« Return to this article

Know the West

Oil and gas companies pour money into research universities


Northwest Colorado's Piceance Basin -- 5 million acres framed by cliffs and hogbacked mountains -- overlies roughly 300 trillion cubic feet of natural gas, enough to supply the nation for 50 years. It's also ideal mule deer habitat; state wildlife managers once called it "the deer factory." But as drilling ramps up, deer numbers plummet.

Wildlife ecologist George Wittemyer of Colorado State University's Warner College of Natural Resources is halfway through a five-year study, working with other researchers to observe how deer behave and reproduce amid the vast network of roads and well pads. But neither the university nor the government is funding it. ExxonMobil is.

In 2010, the company gave the university $5 million to study energy development impacts on western Colorado's sage grouse, mule deer and other wildlife, spawning 20 new research contracts. Shell, BP and others have also recently poured millions of dollars into CSU's research. Warner College is even named for alum Ed Warner, who donated $30 million in 2005 after making a fortune pioneering hydraulic fracturing, or fracking, which has opened hard-to-reach oil and gas reserves worldwide.

It's good timing: As natural resource program enrollment grows, many universities face state-funding declines. It's not new for academia to consort with industries like agribusiness, mining and timber, especially at land-grant universities, initially established to provide affordable higher education in applied sciences and engineering. But given the nation's current oil and gas frenzy, the energy money is raising questions about academic integrity, and has left CSU and other schools navigating new ground -- a task some are handling better than others.

"To be successful and to get social acceptance, (companies) know they have to protect the environment. They're coming to us to do (energy-related) studies on restoration, water, wildlife health and biodiversity, forest health," says Joyce Berry, Warner College dean. The university must maintain professional standards and boundaries. "Our reputation depends on it."

At first, Wittemyer was skeptical, but so far he says industry money is like other sponsored research grants; it adheres to academic-integrity rules, and ExxonMobil does not control his research methods or findings. In a way, it makes sense for energy companies, rather than the public, to pay for studying industry's impacts and their mitigation. Wittemyer says it also helps him examine companies' real-world practices. Besides, he admits, his department couldn't afford the expensive tools and methodology otherwise.

Federal contributions to CSU have remained steady despite the recession, especially for natural sciences and climate change. Research funding at Warner College has risen 24 percent over the past five years (to $77 million in 2012), mostly from federal agencies like the National Science Foundation.

But applied science research -- on environmental mitigation, for instance -- receives less support. This past June, for example, a U.S. House committee rejected a White House request for $4.25 million to research drilling's water-quality impacts; critics say health and environmental studies aren't keeping up with development.

Meanwhile, declining state higher-ed funding (see chart next page) is forcing tuition hikes and hiring and salary freezes at many institutions. At CSU, state support has fallen nearly 30 percent over the past five years, while in-state tuition has skyrocketed 56 percent. At the same time, faculty and graduate teaching assistant staffing at Warner dropped 10 percent because there's no money to refill vacated posts.

"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.

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.