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

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.

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