As pressure mounts on post-secondary institutions to cut ties with oil and gas, an Ivy League college in the U.S. is calling out a Canadian fossil fuel giant Irving Oil.

Dartmouth College in Hanover, N.H. is home to the Arthur L. Irving Institute for Energy & Society. It was founded in 2016 with an $80-million gift from Irving Oil, the Irving Foundation and members of the Irving family. Fossil Free Dartmouth, a student group focused on climate, says the college’s ties to the Irvings “contribute to greenwashing, perceived conflicts of interest, and the undermining of research credibility.”

The financial support from the Irvings and the other ways they're involved in Dartmouth are documented in a report they released Tuesday titled, Investigating Irving, said Kate Yeo, an undergraduate student at Dartmouth and co-author of the report.

“It presents a fundamental conflict of interest for clean energy research and programs. Do we trust that a fossil fuel company would be willing to finance its own demise? Especially a company that has lobbied hard against clean energy legislation?” said Yeo.

“... At a time when we need to be moving away from fossil fuels and stripping oil companies of their moral legitimacy, Dartmouth is instead openly embracing them.”

Irving Oil did not respond to a media request in time for publication, nor did Dartmouth College.

Dartmouth has made progress on the climate front. According to an article from the school’s paper The Dartmouth, it divested fossil fuels from its endowment (which sits at nearly US$8 billion) in 2017. As of 2021, fossil fuel investments represented less than five per cent of the endowment. Some colleges and universities in Canada have also divested from fossil fuels, including the University of Toronto.

Students at Dartmouth want their school to take it a step further. While the college has committed to divesting, that isn’t the only way institutions are being pressured to act on climate. There are calls for schools to also disassociate from fossil fuel companies, and commit to reducing their own emissions. This year, Princeton University released a list of 90 companies it was disassociating with, including ExxonMobil. An investigation by The Guardian in March highlighted numerous U.S. institutions with ties to the fossil fuel industry spanning further than endowments: the companies fund research, occupy office space and are physically present on campus in lecture halls and at faculty meetings.

Yeo said the college accepting funding from a company that contributes so heavily to the climate crisis goes against the mission of the institute, which is to “advance an affordable, sustainable, and reliable energy future for the benefit of society.”

Fossil Free Dartmouth, a student group focused on climate, says the college’s ties to the Irvings “contribute to greenwashing, perceived conflicts of interest, and the undermining of research credibility.”

Arthur L. Irving Institute for Energy & Society

The institute is named after Arthur Irving, who is 436th on Bloomberg’s Billionaires Index with a net worth of over US$5 billion — almost 80,000 times the median household income in the United States. He is the sole owner of Irving Oil, which operates Canada’s largest oil refinery in New Brunswick. There is uncertainty about the future of Irving Oil, which falls under the Irving Group of Companies umbrella.

Last week, news broke that Arthur is now “chairman emeritus,” which follows the company announcing it was considering selling the refinery side of its business as part of a strategic review in June. Both moves have raised questions about the future of the oil refinery side of the business.

Arthur, who has been dubbed a "climate villain" by Environmental Defence, is listed first on the donor page of the institute, along with other members of his family and Irving Oil and the Irving Foundation, the family’s charity.

Ultimately, the report calls for the institute to be renamed Dartmouth’s Center for Climate Futures, the removal of Irving Oil and ExxonMobil members from the institute's advisory board, the exclusion of fossil fuel companies from recruiting on campus, and not allowing research to be funded by fossil fuel companies or their donations to be accepted by the institution and more.

Arthur’s daughter Sarah Irving, who was listed as executive vice-president of Irving Oil until recently, is listed on the advisory board of the institute along with her mother Sandra Irving. She graduated from Dartmouth in 2010 and also sits on the school's Young Alumni Advisory Board.

The report’s findings include the results of 30 conversations with faculty, students, alumni and staff from Dartmouth about the Irving Institute, looking into the school’s claim that the financial support from the Irvings includes an agreement around academic freedom. The findings say that research, for the most part, was independent and conducted without interference or influence.

However, the report did highlight the Seed Grant Program, which handed out about US$750,000 in research funding between 2019 and 2021. The report notes recipients of the grants “unanimously claimed that the institute has no say on research outcomes after the grant is awarded. However, some faculty felt that the Irving Institute had a ‘heavy hand’ in determining their scope of research.”

According to the report, biology professor Caitlin Hicks Pries said: “I was really surprised by the amount of power one person [a former Irving Institute staff member] seemed to have over what was getting funded... It was really weird. I had never experienced that.”

“While we recognize the benefits of an energy institute on campus, this is not tantamount to endorsing Irving Oil’s funding,” reads the report.

“We believe there is an alternate scenario where Dartmouth — as one of the wealthiest academic institutions in the world with a vast alumni network — could have chosen to establish an energy institute without accepting funding from Irving Oil.”

Updates and corrections

| Corrections policy
October 24, 2023, 09:50 am

This article has been updated to remove an incorrect figure around financial support from the Irvings to Dartmouth College and to specify that Irving Oil falls under the Irving Group of Companies, not under J.D. Irving Ltd as previously stated.

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