Chronicle of Higher Education, January 10, 2003
Greening the World or 'Greenwashing' a Reputation?
Exxon's role in Stanford's huge environmental-research project attracts
attention and questions
By GOLDIE BLUMENSTYK
It's hard to pinpoint what is most jaw-dropping about Stanford
University's new Global Climate and Energy Project: the sheer size of
the $225-million, 10-year project or that Exxon Mobil is the chief sponsor.
The project, hailed by Stanford leaders as "a revolutionary
collaboration," is stirring both marvel and worry among scientists and
activists who focus on energy and global-warming issues.
Landing a project of this size and scope is clearly a coup for Stanford.
The project will involve researchers from Stanford and institutions
around the world in developing a portfolio of clean-energy technologies,
as well as techniques for controlling greenhouse gases produced by
traditional fuels. The amount pledged to this project is greater than
all of Stanford's corporate research support combined over the past 10
But Exxon's high profile in the venture has prompted some professors and
environmental experts -- both at Stanford and elsewhere -- to question
whether the company is using its pledge of up to $100-million to
Stanford to "greenwash" its environmental reputation.
Unlike BP and several other big oil companies, Exxon Mobil has tried to
debunk some of the most widely accepted theories of global-warming
science, including some advanced by Stanford's own professors.
The Exxon pledge looks like a lot of money, but to a company of that
size, it's like "the paper-clip budget," says Peter Altman, director of
Campaign Exxon Mobil, an investor group created by religious
organizations that is pressuring the company to deal more directly with
global warming. The sum promised to Stanford, he notes, is just
one-tenth of one percent of the $100-billion Exxon says it plans to
spend on oil exploration in the next decade.
Some environmental activists say they are also concerned that the
project, with its 10-year horizon, fits all too neatly into the hands of
the Bush administration, which has argued that the United States needs a
decade more of research on the causes of climate change before
committing to anything but voluntary limits on carbon-dioxide emissions.
Critics also question whether Stanford will have sufficient independence
from the sponsors in setting research priorities, and say that the
institution has yet to make clear the procedures it will use to ensure
that it does.
Stanford says the companies will have the authority to approve the
research topics and budgets each year, but that the university will
choose the specific projects and select the researchers, although it may
consult with the sponsors about those researchers. Stanford's president
has said it will eventually release at least a synopsis of its contract
with the companies, once it is finalized.
Along with Exxon Mobil, the project sponsors include General Electric
and Schlumberger. E.ON, Europe's largest privately owned utility
company, has signed a letter of intent to join. Other companies may join
later, says Stanford, and officials there confirm that Toyota has been
Franklin (Lynn) M. Orr Jr., director of the effort now known as G-CEP
(pronounced "gee-sep"), acknowledges the political sensitivity of having
Exxon as lead sponsor. But he says that shouldn't negate the value that
could come from the project, which is to focus on research that could
lead to commercially viable technologies, not the basic-science
questions of climate change.
Until November the dean of Stanford's School of Earth Sciences, Mr. Orr
says the project will bring resources to research that the entire world
needs, particularly as less-developed nations modernize and their needs
for energy expand.
"This is one of the great challenges of the century, " says Mr. Orr.
About half the research will be conducted at other institutions, and Mr.
Orr says the opportunities for building links to research organizations
in Asia and other places will help to ensure that the work takes into
account the societies' different needs. Technology barriers in China
"are pretty different" from those in Finland, he notes.
One of the first four projects will cover techniques for producing
hydrogen, including one in bioengineering that involves improving the
ability of bugs to produce the gas. Hydrogen is considered a promising
replacement fuel for hydrocarbons like gasoline and coal, but experts
say there are still many issues related to capturing it, storing it, and
distributing it that must be solved before a "hydrogen economy" can
Another project will use the techniques of Stanford's internationally
known Energy Modeling Forum to help Mr. Orr and others to set priorities
for future G-CEP research. The forum is a research institute, based at
Stanford with links around the world, that uses mathematical models and
other tools to evaluate the impact of policy and technology changes. The
idea, says James L. Sweeney, a professor of management science and
engineering and former director of the forum, is to figure out "where
would you get the biggest reduction in carbon dioxide per dollar of
Mr. Sweeney, who, like Mr. Orr, was one of the key figures in developing
G-CEP, says he expects the project will help catapult Stanford into the
leading edge of energy-technology research. The Energy Forum aside, he
and others acknowledge that Stanford hasn't been regarded as a leading
player in energy research related to climate change. Institutions like
Carnegie Mellon University, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology,
and Princeton University, to name a few, have had bigger reputations.
In fact, G-CEP might never have been developed had it not been for
Stanford's being passed over for a major grant back in 2000. BP, the
world's second-largest oil company, considered Stanford, MIT, and
Princeton for its 10-year, $15-million Carbon Mitigation Initiative, but
ultimately chose Princeton. (Ford Motor Company later kicked in an
Soon after, Stanford scientists approached Schlumberger about financing
research on underground sequestering of carbon dioxide. The company,
known for its advanced technology in measuring and monitoring oil and
natural-gas reservoirs, was interested, but suggested that Stanford
recruit other partners. The university then approached Exxon Mobil, only
to discover that the oil giant was considering a technology-research
project of its own, one that would look well beyond carbon sequestration.
"We were conceiving a very broad technology initiative," says Brian
Flannery, manager of science, strategy, and programs in the company's
department of safety, health and environmental science. The project
began taking shape in August 2001, though it would be more than a year
before the project now known as G-CEP, complete with its own Web site
and logo, was made public.
Mr. Flannery, a key player in developing Exxon's participation, says the
grant does not mark a change in the company's attitude toward climate
change. It still believes a lot of climate-change science is "uncertain"
and that forced reductions in emissions aren't realistic solutions to a
100-year problem. Creating a range of new technologies "is the way to
address climate change," he says. "This is a way of expressing that in a
Exxon spends about $600-million a year on research, but most of it is
related closely to the company's existing business interests. The idea
for this project, he says, is to finance "fundamental, precommercial
research" that would not likely be supported within Exxon itself.
Exxon's 10-year commitment of $100-million is "by far" the biggest grant
the company has ever made, says Mr. Flannery. He says Exxon was looking
for a sum that would show "a significant contribution that would
mobilize significant resources."
Each year, the sponsors will decide which topics are to receive
financing, and typically will allocate enough money to cover three years
of research. By the seventh year, all the funds are likely to have been
committed. The sponsors have agreed that once topics and budgets are
approved, each will contribute a proportionate share of the money, based
on their overall financial commitment.
Mr. Flannery says Exxon choose Stanford because, along with the breadth
of its science and engineering expertise and its international
connections, the institution is known for working with industry,
particularly in computer science and biotechnology.
Also, says Mr. Flannery, a number of Stanford professors were willing to
"change their career direction" in order to be part of the project.
In academe, language like that can raise red flags, suggesting that a
researcher is changing priorities because of oil-company money. But
Robert H. Socolow, co-director of Princeton's carbon-mitigation program,
says that Exxon and the other sponsors have more to lose than gain if
they try to exert too much influence over the direction of the research.
As G-CEP is now conceived, Mr. Socolow says, it appears that Princeton
has "a freer hand" than Stanford will in deciding what projects to
pursue, since BP and Ford provide the financial support without
approving research topics. But he notes that for both efforts, it is
significant that the sponsors have made a point of saying that they are
supporting the work for 10 years.
"The political cost of cutting us off if we're doing good work is
substantial," says Mr. Socolow. The same would be true for the sponsors
of G-CEP, he says.
He and others who have looked at the G-CEP research agenda say the
topics all seem scientifically on target, but many still question which
topics on the list will really get the funds. "It covers the moon," says
Stephen H. Schneider, a biology professor at Stanford with expertise in
climate science. "The question is, how it's done."
Mr. Schneider, whose work has been attacked by political groups financed
by Exxon, says he still considers Exxon "a distorter of information" on
climate science, because of its own statements, and its financial
support for groups like the Competitive Enterprise Institute and the
Marshall Institute. Many environmental researchers say those groups try
to undermine commonly accepted theories of climate science.
But Mr. Schneider says that, for now, he's keeping an open mind about
G-CEP and Exxon's involvement.
If wind- and solar-energy technologies don't get a lot of support, he
says, "then balance is a problem."
Though he was part of the group from Stanford that competed for the BP
project on mitigating carbon dioxide, Mr. Schneider says he wasn't
involved in developing G-CEP. He says he doubts that the kind of work he
does would be supported by the project, given its focus. Still, he
credits his colleagues for getting Exxon "out of the closet" in
acknowledging that climate change is a problem.
Reported comments from a top Exxon Mobil official the day G-CEP was
announced, however, haven't given skeptics much comfort. In a story by
the Associated Press, Frank Sprow, the company's vice president of
safety, health, and environment, was quoted as calling G-CEP "a program
that is completely detached from climate science."
According to the account, Mr. Sprow also said that the cleanest energy
sources -- wind, solar, and fuel cells -- would never be economical
enough or reliable enough to meet future global energy demand. As a
result, Exxon Mobil has requested that Stanford scientists focus on
finding cleaner ways to use fossil fuels, as well as creating other
"breakthrough, inexpensive technologies."
A spokeswoman for Exxon Mobil says that it is true that the company
questions the commercial viability of many renewable-energy technologies
but adds: "It should not be inferred by reading the AP story that Exxon
Mobil is dictating to Stanford which research areas it should focus on."
Mr. Orr, too, insists that the project will look beyond fossil fuels.
Environmental groups, however, remain wary. Some fear that the project,
which has been praised by members of President Bush's cabinet, will
strengthen the administration's go-slow approach on tougher restrictions
on greenhouse gases.
The project is good in and of itself, but "it's not an excuse for not
doing anything now" about emissions, says Eileen Claussen, president of
the Pew Center on Global Climate Change. The center works with some of
the biggest energy and industrial companies in the world that do
acknowledge the need for emissions reductions. BP, Shell, and Sunoco are
all Pew Center partners. Exxon Mobil isn't.
The focus on commercially viable technologies, rather than policy, is
also of concern, says Dan Lashoff, deputy director of the Natural
Resources Defense Council climate center. He says it's unrealistic to
minimize the role that policy plays in getting new technologies into use.
Carbon-dioxide scrubbers on power plants and catalytic converters on
cars, for example, are now all well-accepted by the marketplace, Mr.
Lashoff notes. "Research and development alone would have never caused
that to happen."
At Stanford itself, some students are wary about the project as well.
One who has spoken out, Ben Abadi, says it appears that the sponsors
will have too much say over the research agenda and that the name of the
project is misleading. "It's really a fossil-fuels project," says Mr.
Abadi, a junior majoring in economics. He faults the project for
omitting topics like climate science and energy-efficiency research.
"Stanford is allowing itself to be part of the fraud that it's about
Mr. Abadi's views were echoed by The Stanford Daily, the student
newspaper. "Either the project should include policy analysis and/or
make public statements regarding policy solutions, or it should change
its title so that it doesn't give undue credit to a company like Exxon
Mobil for dealing with issues of climate change when the corporation
still doubts the links between its actions and the problem," it said in
an editorial. The Daily also called on the university to make public all
areas proposed for research that are not approved by the sponsors, and
to seek alternate sources of funding for those areas.
Mr. Orr says some of the governance questions are still being resolved.
But he insists that Stanford will not compromise its academic
independence. The project's management committee, made up of the
sponsors, will pick the broad research topics each year, and "we will
certainly consult with them about who the players might be" who are best
qualified to conduct the research. But he says the selection will be
made by Stanford.
"The intent is not to try to engage the management committee at the
level of every principle investigator," says Mr. Orr. Deans will oversee
projects assigned to Stanford professors, he says. The university also
intends to appoint an internal committee of Stanford faculty members and
an external advisory committee that would probably include
representatives from academe, industry, and nongovernmental organizations.
Mr. Flannery, the Exxon Mobil official who helped to forge the
collaboration, says the relationship between the sponsors and Stanford
will be more interconnected than the one between Princeton and BP/Ford.
"This isn't a pure philanthropic grant," he says. It's meant to create a
forum where industry and university scientists will have "direct,
bench-level interactions." But in the end, he says, "it's Stanford's
Financial Boom for Stanford
The project will be welcome financial news at Stanford. Though its
endowment is still well above $7-billion, the university has felt
economic pressures. Many of its biggest benefactors are still suffering
from the Silicon Valley slump, and the university is looking to reduce
its $507-million general-fund budget by 8 percent this year. In
November, it imposed a hiring freeze on nonfaculty positions.
The project could also produce payoffs to Stanford in royalties if the
research leads to patents with commercial appeal, although the
unusually-generous licensing terms the university gave to the sponsors
might diminish that.
For the first five years after any patents are issued on G-CEP research,
the sponsors will have exclusive rights to commercialize the inventions,
without paying anything to Stanford. After five years, other companies
will also be able to license the inventions, but must pay a royalty to
Research sponsors typically receive nonexclusive rights to use
inventions developed with their funds without paying royalties, but
generally are asked to pay if they want exclusive rights.
Mr. Orr acknowledges that the terms provide an extra benefit to the
sponsors, but he calls it a "a small one" that really amounts only to a
five-year head start. In energy systems, he says, "five years isn't a lot."
'A Reasonable Return'
Mr. Flannery says the five years seemed "a reasonable return" for the
sponsors. More important than the money, he says, is that Exxon and the
other sponsors have the financial wherewithal and the worldwide reach to
truly commercialize a technology on a global scale, should G-CEP
research lead to one.
He says Exxon would not have gotten into the venture if it didn't
believe it could benefit from all aspects of the research agenda. So
even though Exxon now doesn't view renewable-energy sources as
commercially attractive, a key breakthrough -- say a new technology that
improves methods of storing solar power -- could change that assessment
"We're a big organization," says Mr. Flannery. "If we thought there was
a commercial opportunity, we'd pursue it."