The federal government put Princeton’s renowned research on display last October. But far from being a source of pride exemplifying the University’s scientific discoveries, it was an exhibit of a House Oversight Committee investigation into fossil fuel misinformation. The investigation highlighted BP’s (formerly British Petroleum, now known as Beyond Petroleum) efforts to “confidently and conspicuously” wage campaigns of climate disinformation aimed to protect their brand and their mission to extract oil and gas indefinitely. And the House Committee’s recently released trove of subpoenaed documents implicates Princeton’s Carbon Mitigation Initiative (CMI) in these efforts.
BP’s relationship with CMI reaches back over two decades: When the world considered serious climate action in the late nineties, BP and other companies ramped up climate disinformation efforts, and the company went looking for a university to house a new “energy institute.” In 2000, they chose Princeton, and soon after, the Carbon Mitigation Initiative was launched.
Although Princeton’s Carbon Mitigation Initiative conducts real, insightful, and critical research, the fact that it is solely funded by BP raises suspicions when the Institute’s work allows the company to direct the climate conversation towards energy changes that benefit it. This is sponsorship bias, a well-documented phenomenon where industry funders influence research questions and the framing of issues to the general public. CMI’s research does not necessarily produce incorrect results — its papers are certainly high-quality. Rather, CMI’s funding structure allows BP to set the agenda on climate research, directing dollars towards activities that help protect their business and away from research that doesn’t. Further, through CMI, BP leverages its relationship with Princeton to greenwash its image into that of a “climate leader,” despite plans to continue fossil fuel extraction past critical tipping points.
The first of BP’s strategies to direct the conversation in ways that benefit them has been to promote natural gas, an emissions-intensive fossil fuel mostly made up of methane, as a “green” option. Although burning methane emits less carbon than coal or oil, research shows that natural gas is far dirtier than the public has been led to believe. With a high chance of catastrophic pipeline leaks that potentially outweigh its relative carbon savings, natural gas is rapidly becoming one of the biggest impediments to a fossil fuel-free world. Yet BP aims to “advance and protect the role of gas — and BP — in the future of energy conversation.”
CMI’s research helps BP in this quest. For one, in CMI’s groundbreaking Net Zero America Project — which aims to lay out pathways to decarbonize the United States – four out of the five proposed pathways involve some level of natural gas use. This bias permeates to the top of CMI: Director Stephen Pacala was quoted in a 2018 BP tweet saying that a “cost-effective” energy transition would “require expanded production of natural gas in the near and intermediate terms.” This is part of a broader trend: a study published in the journal Nature Climate Change found that fossil fuel-funded climate studies are more likely to be favorable towards natural gas, as opposed to other research that proposes renewable energy as alternatives.
BP justifies its focus on natural gas with a second tactic. The company claims that gas emissions can be offset by carbon capture and storage, a technology that aims to suck carbon dioxide out of the air and sequester it in the ground. Carbon capture will play a role in decarbonization — reports by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change recommend that carbon capture be deployed to reduce emissions from critical, tricky-to-decarbonize sectors like cement or steel. But that’s not what BP envisions, or what CMI recommends. Out of public view, CMI wrote in a report to oil companies, specifically BP, that carbon capture could “enable the full use of fossil fuels across the energy transition and beyond.” That’s CMI telling BP that they never have to stop drilling and fracking and burning our future away.
These CMI recommendations are completely out of line with those of scientists and policymakers who don’t take their funding from fossil fuels. The International Energy Agency warns us that we can’t afford to develop any more new oil and gas production. Carbon capture is not the solution to increased fossil fuel development: it only offsets production increases if it captures 100 percent of related emissions, but current systems only capture about 10–11 percent and are mostly used for “enhanced oil recovery” — injecting captured CO2 into oil wells in order to wrest even more gas from the ground. CMI’s recommendations about carbon capture are a dangerous distraction, serving to prolong the life of fossil fuels — and the life of BP as a dirty-energy behemoth.
Furthermore, CMI’s association with BP greenwashes the fossil fuel company through Princeton’s credibility and name brand. Subpoenaed documents show that the company leverages CMI as a “core programme” to help “authenticat[e] BP’s commitment to low carbon.” Meanwhile, the company’s true goal is to produce “more oil, more efficiently.” This goes both ways: CMI recommended methods that BP can use to greenwash its image.
BP’s entanglement with CMI is a straightforward conflict of interest. BP is a fossil fuel company. Fossil fuels are the biggest contributors to the climate crisis. CMI is supposed to study solutions to the climate crisis. BP’s “corporate responsibility” is not to humanity and the planet — it’s a profit mandate to shareholders. So it seems they fund CMI not for humanitarian reasons, but for financial ones. As the documents described above show, BP uses CMI to launder its image, to ensure a stream of studies that give it legitimacy, and to preserve its business model. This exploitation of research is just as bad as the tobacco industry funding studies that investigate whether smoking causes cancer or pharma companies running their own clinical trials, both famous cases of research biased by industry.
It’s time to get the fossil fuel industry out of our University’s research. Princeton has more than enough money to fund CMI itself, and over time, researchers can find new grants from independent nonprofits and government sources. What BP gets out of CMI is worth much more than the millions they paid for it: a social license to continue destroying the world, and Princeton’s reputation to light their way.
Eleanor Clemans-Cope (she/her) is a first-year from Rockville, Md., intending to study economics. She spends her time making music with Princeton University Orchestra and good trouble with Divest Princeton. She is an associate Opinion editor. She can be reached on Twitter at @eleanorjcc or by email at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Alex Norbrook (he/him) is a first-year from Baltimore, Md., intending to study anthropology or politics. He spends his time organizing with Divest Princeton and being funded by BP. You can inquire about his carbon footprint and the individual actions he is taking to fight climate change by emailing him at email@example.com.