Shadley: The U Must Stop Funding Fossil Fuel Research


(Chronicle Design Archives)

By Will Shadley, Opinion Writer


I first learned about the Energy and Geoscience Institute when I co-authored an article with Isaac Reese about democratizing campus. We were stunned to find that a research institute at a public university boasted deep ties to private corporations like Shell, BP, Chevron, ConocoPhillips and other fossil fuel companies. Each of those companies that serve as a corporate associate “receives two weeks of dedicated time each year from EGI experts on the issues of their choice.” And this quote from my previous article, which is no longer on the EGI’s website, says that “sponsoring companies have the unique opportunity to shape the project and gain independent insights, interpretations and evaluations to company-specific questions.”

The University of Utah pays faculty and staff members to spend their time researching the interests of the world’s greatest polluters. That creates a deep conflict between the U’s claimed commitments to sustainability and its actions. That cannot continue.

Are These Companies Really That Bad?


BP, Shell and Chevron, just a few of the EGI’s corporate associates, have spent 40+ years funding disinformation campaigns about climate change and carbon emissions. When these corporations had the opportunity to meaningfully prevent climate catastrophe, they opted to increase profits instead. 

BP’s Deepwater Horizon oil spill released 134 million gallons of oil into the Gulf of Mexico in 2010. The spill killed thousands of marine animals and contaminated critical habitats for protected species. Now, over a decade later, oil concentrations are 10 times higher than they were before the spill, ecosystems have been permanently damaged and we still don’t know the full extent of ecological damage caused by the oil spill. 

Shell, in its unending pursuit of new oil fields that lead to greater profits, was complicit in the murder, rape and torture of hundreds of Indigenous people in Nigeria in the ‘90s. While Shell unsurprisingly denies this, there’s good reason to believe they assisted the Nigerian military in silencing the Ogoni people protesting Shell’s pollution of their land.

ConocoPhillips, also a corporate associate of the EGI, hopes to go forward with a plan to drill for oil on land important to Indigenous people in Alaska.

It becomes hard to take the U’s claims of working towards “sustainability as the integrated pursuit of social equity, environmental integrity and economic security for current and future generations” seriously when they’re subsidizing the research of companies committing gross environmental injustices.

There’s No Such Thing As Clean Fossil Fuels

The EGI does much of its research under the guise of “leading a transition” to a renewable future. Reducing the carbon emissions of fossil fuels might, at first glance, seem like a legitimate step towards a sustainable energy system. It’s not.

There’s undeniable value in more energy-efficient automobiles, buildings, etc. Even when powered by renewable energy, reducing the amount of energy needed to run our refrigerators or air conditioners makes us more resilient. But that’s not what the EGI does. The EGI researches how to make fossil fuel production more efficient. Whether it’s maximizing the output of oil wells, making more accurate predictions for where oil wells might be or making energy sources like shale more economically viable, this research makes fossil fuels cheaper.

When fossil fuels are cheaper we either use more of them, fossil fuel companies make greater profits or both. While bemoaning high gas prices is topical, and there’s the legitimate concern of how those prices disproportionately affect people experiencing poverty, cheaper fossil fuels keep us dependent on them. And more profitable fossil fuel companies give them more resources for lobbying, disinformation campaigns and greenwashing. Research from the EGI fundamentally supports and promotes our continued reliance on fossil fuels.

It’s Time for the U to Rethink the EGI

The EGI has 50 people on staff. Many of them are professors or postdocs paid by the U. The aforementioned corporations fund these research projects that prolong our use of fossil fuels, but, as the EGI proudly claims, “EGI’s Corporate Associate members gain access to over $850 million of regional and thematic research for only a fraction of their investment.”

Not only does the U fund research supporting the use of fossil fuels, but we legitimize that research as valuable and important when it’s the opposite. Subsidizing the research of massive fossil fuel corporations that pollute our air, destroy our land and carry out injustices throughout the world is inexcusable. Especially when the U claims to be committed to sustainability and social justice.

That’s not environmental justice, that’s complicity. I expect more from my university. 


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