Drilled S1Ep6: The First Step to Influencing Policy—Setting Research Agendas

Hosted and reported by climate journalist Amy Westervelt, DrilledNews.

Featuring: Bob Brulle, environmental sociology researcher at Brown University; Scott Peterson, executive director of the investigative watchdog blog Checks and Balances Project; and Ben Franta, a PhD candidate in history of science at Stanford University.

Previously on Drilled:

Kert Davies: They believe that oil and coal were put here in the United States by God for us to use and I don’t know how you…that’s not the sort of scientific argument that’s almost that’s a theological argument or religious. I don’t know what you do with it.

Amy Westervelt: We know that throughout the 1980s and 1990s oil companies, manufacturers and anyone else who might feel threatened by emissions regulations teamed up to fund, conceive, and execute comprehensive social influence campaigns. They targeted the media in various ways and the culture too. The final prong of that effort was in the institutional sphere, targeting local, state and federal government public education and research being conducted at the country’s top universities.

Scott Peterson: When we look at a microcosm of Ohio we see that the Koch network is at work on the state level and at the county level.

Ben Franta: Among that set of dedicated research centers that are really influential in technology research and training future people working in climate also influencing the IPCC that a majority, I would say a majority of funding in those centers comes from fossil fuel groups.

Bob Brulle: We have the documentation starting in the 50s and 60s about them putting out educational material for grade schools and high schools about the wonders of oil.

Amy Westervelt: Every company and every industry lobbies government officials for policies and regulations that are favorable to them. The whole lobbying complex is its own tangled not for another podcast but when it comes to climate and energy policy influencing regulations goes way beyond garden variety DC lobbying. These influence campaigns aim to manipulate every piece of information around climate science and how people process that information. Environmental Sociologist Bob Brulle has spent decades digging into these campaigns. He’s uncovered which think tanks, nonprofits, and consumer groups are actually funded by fossil fuel interests and how they work together to influence policy.

And he is deep in the weeds on this stuff.

Bob Brulle: To get on this graph the organization had to show up they can be any one of these six areas they had to show up to thirty one climate coalitions show up at the UN climate meetings and show up in the New York Times as a source or being written about…

Amy Westervelt: For Brulle, it’s important to know what you’re up against so you can strategize accordingly. His take on how well the environmental movement has done on that front is neatly summed up by the only knick knack in his office.

Bob Brulle: Over here I have see the saint? It’s St. Jude, what’s St. Jude the patron saint of?

Amy Westervelt: Oh, lost causes.

Bob Brulle: Yes!

Amy Westervelt: Brulle has also spent a considerable amount of time looking at how the fossil fuel industry has tried to control its image over the years. One way is to continuously hammer home the point that fossil fuels are absolutely critical to American Progress. That’s a message that wasn’t just pushed to the media but also to schoolchildren. In his research Braun has found documentation of the American Petroleum Institute’s efforts starting as early as post-World War 2 era to integrate this message into public school education.

Bob Brulle: We have the documentation starting in the 50s and 60s about them putting out educational material for grade schools and high schools about the wonders of oil and all this stuff. So basically it’s a propaganda campaign not to tell you not to use the words climate change what they’re doing is they’re seeding in the unconscious the idea that fossil fuels equals progress and good life.

Amy Westervelt: In addition to outspending environmental groups 10 to 1, the various companies and organizations seeking to stop any sort of action on climate change have also been working hard to slow the adoption of renewable energy despite the booming solar and wind markets. They do so both by influencing government officials at the state and local level and by focusing US research efforts on far off experimental technologies rather than those that could be implemented in the near future.

Scott Peterson has been running a years-long investigation into the Koch brothers network of influence particularly as it pertains to renewable energy. He’s recently been focused on Ohio where State Senator Bill Seitz whose campaigns have been funded by the Kochs since about 2012 has been the state’s primary blocker to wind energy. But even at the county level. Peterson found the influence of fossil fuel interests.

Scott Peterson: So there’s there’s a wind project in Ohio in Seneca County. There’s a couple of them ongoing and what we found is that the chairman of the Seneca County Board of Supervisors flipped. He was for wind and then suddenly he flipped against it. What we found was that he was you in about a three month period bombarded with a guy who was sending him material from Koch-based front groups. I mean they were from all around the United States or even some from Canada. So this poor county chairman, maybe somewhat unsophisticated in the world of energy, suddenly was bombarded by this local activist. So when we when we look at a microcosm of Ohio we see that the Koch network is at work on the state level. And at the county level.

Amy Westervelt: If you unravel how policy gets made, eventually you get all the way back to academic research on everything from the economics of pricing carbon to climate modeling to renewable energy technology. And these days fossil fuel interests have a huge amount of influence over what gets researched and how. Ben Franta a postdoc at Stanford first began digging into the influence of oil companies on climate science and policy research when he was a student at Harvard. His first clue came when he joined the movement to encourage the campus to divest from fossil fuels.

Ben Franta: I was involved with helping to organize the fossil fuel divestment movement at Harvard and we would go to faculty and try to solicit their support and we noticed something kind of interesting is that most faculty were either neutral or they would support it. But the faculty that actually were opposed to it actively and would write about it in the press I would say more often than not. In fact almost all of the time these faculty were funded by fossil fuels.

Amy Westervelt: Then a research director at the Kennedy School of Government called the researchers into his office and asked them not to answer any questions about research funding.

Ben Franta: We were called in for a staff meeting and our research director told us, you know there’s a lot of activists and journalists snooping around and trying to inquire about our funding and funding from the oil industry. And he said if anybody talks to you don’t tell them anything and don’t talk to them and send them to me instead. For an academic institution to actually tell its researchers don’t tell other people where your funding comes from.

Amy Westervelt: That experience prompted Franta to begin digging into what exactly oil companies were funding at university campuses and how much influence that funding brought them. He has since partnered with Jeffrey Supran at Harvard and what they found. It’s pretty shocking he said.

Ben Franta: What we found was that a clear majority of the sponsorships themselves come from fossil fuel groups. And the biggest sponsorships, there’s a few that are huge compared to the rest and they also come from fossil fuel groups, usually the fossil fuel producers themselves. And so we can infer quite confidently that among that dedicated research centers that are really influential in technology research and training future people working in climate also influencing the IPCC that a majority, I would say a majority of funding in those centers comes from fossil fuel groups.

Amy Westervelt: We’re not talking about little-known universities tucked away in the heart of coal country either. Where the industry is concerned the more prestigious the university the better with research centers at Stanford, M.I.T., Harvard and more.

Ben Franta: The MIT energy initiative, you know probably the flagship Energy Research Institute I might hear that very very heavily majority funded by fossil fuel groups. Very similar situation here at Stanford where the major climate energy research center here is called GCEP, Global Climate and Energy Project and again that center is majority funded by fossil fuel interests. And again the funders do have influence built into the structure of how research projects are chosen.

Amy Westervelt: In an article Supran and Franta co-authored in The Guardian last year they tell the story of something both say happens all the time at these centers. In this particular story the Harvard Kennedy School screened a documentary billed as a “balanced discussion about today’s energy issues.” Supran and Franta write, “Who can argue with balance and rationality. And with Harvard stamp of approval surely the information presented to students and the public would be credible and reliable right? Wrong.”.

They then go on to debunk most of the “solutions” suggested in the documentary and explain that the doc was funded by Shell, which has also given $3.75 million to the Harvard Kennedy School. The event’s panel included an executive vice president from Shell and the documentary included various experts identified only by their academic credentials and not their various industry ties, according to Supran and Franta. This is not a one-off occurrence. These sorts of things happen often and systemically and it’s hard not to think that has something to do with the funding these centers receive from the industry. Funding from Shell, Chevron, BP, and other oil and gas companies dominates Harvard’s energy and climate policy research, and Harvard research directors consult for the industry. Down the street at M.I.T., the five founding members of the M.I.T. Energy Initiative are all commercial fossil fuel producers: ExxonMobil, Shell, BP, Aramco and Eni, the Italian oil company. Across the country at Stanford, ExxonMobil contributed $100 million of the $200 million in funding for the Global Climate and Energy Project or GCEP. In their Guardian article Franta and Supran write: “To say that these experts and research centers have conflicts of interests is an understatement. Many of them exist as they do only because of the fossil fuel industry. They are industry projects with the appearance of neutrality and credibility given by academia. At GCEP, representatives from each Funding Corporation form a management committee that is formally involved in selecting research projects and has final say over project funding. The benefits of these research initiatives are multifaceted. They shape the public’s understanding of climate science and fossil fuels and influence the science on which any future regulation or policy will be based.

Ben Franta: When you can successfully fund researchers of your choosing, then you get a whole host of benefits in return. It’s a very it’s a very kind of like multi-dimensional kickback back process. So I mean for one, you shape the scientific discourse because it might be true that that researcher you’re funding would have done that research anyway but they probably wouldn’t have done as much of it because they wouldnt have had the same resources, their voice wouldn’t be as prominent. Because with that funding they gain prominence. They can head up their own research center at a university when they head up their own research center, they can multiply their output vastly and they also have opportunities to be hired at more prestigious institution. And Ideally from the industry standpoint, the ideal situation is you have industry friendly researchers who are funded by the industry who are heading up industry funded research centers at the most prestigious universities in the United States.

Amy Westervelt: These efforts have been widespread, well-funded and extremely effective.

It’s not an overstatement to say we’re farther away from tackling climate change now than we were 30 years ago. And those weren’t just any 30 years. Those specific years were critical to stopping warming at a livable level. Had there been a systemic shift toward lower emissions and renewable energy, lives would have been saved. And while the industry often frames it as a question of life and death for a major part of the economy. It’s just not.

In one hand you have the earnings reports of a few companies and in the other you have the viability of the human race on this planet. And yet somehow a small and powerful group of men were able to convince an entire nation what they knew themselves was not true. That climate change was uncertain and that until we knew more we should not act. They were so successful in fact that they’ve now landed in court with cities, counties, states and various groups of people suing Exxon, Shell, Chevron, BP and more for damages.

In the next episode we’ll look at why that happened and what it might accomplish. Next time on Drilled:.

Ed Garvey: It’s like okay yeah, this really was done to the public. This really was done to the world at large, that the science was disputed when in fact the issues were to a large degree resolved.

Amy Westervelt: Drilled is produced and distributed by critical frequency reporting for this series was done by me, Amy Westervelt. Our producer and composer is David Whited, our executive producer is Richard Wiles, our story and concept consultant was Rekha Murthy. Our cover art was designed by Lukasz Lysakowski. Drilled is supported in part by a generous grant from the Institute for Governance and Sustainable Development. You can find Drilled wherever you listen to podcasts. Please remember to rate and review the Drilled podcast. It helps us find new listeners. Thanks for listening. See you next time.