CMI, part of the Princeton Environmental Institute, researches viable ways to address climate change by sequestering carbon dioxide emissions created by the burning of fossil fuels. BP America is the largest producer of oil and gas in the United States.
Faculty members affiliated with CMI said there was no formal discussion about disassociating the project from BP in the wake of this summer’s Deepwater Horizon oil spill, the largest oil spill in U.S. history. Many said they welcomed the opportunity to continue their research but acknowledged that continued funding from BP raised ethical concerns.
On April 20, an explosion on the Deepwater Horizon drilling rig, which was leased by BP, in the Gulf of Mexico killed 11 workers and caused almost 5 million barrels of oil to flow into the ocean over the course of several months. The full environmental consequences of the spill have yet to be determined. CMI’s original 10-year partnership with BP, launched in 2000, was renewed in 2008 and will continue through 2015.
BP posted a $1.8 billion profit in the third quarter this year, though it faced a nearly $17 billion loss in the second quarter due to the oil spill, according to BP’s third-quarter financial report, which was released this month.
The president and chief executive of BP America, Lamar McKay, visited campus Wednesday in recognition of the company’s renewed commitment. A small group of protesters, including students, attended his talk in Guyot Hall.
While CMI accepted the funding, individual researchers emphasized that the events of the summer required them to reevaluate whether they should accept funds for their own projects. Sixteen faculty members and more than 70 students and researchers at the University are involved in the program.
“I think everybody makes their own decision about how to react,” said Wilson School professor Michael Oppenheimer, an expert on climate change. “I thought long and hard about whether to continue accepting that support,” he added, calling the decision a “balancing act.” Oppenheimer directs the University’s Program in Science, Technology and Environmental Policy.
He eventually determined that “the benefits of the research outweigh any gain that could be gotten by declining the research support,” which he said would amount to “taking a stand that the next day everyone would forget about.” To Oppenheimer’s knowledge, no CMI participant has separated from BP sponsorship.
Geosciences professor Jorge Sarmiento, who directs the Program in Atmospheric and Oceanic Sciences, said he sought advice from friends and family and discussed the issue extensively with his colleagues. “The situation really is uncomfortable. It’s appalling what happened,” he said.
Both Oppenheimer and Sarmiento said that if they felt BP was attempting to influence their research or was using it to avoid facing culpability for the disaster, they would refuse to accept the support.
“If BP were using the research as greenwash to perfume the odor around the oil blowout, I would give the money back immediately,” Oppenheimer said.
Sarmiento said it was important to consider how the acceptance of this money would be perceived within the scientific community. “There will be people that believe that because we’re receiving support from them, we’re going to be influenced,” he explained.
But Sarmiento and other CMI researchers maintained that this is not the case. They characterized the relationship between the institute and BP representatives as an encouraging one that was important for making progress in addressing climate change.
“I think that CMI has actually had a pretty significant influence on BP’s thinking inside the company,” said Eric Larson, a research engineer with PEI. “Obviously they’re an oil and gas company at heart ... but they’re also probably the leading company in trying to demonstrate carbon storage underground as a commercial-scale activity.”
“I’m not sure that would have happened without CMI,” Larson said, adding that it is important for the world to learn if these techniques are viable and that BP does not profit from the research.
“We believe our partnership with CMI continues to yield answers to ... complex questions, and for that reason we are delighted to extend our financial support for this effort,” McKay said Wednesday, according to a University statement.
“We are grateful for the confidence that BP has placed in us to continue the path-breaking research that clarifies the climate and carbon problem and unveils new options for its solutions,” mechanical and aerospace engineering professor Robert Socolow, one of CMI’s directors, said in the statement. Socolow and ecology and evolutionary biology professor Stephen Pacala, who serves as the other director of CMI and also serves as director of PEI, could not be reached for comment.
But Aliza Wasserman, a graduate student in the Wilson School who organized the protest at Guyot, said in an e-mail that she thought the efforts undertaken by CMI researchers could be diverted to other “key sustainable technology solutions that are in need of great attention.”
“CMI is focused on carbon capture and sequestration, a technology that has tremendous financial potential for BP,” she said. Wasserman also argued that BP is responsible for “a horrendously long list of egregious behaviors,” some of which were described on fliers at the protest.
However, Larson said the company’s behavior toward the researchers was supportive. “They’re all ears and they want to understand what we have learned. I interpret that to mean that they’re taking it to heart.”
Sarmiento echoed Larson’s characterization. “They come here and they listen. There’s fairly good evidence that they have listened and it has made some difference,” he said.
However, Danny Growald ’11, former chair of Students United for a Responsible Global Environment, was more skeptical. “It’s easy for them to put a couple million dollars in research as great PR,” he said.
The $11 million commitment to CMI represents a “significant chunk of money,” Oppenheimer added. According to Sarmiento, the price of equipment, travel, computer support, benefits and other overhead costs necessary to support the research of one graduate or postdoctoral student sums to around $100,000.
Despite their optimism for the research CMI could accomplish with the added funding, students and CMI faculty also had critical words for BP.
Oppenheimer said he looks forward to the results of ongoing investigations that will determine the parties at fault for the Deepwater Horizon spill. He added that BP must be partly responsible and insisted that the company make amends and be held accountable.
Growald stressed that after the disaster, BP has a responsibility to reform the industry by committing to “a transition away from fossil fuels and to renewable energy.”
Jeff Santner GS, who is treasurer of SURGE and attended McKay’s speech Wednesday, said that McKay “wants to continue sending a message that BP is a renewable energy company.”
Regarding the grant, Santner said, “I think the money is going to good projects ... Of course BP could do more good things. It’s a bad company but on the better end of bad companies.”