Academic freedom is essential to developing new knowledge and ideas. To be innovative and inventive, researchers must be able to ask questions, hypothesize, and share their findings openly. And innovation and invention have never been more important than right now, in the midst of a climate crisis, while we are facing never-before-encountered combinations of extreme weather.

So it’s a terrifying thought that fossil fuel companies are influencing academic research on energy efficiency and climate mitigation, as well as diverting top minds toward research on ways to increase oil and gas extraction at a time when the science says we need to be transitioning rapidly away from fossil fuels. But that's exactly what's happening.

Oil and gas companies fund millions of dollars in grants, chairs, and other investments at public universities. Much of this money is matched with government funding for projects that serve private interests. Partnerships with the fossil fuel industry cannot be where we put money or energy toward finding climate solutions— the industry isn’t looking for them.

For example, of the six oil sands companies that make up the Pathways Alliance — a consortium collectively responsible for 95 percent of Canada’s oil sands production — five of them (Canadian Natural Resources, Cenovus, ConocoPhillips, Imperial Oil, and Suncor) have made numerous academic research investments, including in the influential National Sciences and Engineering Research Council (NSERC) Industrial Research Chairs.

Do we trust these companies to seek true zero-carbon energy solutions? Do we want them funding research that can affect energy policy? Let’s see. In the last year alone, Cenovus applied to expand production at the world’s largest in-situ mine and run it until 2079.

Imperial Oil — a subsidiary of Exxon — got caught after knowingly letting its Kearl mine project leak toxins into water for years before reporting it.

And not only did Suncor’s CEO share that he doesn’t care about transitioning off fossil fuels, in 2022 the company sold its solar and wind power assets and purchased a 100 percent stake in an oil sands mine.

The recent five-year appointment of ex-Suncor exec Martha Hall Findlay as the director of the University of Calgary School of Public Policy is another example of the influence of the fossil fuel industry in academia.

Prior to working for Suncor, Hall Findlay was president and CEO of the Calgary-based think tank the Canada West Foundation, which, according to the Corporate Mapping Project, is an “unwavering supporter of Canada’s fossil fuel industries.”

Oil sands companies spend millions to fund academic research. Do we trust these companies to seek true zero-carbon energy solutions? asks @nolapeartree @GreenpeaceCA #StopFossilFuelSubsidies #cdnpoli #renewables #netzero #abpoli #COP28

The University of Calgary states it is Canada’s leading policy school. This appointment will, therefore, undermine the integrity of climate-related decision-making with the policymakers graduating from a department where the leadership has a clear affinity for fossil fuels, the biggest driver of global climate change.

Even when industry-funded research is ostensibly looking for climate solutions, oil and gas companies have a vested interest in technologies that maintain the fossil power status quo. For example, much of the fossil fuel industry is hinging its net-zero plans on carbon capture and storage (CCS), a technology with high cost overruns that has not yet been successful at reducing carbon emissions at scale.

Yet it’s popular within the industry because it is allowing oil and gas companies to continue with business as usual — and most of the cost would come from taxpayers.

Is it a coincidence that a scan of the research titles coming from Future Energy Systems, the largest research program at the University of Alberta and the institution which receives the most fossil fuel-related NSERC funding, reveals more active studies on CCS than there are on solar, wind, or geothermal energy. This despite the program’s mandate “help Canada transition to a low net-carbon energy economy.”

In this time of record-breaking extreme weather events, we need top minds to be focused on climate mitigation and societal adaptations. Allowing oil and gas companies influence over the direction or scope of research is likely to impede innovation on climate solutions, and could catastrophically delay the energy transition.

The fossil fuel industry has proven time and again it’s not acting in the interest of the public good. Why do we keep allowing the industry most responsible for the climate crisis a seat at the climate solutions table?

Nola Poirier is senior researcher and writer at Greenpeace Canada and author of a new report “Bad Cheques: When fossil fuels fund academic research”. She has masters degrees in environmental studies and fine arts and has worked as an investigative researcher and writer for over a decade.

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We've known for a long time that our University of Calgary is a wholly owned subsidiary of the fossil industry. Publicity such as this may help us start a movement to Take Back U of C.

A successful TBUC movement would include restoring the public funding slashed by our provincial government. Then we could ban fossil dollars.

Perhaps we could pass legislation banning the privatization of all levels of education while we're at it.

A drug cartel is a criminal organization composed of independent drug lords who collude with each other in order to improve their profits and dominate the illegal drug trade. Drug cartels form with the purpose of controlling the supply of the illegal drug trade and maintaining prices at a high level. Wikipedia

Sounds just like the description of the oil cartels to me and probably most Canadians except Albertans.

Or vice versa, thought I as soon as I read the title and article.
Those University held investments and pension funds with fossil fuel holdings need to be liquidated pronto.
Who are the totally clean universities (no fossil fuel holdings) so far?
And who are still beholden to their fossil fuel stocks because they are stuck in the past?