Columbia University Hires Trump Official and Fossil Fuel Defender as Climate Policy Expert

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Columbia University’s Center on Global Energy Policy (CGEP) is a hugely influential policy group filled with heavy hitters from politics and the oil industry. While the center’s home page describes it as “an independent, interdisciplinary, and nonpartisan platform,” its track record shows that CGEP consistently supports the same policies favored by the fossil fuel industry. 

And one of its latest moves — hiring former Trump energy advisor and fossil fuel defender George “David” Banks as an expert on “international climate policy” — shows that trend will continue.

Under Trump, Banks served as White House Special Assistant for International Energy and Environment, which included publicly representing the administration at international climate change negotiations. At last November’s United Nations climate talks in Bonn, Germany, that meant moderating the U.S.’s lone event, a controversial panel promoting coal, natural gas, and nuclear energy — and defending President Trump’s infamous “climate change is a Chinese hoax” tweet.

George David Banks at the COP 23  UN climate talks in November 2017. Credit: Ashley Braun, DeSmog

In addition to his new job with CGEP, Banks remains executive vice president with the American Council for Capital Formation, a free market think tank funded by an A-list of climate science deniers including ExxonMobil, the Koch family foundations, and the American Petroleum Institute.

When Banks had to leave the Trump administration due to his inability to obtain a permanent security clearance, he told Politico, “It was an honor to serve the president at the White House and I look forward to supporting the president in the future.” He certainly lived up to that promise with his comments on a recent climate change panel hosted by Columbia University’s CGEP.

Platform for the Oil Industry

Each year CGEP has an annual global energy summit, which inevitably gives a platform to oil industry champions like Dan Yergin and executives from ConocoPhillips. In fact, ConocoPhillips CEO Ryan Lance was this year’s keynote speaker.

Another recent hire by CGEP was Marianne Kah, the former chief economist of ConocoPhillips, who spoke at the summit in 2014 when she advocated for lifting the crude oil export ban

CGEP played a leading role in pushing for lifting the crude oil export ban using arguments directly aligned with those made by oil companies. For example, the center argued that exporting American crude oil would likely lower gas prices for American consumers, with CGEP founding director Jason Bordoff telling Reuters that “easing U.S. export restrictions would likely lift production and lower gasoline prices.” 

Those arguments have since been shown to be deeply flawed, but they helped lead to the ban’s reversal, which has resulted in a large increase in fracking and oil production in America. And despite Bordoff’s prediction, gas prices have gone up significantly even as America continues to set new records for crude oil exports. This has led to Sen. Ed Markey (D-MA) calling for the Government Accountability Office to review the impact of oil exports on gas prices and for Congress to reinstate the crude oil export ban. 

At this year’s CGEP global energy conference, held on April 19, a panel discussion titled “Climate Change: What’s Next on Technology and Policy?” featured the freshly hired David Banks as one of the panelists. He didn’t hestitate to voice his opinion that dealing with climate change shouldn’t be a top priority:

We think that, at least from the Trump administration’s perspective, and I agree with this, this is my personal perspective as well, is that climate is certainly a challenge and is a major problem that we need to work together to address. But there are other big issues out there that I would certainly argue are much more challenging, much more immediate.”

While this sentiment is no surprise coming from someone who worked in the Trump administration — not to mention for George W. Bush as well — it does seem odd for someone just hired by CGEP to focus on “international climate policy.”

During the panel discussion Banks noted the other issues he thought were more pressing for U.S. security. “I think there are other issues that have more of an impact and just have more consequences when it comes to global security and one of those is energy access, it’s poverty eradication,” Banks said.

The energy access and poverty eradication arguments are favorite talking points of the fossil fuel industry and require one to accept the rather absurd claim that a driving force behind the oil and coal industries is to help poor people turn on the lights around the world.

Meanwhile, in the 2017 defense bill, military leaders warned that climate change is a major security risk. Banks, however, failed to acknowledge this point, and no one else on the panel did either.

The final point Banks made on this panel was that the Trump administration argues that fossil fuels are going to be used anyway and “therefore we need to face that reality and make sure that the fossil [sic] that’s being deployed is being used as cleanly and as efficiently as possible.”

Facing Reality on Climate Panel

The CGEP summit’s climate panel focused on many issues that related to climate change including agriculture, blockchain, big data, machine learning, and batteries and storage. What did not come up as a discussion point was the need to stop burning fossil fuels and adding more carbon to the atmosphere. There was no talk about ocean acidification. Nothing about sea level rise — a huge concern for the U.S. military and security.

The one insight to the reality of climate change came from Cameron Hepburn from the University of Oxford when he commented on the reality of the Paris Agreement and global commitments to reducing carbon consumption.

The problems with it [Paris Agreement] though, as probably most of the room is aware is that the pledges don’t add up to anything well below two degrees [Celsius] … and then you got a set of country pledges and if you add them up you’re looking at over three degrees and then you dig a little bit more and say well are those countries actually implementing their pledges and what’s the detail … and they are not even delivering on their promises. At the moment we’ve got promises that were not realistic and even the promises that were plausibly realistic are not being delivered upon.”

Hepburn also co-authored an op-ed on this issue that ran with the title “Prove Paris was more than paper promises.” Recent UN climate change negotiations continue to grapple with this gap in national pledges to cut globe-warming emissions and the push to “ratchet” up those ambitions at future talks in order to meet the Paris goals.

After Hepburn’s bleak and accurate assessment, the panel moved on to discuss blockchain.

Intellectual Capture in America

Banks might seem an odd choice as a climate policy expert at a leading university’s “independent” and “non-partisan” policy center. He has lobbied on behalf of energy companies reliant on fossil fuels and served as a staffer under notorious climate denier Sen. James Inhofe. However, Banks’ hiring is consistent with a larger trend among American colleges and universities being influenced by money from the fossil fuel industry.

The same month CGEP hired David Banks as a climate expert, the Associated Press revealed that the Koch brothers have been directly buying influence over at least one of the universities to which they donate large amounts of money. 

Like Columbia, George Mason University — coincidentally where Banks received his law degree — had refused for years to release information about its relationship with the Charles Koch Foundation and denied that its donations had any influence over university decisions. However, when the details of the relationship were revealed, the Associated Press reported that “Virginia’s largest public university granted the conservative Charles Koch Foundation a say in the hiring and firing of professors in exchange for millions of dollars in donations.”

This led to the George Mason faculty passing a resolution “calling for all gift agreements to be published in a permanent online database for public review within 30 days of their enactment.”   

The Charles Koch Foundation donates to many colleges and universities, which has led to an activist effort called “UnKoch My Campus.” As New Yorker journalist Jane Mayer reported in her book Dark Money, as early as 1976, Koch advisor George Pearson “advocated funding private institutes within prestigious universities, where influence over hiring decisions and other forms of control could be exerted by donors while hiding the radicalism of their aims.”

An institute not unlike Columbia University’s Center on Global Energy Policy, perhaps?

Unlike George Mason, Columbia is a private university and not subject to freedom of information requests. In the past, it has refused requests to reveal the source of the funding which has allowed CGEP to create such a large organization full of oil industry all-stars in just five years. Yet a clue revealed by Politico in 2015 showed that ExxonMobil gave at least $25,000 to CGEP and then doubled its donation the following year. 

Media representatives from Columbia and CGEP failed to respond to requests for comment from DeSmog on the justification for hiring someone with climate science denial ties as a climate policy expert. However, after DeSmog asked why CGEP listed Banks as having “previously” worked at ACCF on its website, the center added a more accurate webpage that reflects his current status as executive vice president at ACCF, but the page shown below also still exists on the CGEP site. ACCF did not respond to a request for comment.

Screen shot from CGEP website taken on May 18, 2018, showing inaccurately that Banks no longer works for the American Council for Capital Formation, which is funded by ExxonMobil, Koch family foundations, and the American Petroleum Institute.

In another example of the influence of oil money over academia, in 2015 Bloomberg reported that the “fracking king” Harold Hamm allegedly requested professors be fired after he made large donations to the University of Oklahoma. Those professors conducted research linking fracking activity to earthquakes.

When academic institutions receive oil industry money in exchange for influence and take great pains to avoid revealing this set-up, these universities do not appear to be creating the conditions for independent, non-partisan research.

And when a university like Columbia hires as a climate policy expert a former member of the climate science denying Trump administration — who simultaneously works for the Koch-funded American Council for Capital Formation — it appears the pay-to-play approach is alive and well at many of America’s institutions of higher learning.

Banks promised to continue to serve President Trump and he appears to be making good on that promise at Columbia. 

Update May 22, 2018, 1:26 p.m.: The Main Street Investors Coalition — a new effort led by Banks — was announced in the press today. According to the website, this effort is designed to limit the ability of large investors to influence company policies through “politically-driven shareholder activism,” which has implications for issues such as climate change. 

Main image: George David Banks Credit: Screen shot from Columbia University’s CGEP 2018 global energy summit live stream

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Justin Mikulka is a research fellow at New Consensus. Prior to joining New Consensus in October 2021, Justin reported for DeSmog, where he began in 2014. Justin has a degree in Civil and Environmental Engineering from Cornell University.

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