Last month, ExxonMobil published its annual “Worldwide Giving Report,” listing the charities and STEM programs among which the multinational oil company generously spread its wealth last year. One of the more diminutive line items is $3.3 million for “Public Information and Policy Research.”
That relatively small sum, however, should stand out to those familiar with energy commentary in the past six months: If you’ve been trying to keep up with the news on gas prices or the war in Ukraine, then chances are that you’ve read analysis from a think tank or academic center that Exxon helps fund.
Institutions that regularly receive six-figure or higher donations from ExxonMobil and other fossil fuel companies—many of which have long-standing ties to the industry—are widely quoted in reported news stories as dispassionate experts on energy and climate issues. Their scholars also pen widely read op-eds.
In line with donations from previous years, the American Enterprise Institute accepted $100,000 from Exxon in 2021. AEI has been cited on issues ranging from inflation to climate policy to the war in Ukraine. In early March, Politico quoted AEI senior fellow James Coleman at length as the first in a panel of “energy and economic policy experts” weighing in on how Biden could lower prices at the pump. While noting that there were no “quick fixes,” Coleman said that the “best solution” to ensure “lower energy prices in the medium term and our energy security in the long term” would be “recommitting to domestic oil and gas production.” He added that the United States “should also increase our production of alternative energy, but further oil and gas production is the most realistic route to energy security.”
The Brookings Institution last year received $100,000 from Exxon for its Corporate Council—a membership program—as well as for its foreign policy program. Asked by Buzzfeed about the impact of the war in Ukraine on hopes for climate policy that month, Samantha Gross—director of Brookings’ Energy Security and Climate Initiative—seemed to argue that emissions-reducing policy would need to be shelved in the immediate future: “Our short-term actions and our long-term goals may look contradictory, but in a situation like this, it’s how it is going to have to be,” she said. Asked by The Washington Post in late April about the potential for a natural gas export ban, Gross said such a policy “would mean we couldn’t be a reliable supplier.” The reporter, summarizing her remarks, added that “Gross argues that shipping the fuel abroad helps provide energy security to allies and could ultimately benefit the climate by giving China and India an affordable alternative to coal.” Elsewhere, Gross has spoken positively about the need to deploy renewables and pushed back on claims that Europe’s energy crisis was caused by its ongoing energy transition. Another oft-cited think tank, the Bipartisan Policy Center, received $200,000 in general support funding from Exxon last year.
Experts at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, or CSIS, have been asked to weigh in frequently on the energy impacts of the war in Ukraine. As with other industry-funded institutions, the resulting reports don’t disclose that the think tank receives donations from major energy companies. It has received funds in recent years not just from Exxon (which gave $675,000 in 2021) but also from BP, Chevron, the Hess Corporation, Equinor, Saudi Aramco, Shell, Schlumberger, ConocoPhillips, Total, and the gas exporter Cheniere. The Council on Foreign Relations received $100,000 from Exxon, as well.
Fossil fuel companies have long been generous donors to foreign policy institutions—a model tech companies are now starting to follow. Such donations have included modest sums from not only private companies but also oil-producing states. Qatar gave Brookings a $14.8 million, four-year donation in 2013 before the think tank ended its funding relationship with the country last year. Just yesterday, Brookings head and retired general John R. Allen resigned amid reports that he secretly lobbied for Qatar and lied about it, per court documents that are part of a Justice Department and FBI investigation into oil-rich Gulf states’ influence in Washington. Brookings has also received funds from the United Arab Emirates in the past, and a 2014 New York Times investigation noted that country provided CSIS with more than $1 million to help it build a shiny new office near the White House. The Center for American Progress ended its own lucrative, long-standing relationship with the UAE in 2019 over questions raised by The Intercept and others about how those ties had shaped the think tank’s response to the murder of Jamal Khashoggi by officials of Saudi Arabia, a regional ally of the UAE.
Columbia University’s Center on Global Energy Policy has been another reliable source for reporters looking to shed light on the energy implications of Russia’s invasion and the geopolitics of energy. It got $250,000 from Exxon last year. Other donations to Columbia’s School of International and Public Affairs—which houses the Center on Global Energy Policy—include an at least $1 million contribution from Occidental Petroleum and between $100,000 and $500,000 from BP, Chevron ConocoPhillips, Equinor, Sempra Energy, Shell, along with gas exporters Cheniere and Tellurian. It’s not the only prestigious academic institution on Exxon’s list: MIT’s program on Energy Policy Studies received $100,000 from Exxon last year, and the George Washington University’s Regulatory Studies Center got $140,000.
What exactly am I implying here? To be clear, I’ve contacted think tanks for comment on these trends previously, and representatives universally deny that fossil fuel donations are shaping their foundations’ research output or that the donations are a way of purchasing positive press.
But as I’ve pointed out before, Exxon and its peers are profit-making enterprises. They don’t spend millions of dollars for fun. So it’s worth thinking a little bit about how this broader system works.
Think tank scholars aren’t just providing a few sentences to be dropped into a news story here and there. Quotes attributed to certain experts are in many instances the product of much longer conversations—sometimes years-long professional relationships with reporters on certain beats. Such experts can be invaluable in helping orient writers toward specific topics and policy fields, as they have time and well-staffed communications departments that academics, for instance, might lack amid more stringent teaching, research, and job market demands that militate against having a public profile. In that sense, think tank experts can be useful both for helping reporters develop a body of knowledge about a certain subject but also for having someone to call up when news breaks that’s relevant to their subject area to offer a seemingly objective opinion.
Generous funding helps to create a roster of staff or fellows with time to spare for more sprawling informal chats with journalists that can shape the tone of their coverage. The issue isn’t so much that Exxon is funneling talking points to experts whose jobs are funded by it. Yet funding those institutions year after year allows the industry to be a steady, ubiquitous force in Beltway policymaking circles that define what’s considered common sense on a range of topics.
“A recurring donation gives the donor more leverage because of the implicit threat to withdraw. More than that, recipients know that donors take many factors into account when they consider whether to renew a donation,” Vox’s Max Fisher wrote of Gulf state donations to D.C. think tanks in 2016. “If a donor is on the fence, perhaps simply because he is considering other projects, no one wants their policy paper or strongly worded comment on a panel to be the thing that nudges the donor to the other side.”
Outlets themselves can have fossil fuel ties as well. The “Worldwide Giving Report” doesn’t include the regular sponsorships Exxon, like other companies, provides to widely read energy and climate newsletters like Politico’s Morning Energy and Axios Generate. As Amy Westervelt has reported, The New York Times and The Washington Post have each helped develop “native advertising” (branded content) for polluters on their sites.
In many cases, the analysis coming out of industry-funded think tanks can be perfectly accurate and anodyne; plenty of smart and well-intentioned people wind up working for places that get industry funding. But in a world where rigorous publications usually try to disclose potential conflicts of interest, it’s worth noting that we don’t have a good system for disclosing this type of fossil fuel funding. Even savvy news consumers reading Ukraine and inflation coverage in 2022 may not realize that companies with a direct material interest in how policymakers and the public think about energy are helping to foot the bill for the news they consume.