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Princeton must #BreakupwithExxon: an open letter to Andlinger from Divest Princeton

<p>The Andlinger Center for Energy and the Environment.</p>
<h6>Jon Ort / The Daily Princetonian</h6>

The Andlinger Center for Energy and the Environment.

Jon Ort / The Daily Princetonian

The Andlinger Center for Energy and the Environment is currently deciding whether to continue its partnership with ExxonMobil.

Between 2015 and 2020, ExxonMobil gave $6.4 million to the Andlinger Center. The five-year contract ended on June 3, 2020. According to a source at the Andlinger Center, discussions on whether to renew the contract are taking place now. We call on President Christopher Eisgruber ’83 and Director of the Andlinger Center Lynn Loo to end Princeton’s relationship with ExxonMobil. 

As part of the agreement, “Princeton faculty, researchers, and students work side-by-side with ExxonMobil researchers on a portfolio of collaborative research projects spanning 18 faculty research labs across eight departments, from work on climate science to sustainable energy technologies.”

On their website, ExxonMobil Laboratory Director Mike Matturro described it this way: “We are not just providing funds as a sponsor, but are active participants in the research.”

In other words, an oil and gas corporation is not only funding but actively participating in research into fossil fuel alternatives that should put ExxonMobil out of business. This creates a conflict of interest that puts our generation and future generations at risk.

In an article published last year, Loo said, “When I first declared I was going to work with ExxonMobil, I faced a lot of backlash. I said, ‘Look, they’re an energy company. I want them at the table, and we have information that can help them make responsible decisions ... We’re good partners because we challenge each other.” 

However, throughout the five-year partnership, instead of using Princeton’s expertise to help it make more environmentally “responsible” decisions, ExxonMobil continued to pour fuel onto the climate crisis. 

Despite advertising that suggests otherwise, ExxonMobil spent only 0.22 percent of its budget on clean energy between 2010-2018. Furthermore, unlike both the University and other big oil groups under pressure to address their impact on the climate, ExxonMobil refused to set a carbon neutral target again this year. As Stanford researcher Benjamin Franta wrote this month, “fossil fuel spending on alternative energy research is comparatively minuscule: The industry spends 99 percent of its capital expenditures — over $100 billion per year — to explore for, develop, and acquire new fossil fuel reserves, despite the fact that current reserves are already more than enough to cause irreversible, catastrophic damage to life on Earth.”

ExxonMobil has either learned nothing from Princeton’s climate scientists or simply doesn’t care.

For decades, ExxonMobil has blocked action on climate change through funding of misinformation campaigns, lobbying, and donations. Even today, Big Oil’s influence in Washington runs deep. In U.S. politics, fossil fuels outspend renewables on donations and lobbying by more than 13 to 1. From 2017 to 2018, during their partnership with Princeton, ExxonMobil was the largest energy lobbyist, spending more than $22 million on strategic messaging with political leaders. In 2019, ExxonMobil spent $41 million lobbying against climate action in the United States.

While Princeton and ExxonMobil have been “working together” to create new energy technologies, ExxonMobil has been undermining any attempts to deploy them on a national scale.

Furthermore, ExxonMobil often profits at the expense of Black and Brown communities around the country and world. Polluting refineries, toxic waste from fracking wells, methane leaks from compressor stations, pipelines, and oil spills are often part of “doing business” for the fossil fuel industry, punishing and destroying the lives of poor people and people of color.

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Take the community of Charlton-Pollard in Beaumont, Texas, where residents have lived for years with the health impacts of ExxonMobil’s conduct. Despite a civil rights claim filed on the basis that the refinery is polluting a neighborhood that is 95 percent Black, ExxonMobil is in the process of expanding the refinery to make it the largest in the United States. Residents cannot leave because the refinery has drastically depreciated the value of their homes while also slowly killing them.

As an institution whose own past is tied to the country’s long history of exploitation of and discrimination against minorities, Princeton University has a responsibility to help support the marginalized communities that have been and will continue to be the greatest victims of fossil fuel extraction and climate change. The University can’t accept funding from a corporation like ExxonMobil and truly be “in the nation’s service and the service of humanity.”

In 2016, the Union of Concerned Scientists (UCS) advised the American Geophysical Union (AGU) — the world’s largest society of earth and space scientists — to reject ExxonMobil’s membership. The rationale was as clear as it was compelling: 

“ExxonMobil has long behaved shamefully in response to the scientific consensus of climate change and the urgent need for emissions reductions that AGU has forcefully communicated.

“Their actions, including very recent actions, put future generations at grave risk.

“Continued acceptance of corporate sponsorship from ExxonMobil poses significant reputational risks to AGU and bestows undeserved reputational benefits to the company, and the climate deniers it has long supported, to the detriment of our common future.”

By accepting money from ExxonMobil, Princeton risks its own reputation and implicitly endorses the company’s conduct. Since 2014, ExxonMobil has spent $75 million to establish energy centers at six universities, including MIT, UT-Austin, Stanford, and Princeton, to prove their legitimacy and good intent. As Thomas O. McGarity, a law professor at the UT-Austin, said in an article for The New York Times, “when companies fund research, the companies attempt to borrow the prestige of the university.” 

ExxonMobil not only uses universities’ prestige to gain legitimacy but also sways their decision-making in other areas. For example, when Stanford’s faculty senate discussed whether to divest from fossil fuel companies last month, many professors feared that oil companies would retaliate by pulling their funding.

Princeton’s own President Eisgruber has argued that the University cannot divest from fossil fuel companies because these companies do not meet the “disassociation standard.” He wrote, “The University accepts gifts from [energy companies] ... our scientists partner with them. We seek their advice on issues of sustainability.”

The Andlinger Center’s critical work to “develop technologies and solutions to secure our energy and environmental future” is undermined by its funder. Declining to renew ExxonMobil’s contract, as opposed to leaving it midway, is a logical step in a transition away from fossil fuels.

It’s time for Princeton to acknowledge the conflict of interest and end its relationship with  ExxonMobil. You can let them know here.

Anna Hiltner is a rising sophomore. She may be reached at ahiltner@princeton.edu

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