that New York's proposed rules were safe -- even though independent data showed accidents had increased under Pennsylvania's rules. Several report authors, including Timothy Considine, now of University of Wyoming, also failed to disclose that they had worked for the gas industry. Similar issues have muddied fracking studies at University of Texas-Austin and Penn State, intensifying scrutiny of industry-funded research and earning it the moniker "frackademia."

The pace and scope of industry-academy alliances -- which sometimes include delayed stock options for professors, or give corporate funders significant control over studies and results -- have outstripped many schools' policies on financial conflicts of interest, disclosure of past work and intellectual property, says Cary Nelson, past president of the American Association of University Professors and co-author of a recent report recommending guidelines for such relationships. Some schools and professors now simply refuse energy money. "The fracking industry has acquired some of the reputation of the tobacco industry," says Nelson, referring to cigarette companies that sponsored studies refuting the links between smoking and cancer.

Nicholas Kuhn
Nicholas Kuhn Subscriber
Jan 22, 2013 03:07 PM
Pharmaceuticals have sponsored many studies that, when the results were not to their liking, simply were never published. What mechanisms exist to prevent this from happening to industry-sponsored environmental studies? Public-funding for state-sponsored research declines while oil and gas profits soar. So industry profits from the use of our public land, benefits from tax loopholes which thereby contributing less to the coffers for third-party research. This is a dirty business.
Lyn McCormick
Lyn McCormick
Jan 23, 2013 06:26 PM
I live in Moffat County on a 500 acre ranch who's southern boundary is 2 1/2 miles along the Yampa river. It is adjacent to over a million acres of PL and several wildlife study areas. I'm not sure if we are within the deer study area, but we have witnessed a tremendous decline in deer and elk numbers since purchasing the property 3 yrs. ago. However, there isn't any drilling in the surrounding area so I can't blame it on energy development. In fact, I've seen more roadkill deer and deer browsing in downtown Craig Colorado than I've seen anywhere else. I am curious to know what the study will deduce about energy developments impacts on the deer population. There are so many other variables involved and the local folks claim its due to two hard winters, predation, over-allocation of hunting tags and a disease process that went through the herds. Personally, because of the drought and livestock grazing I question the lack of forage ? I'm glad the energy industry is stepping up to the plate to address those concerns because they take the brunt of the blame for everything that goes wrong on the range.
Lyn McCormick
Lyn McCormick
Jan 23, 2013 09:21 PM
One more thing; there was/is a study being done on the poor air quality in the Piceance Basin. Unfortunately, there wasn't enough snow last year to gather enough data to complete the study. Does anyone know more about the outcome of this study ? It also mentioned a number of "green" technologies & alternatives to controlling gas leaks and emissions at the wellheads. It was published in Energy & Environment News last year.
Josh Zaffos
Josh Zaffos Subscriber
Jan 24, 2013 01:28 PM
Thanks for the comments, Lyn. There are certainly a lot of factors at play potentially impacting mule deer and wildlife populations, so that's among the reasons there are ongoing studies through universities and through the state, too. I'm not sure about the specific study you're referring to regarding air quality, but I know others are under way in Garfield County and on the Front Range. Companies do claim to be developing and using "greener" technologies for extraction, development and remediation, and that is another area of study where the industry is tapping university scientists. The BP research grant to the CSU chemist referenced in the article falls into that category.
Martin Wolf
Martin Wolf Subscriber
May 28, 2013 06:37 PM
I read in the "Energy" supplement in the May 2013 Four Corners Business Journal that San Juan College's School of Energy in Farmington NM has secured enough funding for its new School of Energy building to start construction this fall, to open in fall 2014. Of the estimated $15 million needed, BP has donated $5 million, Farmington's Merrion Oil & Gas donated $1 million, ConocoPhillips donated $300,000...