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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The University of Wyoming's Haub School of Natural Resources, for example, has avoided industry research funds by attracting other private contributions to fund programs. Its Energy Mitigation Initiative, funded by non-industry backers, conducts similar studies to the ExxonMobil projects at CSU, although it only has a $200,000 budget. But the school still relies on state coal, oil and gas tax dollars, distributed through the Legislature, for part of its budget. Last May, academic freedom and industry influence clashed at Wyoming after lawmakers disapproved of a campus art installation that connected fossil fuels, forest die-off and climate change. The circular ground display of fallen logs, called Carbon Sink, was promptly removed, along with other artwork. The Legislature then passed a law requiring the governor and university energy-resources advisers to approve future art displays at a new gymnasium.

CSU isn't rejecting industry, partly because departments, including Warner College, have collaborated with companies since the 1970s, says Dean Berry. But the investments and connections are growing. Last October, BP gave a CSU chemist $5 million to study oil-recovery technology. Also in late 2011 and 2012, Houston-based Noble Energy, now working northeastern Colorado's Niobrara shale, and Halliburton contributed $250,000 and $53,400, respectively, toward the Colorado Energy Water Consortium through CSU's College of Engineering to study water issues related to drilling in the West.

Two years ago, Royal Dutch Shell endowed a chair for restoration ecology at Warner, giving $2 million to fund its research programs. Mark Paschke, who now occupies the chair and serves as the college's associate research dean, says Shell's generosity dates back to 2004, when it began supporting CSU's long-term studies of restoration practices at Piceance Basin well pads, after the U.S. Department of Energy stopped funding them.

CSU conflict-of-interest policies require researchers to disclose private consulting and other potential financial entanglements, says Paschke. Shell exercises no control over how he uses his research money, structures his studies, or releases his findings, he adds. But other schools that have faced criticism over disclosures and results, such as University of Texas, are overhauling conflict-of-interest and research-review rules.

To uphold academic standards at CSU, a review committee -- including Warner College faculty, Colorado Parks and Wildlife staff, and a company representative -- doles out ExxonMobil's funds and oversees research. It gives members 90 days to comment before an author publishes work -- a month more than the federal government's standard review period, but not excessive, says Nelson. Nelson's organization recommends 56 such principles, which also address the use of confidentiality clauses in contracts, acceptance of gifts, and how to report conflicts of interest and protect the transparency of research and results. To ensure their effectiveness, schools must prevent companies from stacking review boards with members biased against particular topics or outcomes, or embargoing research and results they dislike.

If public funding continues to decline as schools tackle more complex environmental challenges, there may be no choice but to accept more industry money. "We want to be the ones to help solve these really difficult issues," says CSU Warner College Dean Berry. So transparency and research review rules will have to continually adjust to prevent any undue influence.

College-namesake Warner, a Libertarian-leaning eccentric and self-proclaimed "environmentalist who hates the environmental movement," says anti-industry prejudices are unfounded. "Most research that academia and industry do together is arm's length and good science, and as long as it's subject to peer review, we can make sure it's not influenced by business … or by 'feel good' science and environmentalists saying, 'We love Bambi.' "

Editor's note: Joshua Zaffos has taught journalism at CSU and will be teaching a communications course at Warner College this coming spring.

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...