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.

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