Jennifer Washburn: Stanford's Deal with Exxon Mobil Raised Concerns

Jennifer Washburn: Stanford's Deal with Exxon Mobil Raised Concerns

The alliance between the oil giant BP and the University of California, Berkeley, stands out because of its $500 million price tag, its commercial scope and the potential for BP to exert excessive influence over the academic research. But it isn’t an isolated case.

The second largest such partnership is a 10-year, $225-million deal Stanford University signed with Exxon Mobil and other energy firms in 2002 to fund a Global Climate and Energy Project.

The Stanford deal was controversial from the start, but one aspect recently captured headlines. The San Jose Mercury News reported March 11 that Steve Bing -- a movie producer and environmentalist -- was withdrawing a $2.5 million donation to Stanford and all future donations. (Bing had already donated $22.5 million to the school.) Why? Because Exxon Mobil has exploited its close relationship with Stanford in ads -- on TV and in print -- that seek to portray the company as a "green" company.

The most egregious of these was an ad in The New York Times, part of a series appearing on the commentary page, which celebrated the company’s new research partnership with the "best minds" at Stanford.

The ad suggested the global warming debate is ongoing: "Although climate has varied throughout Earth’s history from natural causes, today there is a lively debate about ... the climate’s response to the presence of more greenhouse gases in the atmosphere." The ad was signed by Lynn Orr, who directs the Global Warming and Energy Project.

About this time, Exxon Mobil was pushing the U.S. government to reject any mandatory curbs on greenhouse gases; it was also continuing to call for more research on whether human use of fossil fuels actually caused global warming, despite the overwhelming scientific consensus that it does. Many observers found the university’s blatant endorsement of Exxon’s PR campaign shameful.

The Stanford deal has many unusual features. A management corporation, with representatives appointed by each of the corporate sponsors and one university representative, Orr, approves the budget and the areas of research that will receive funding. This gives the sponsors considerable power to shape the institute’s research priorities.

The sponsors also enjoy an automatic, exclusive license to any of the project’s discoveries. The sponsors can block outside companies from gaining access to the university’s discoveries for up to five years. What’s more, they don’t have to pay any royalties to the university.

Criticism of the Stanford deal has been more muted, but from time to time the deal continues to raise eyebrows. During the campaign for Proposition 87, which called for a tax on oil extraction to raise public money for alternative energy research, some observers detected something strange. James Sweeney, a Stanford professor, began giving quotes to the media opposing Proposition 87. Sweeney’s ties to Exxon were never mentioned. But his research with the Global Climate and Energy Project was funded by Exxon, and he also served as a consultant.

Copyright 2007, The Sacramento Bee

New America Foundation, 08/04/07