For $5 million dollars, Louisiana’s flagship university will let an oil company help choose which faculty research projects move forward. Or, for $100,000, a corporation can participate in a research study, with “robust” reviewing powers and access to resulting intellectual property.

Those are the conditions outlined in a boilerplate document that Louisiana State University’s fundraising arm circulated to oil majors and chemical companies affiliated with the Louisiana Chemical Association, an industry lobbying group, according to emails disclosed in response to a public records request by The Lens. 

Records show that after Shell donated $25 million in 2022 to LSU to create the Institute for Energy Innovation, the university gave the fossil-fuel corporation license to influence research and coursework for the university’s new concentration in carbon capture, use, and storage. 

Afterward, LSU’s fundraising entity, called the LSU Foundation, used this partnership as a model to shop around to members of the Louisiana Chemical Association, such as ExxonMobil, Air Products, and CF Industries, which have proposed carbon-capture projects in Louisiana. 

For $2 million, Exxon became the institute’s first “strategic partner-level donor,” a position that came with robust review of academic-study output and with the ability to focus research activities. Another eight companies have discussed similar deals with LSU, according to a partnership update that LSU sent to Shell last summer.

Two more companies have since entered into partnerships with the Institute for Energy Innovation, said Brad Ives, the director of the Institute for Energy Innovation. But only Shell donated at the level that gave the company a seat on the advisory board that chooses the institute’s research. The heads of the Louisiana Chemical Association and the Louisiana Mid-Continent Oil and Gas Association – two industry lobbying groups – also sit on the advisory board, which can vote to stop a research project from moving forward.

When reached for comment, the oil majors gave positive reviews of their relationships with LSU. “We’re proud to partner with LSU, to contribute to the growing compendium of peer-reviewed climate science and advance the effort to identify multiple pathways that can lead to more energy with fewer emissions,” a spokesperson for Shell said. An ExxonMobil spokesperson expressed similar sentiment. “Our collaboration with LSU and the Institute for Energy Innovation includes an allocation for research in carbon capture utilization and storage, as well as advanced recycling studies,” she said.

LSU has long had a close relationship with oil majors, the names of which hang from buildings and equipment at the university. Nearly 40 percent of LSU funding comes from the state, which received a good chunk of its revenue from oil and gas activities until the 1980s, when oil prices plummeted. In recent years, oil and gas revenue has made up less than 10 percent of the state budget.

But the new, highly visible partnership with Shell took the coziness a step further, promising corporations voting power over the Institute for Energy’s research activities in return for their investment. 

Some students, academics and experts questioned the ethics of such relationships.

“I have a hard time seeing a faculty member engaged in legitimate research being eager for an oil company or representative of a chemical company to vote on his or her research agenda,” said Robert Mann, a political commentator and former LSU journalism professor. “That is an egregious violation of academic freedom.”

“You don’t expect to see it written down like that,” Mann said, after The Lens asked him to review the boilerplate document that outlines what companies can expect in return for their donations to LSU’s Institute for Energy Innovation. It is not appropriate, Mann said, for faculty research to be driven by the decisions of the dean of a university, let alone an outside industry representative. “If you’re a faculty member in that unit you should know that the university is fine with auctioning off your academic freedom,” he said. “That’s what they’re doing.”

But Ives said being able to work with oil and gas companies is “really a key to advancing energy innovation.” The Institute for Energy is no different than similar institutes across the US, including the Texas Bureau of Economic Geology, which performs research supported by corporate donors. “I think researchers saying that somehow having corporate funding for research damages the integrity of that research is a little far-fetched,” Ives said.

Research performed at the institute is subject to the faculty’s individual ethics training and subject to peer-review, he said. “A donor that provided money that goes to the institute isn’t going to be able to influence the outcome of that research in any way.”

Partnership, or paying to shape research? 

Some at LSU say that they don’t have a problem with sponsored-research relationships with fossil-fuel companies, because they believe that oil companies are part of the solution to the realities of climate change. “To me, it’s not a conflict at all,” said Professor Karsten Thompson, the interim dean of the College of Engineering at LSU. “It’s a partnership, because they’re the ones that are going to make the largest initial impacts on reducing CO2 emissions.”

Thompson described the process, as he sees it. “They’ll give us a donation and say, ‘We’d like this money to be used for CO2 related research, but then (faculty) make the decisions about what we’re actually doing,” he said. “We also do research with them. But that comes in through our sponsor programs office.”

Some observers, noting that fossil-fuel companies have previously shown a vested interest in obscuring scientific conclusions, question the reliability of academic studies sponsored by fossil-fuel companies. Exxon, for example, denied the risk of human-caused climate change for decades, noted Jane Patton, an LSU alumni and the U.S. Fossil Economy Campaign Manager for the Center for International Environmental Law.  

After The Lens asked her to review LSU communication on the matter, Patton said she suspected that fossil-fuel companies have had a say in what does and doesn’t get studied in relation to risky endeavors, like carbon capture, which involves chemically stripping carbon dioxide from industrial emissions and piping it underground. For her, the LSU documents basically proved her fear. 

“This is the first time I’ve seen actual evidence of it,” Patton said. “This is a gross misuse of the public trust.

To Patton, the perceived blurring of academic objectivity could not come at a worse time in Louisiana, as climate change makes the state less habitable and housing more expensive. “It’s just disheartening,” she said. “To find that the state’s flagship institution is allowing industry to determine the research agenda. No wonder it’s so hard to find peer-reviewed research about how bad this is.”

Industry in classrooms, helping form curriculum 

Records show that Shell helped to tailor what LSU students would learn in the six courses offered under the institute’s carbon-capture, use, and storage(CCUS) concentration that debuted a couple years ago. LSU alumnus Lee Stockwell, Shell’s general manager of CCUS, sat on the search committee for the Energy Institute Executive Director, served on the Petroleum Engineering advisory board, and was very involved in shaping the carbon-capture curriculum. Image courtesy of The Guardian.

The boilerplate for partnerships between fossil-fuel companies and LSU’s Institute for Energy Innovation was emailed to Robert Twilley, LSU’s Vice President for Research and Economic Development by Taylor Baudry, LSU’s Director of Strategic Engagement, in April 2023. But as LSU and LSU Foundation staff put together a proposal outlining investment levels, they got input from the Louisiana Chemical Association as early as June of 2022, according to emails that The Lens accessed through a public-records request.

In an email chain, Rhoman Hardy, a former vice president at Shell who was then the interim director of LSU’s Institute for Energy Innovation, discussed possible perks to give oil companies, including tickets to athletic events and access to LSU’s president. “This will really need to be thought out to ensure Shell is supportive and that the level is sufficiently exclusive to participate in the choice of (research and development) focus,” Hardy wrote.

The email chain was forwarded to LSU President William Tate IV who responded, “I urge us to look internally at our scientific and engineering bench. In addition, we need to calibrate their time to embrace new projects.” 

From the looks of it, Hardy’s vision became a reality last fall, the LSU Foundation hosted “Touchdowns with the Tates,” a private tailgate party with the LSU President preceding the LSU versus Auburn football game. Among the guests were members of ExxonMobil’s Low Carbon Solutions division, according to emails reviewed by the Lens. LSU did not respond to questions about whether this invitation was a result of Exxon’s donation.

Even before the tailgate invitations began, collaboration was underway. Records show that Shell helped to tailor what LSU students would learn in the six courses offered under the institute’s carbon-capture, use, and storage(CCUS) concentration that debuted a couple years ago. LSU alumnus Lee Stockwell, Shell’s general manager of CCUS, sat on the search committee for the Energy Institute Executive Director, served on the Petroleum Engineering advisory board, and was very involved in shaping the carbon-capture curriculum. 

Stockwell directed questions about Shell’s partnership with the university to LSU. Stockwell wasn’t the only oil representative to help design the curriculum. BP, Chevron, ConocoPhillips and ExxonMobil also had representatives on the ad-hoc advisory committee that designed carbon-capture coursework within the petroleum engineering department, according to a July 2022 email from Professor Thompson. It’s unclear if any of the companies aside from Exxon have donated to the institute. At least one cohort of students took two elective courses at LSU designed by the oil majors and another 10 students were expected to take the full concentration beginning in 2022.

LSU is not alone in this practice, Thompson said. At most engineering departments in the country, an active Industrial Advisory Committee (IAC) weighs in on curricula, so that degrees evolve as technology changes, helping students land internships and jobs. “This particular list of oil and gas companies were asked to advise on the CCUS concentration (because) they are some of the main participants in industrial-scale geologic CO2 sequestration,” he said. “The final curriculum and the course content was designed by our faculty experts, who in addition to the IAC input, relied on their own extensive practical and research expertise.”

LSU faculty has not been similarly engaged with renewable-energy companies, because oil and gas companies have the resources to tackle climate change now – and aren’t reliant on future technology, Thompson said. “Renewable energy is much more abstract,” he said. “So, I think that’s the difference. It’s not that we don’t care as much.”

Fossil-fuel companies have been finding their way into classrooms for decades, in part to help the industry retain a positive public image in the face of a warming planet. 

Oil majors and chemical firms make up the majority of guest presenters for the initial core course in LSU’s chemical engineering department. 

And, in December 2022, eight engineers from ExxonMobil’s Baton Rouge refinery evaluated the design projects of juniors and seniors in the department. Jason Pettrey, a technical manager at the refinery, sent an email to the assistant chair of the chemical engineering department afterwards expressing his eagerness to spend more time with students. “I have an ARMY of engineers that is 3 miles away from you, every day. How can we get in your classrooms or meetings more?” he asked. When reached for comment, an ExxonMobil spokesperson said that the company tries to actively engage with faculty and staff at all local universities, “to cultivate a talent pipeline for ExxonMobil.”

LSU faculty, placed by industry into lobbyist forums

In recent years, Shell and Exxon also helped LSU faculty speak to public officials, where academics might be seen as a more reliable voice for issues that aligned with fossil-fuel interests. 

For example, last summer, when the date changed for an EPA hearing about whether Louisiana should be given authority over carbon-capture permitting, ExxonMobil sent a reminder about the new date to LSU professors. Of those testifying, or submitting testimony, in favor of the state taking over primacy of carbon-dioxide injection wells, three came from LSU: Greg Upton, the Executive Director of LSU’s Center for Energy Studies; John Flake, a professor in the chemical engineering department; and Keith Hall, the director of LSU’s Energy Law Center.

“While there’s always some risk, I’m certain that the professionals in Louisiana, including those at the Department of Natural Resources, are well-qualified and can handle primacy of Class VI wells,” Flake said in his testimony. 

Flake testified at the hearing of his own volition, he said. He wanted to emphasize the importance of carbon capture, use, and storage projects in Louisiana’s future sustainability. With his presence, he also wanted to show that Louisiana’s universities train engineers and scientists who can manage that technology.

In a Zoom call with The Lens, Flake echoed Thompson’s perspective, saying that he believed fossil-fuel companies were best equipped to address climate change. “Oddly enough, the best people to put the carbon back in the ground are the same people who took it out. You know, the engineers are part of the people that caused the problem,” he said. “And now it’s time to remedy that and it’s time to fix some of this and so, you’re not going to call in a different group to fix it.”

By contrast, Flake’s department does not naturally mix with those who did not cause the problem – community groups and environmental organizations concerned about carbon-dioxide leaks from carbon capture projects. That’s because they do not approach the problem in the same scientific way, he said. 

“Remember, you’re talking to an engineer. We treat these things as facts. It’s like math. And there’s no question about it,” Flake said. He can understand why someone who lives in Lake Maurepas would be worried, he said, referencing the site of the world’s largest carbon-capture and sequestration project, proposed by the industrial gas company, Air Products. “But at the same time, I think they’re also missing the other side of the equation, that all of that coastline around Lake Maurepas — if you keep emitting so much CO2 – will be underwater. It will be part of the Gulf of Mexico.”

When he appears at a public forum, Flake knows that what he says, as an LSU expert, might be interpreted as less biased than an industry official. “It’s one thing when Air Products comes in and says that this is a good thing, and we want to do this,” he said. “It’s a different thing when somebody independent at a university says, ‘Yeah, these guys are right. This is a good idea.’”

Advertising campaigns have long pulled in images of scientists and doctors to give gravitas to their claims. An op-Ed in Harvard Public Health, compared the moves of oil and gas companies to the Big Tobacco playbook.  “To be clear, filters didn’t, and don’t, make cigarettes safe. Today, the fossil fuel industry faces incontrovertible science showing its products harm the climate and our health,” wrote Dr. Vishnu Laalitha Surapaneni. “So, it’s adopting the tobacco industry’s tactics – offering to make fossil fuels ‘healthy’ through their own version of a filter: carbon capture.”

LSU’s experts are also being brought in to discuss environmental issues, through the lens of fossil-fuel lobbyists. 

Take the meetings last fall, hosted by LSU’s Center for Energy Studies in partnership with Industry Makes, a lobbying group working to expand Louisiana’s industrial sector. The partners hosted in-person meetings with local elected officials, to bring “awareness related to the energy transition.” In November, the university also hosted an invitation-only, on-campus gathering for energy leaders to discuss “finding the balance between environmental, justice, energy security and transition.”

Student leader Corrine Salter can’t reconcile the economic data, showing the steady drop in oil and gas jobs in the state, with what she sees driving back home to Ascension Parish, where she grew up, where messages include signs that read, “Shell. The Rhythm of Louisiana.” 

Student pushback

As petroleum companies try to spin their role in climate change, students may see through it. Research shows that today’s students are more likely to believe that climate change needs to be addressed by reducing fossil-fuel use. That shift in beliefs may be in part responsible for enrollment declines in LSU’s petroleum engineering department, Thompson believes. 

But Thompson sees new energy from students stemming from the fossil-fuel industry’s heightened interest in carbon capture as a way to address climate change, which has also resulted in increased investment in the department, which otherwise is seen as an industry with an uncertain, even grim, future.

Students come in, hesitant about the discipline, and the value of a degree in petroleum engineering, Thompson said. “It’s partly just because of job security, and them saying, ‘This is a volatile industry. I’m worried. Am I going to have a job four years from now?’”

Thompson hopes explaining the potential of carbon-capture – or the potential as fossil-fuel companies currently describe it – will change minds, as students “learn the petroleum engineering discipline is the one that is solving some of these problems,” he said.

Some students don’t approve of the university’s partnerships with fossil-fuel companies, or any financial ties with them.

For a decade now, students across the nation have filed complaints and demanded divestment from fossil fuels and hundreds of institutions have agreed. Locally, the LSU Climate Pelicans, an interdisciplinary group of students, have called for the university to divest endowment funds from the fossil-fuel industry. LSU doctoral student Corrine Salter, who helped to launch the Climate Pelicans, thinks the urgency of climate change demands divestment.

Salter also can’t reconcile the economic data, showing the steady drop in oil and gas jobs in the state, with what she sees driving back home to Ascension Parish, where she grew up, where messages include signs that read, “Shell. The Rhythm of Louisiana.” 

As a kid growing up along the industrial span of the Mississippi River referred to as “Cancer Alley,” Salter was taught to roll up the car windows as her family passed industrial facilities, to prevent inhalation of pollutants. After helping to launch the Climate Pelicans, she connected with community leaders fighting industry in Louisiana and heard their latest fears, that carbon dioxide captured from industrial facilities will be used to push more oil out of the ground, a technique called enhanced oil recovery. 

“When you speak to these communities you understand why they’re concerned,” Salter said. “We just don’t know the facts behind it. And the facts that we do know are extremely concerning.”

Inspired by the Climate Pelicans’ work toward divestment, LSU graduate student Alicia Cerquone, who sits on the LSU’s Student Senate, sponsored a resolution to urge and request the LSU Foundation to divest from fossil fuels. The measure passed in a 37-2 vote last year, according to LSU’s student newspaper. Though investment in fossil fuels amounts to only 2% to 3% of the endowment, it’s an important philosophical step, Cerquone said. 

Cerquone is also troubled by the influence that industry has on the Institute for Energy Innovation and fears that other corporations could control other departments’ curriculums. “These entities are going to have a say in what we pay to learn here,” she said.

The fossil fuel industry has made forays into academia beyond Louisiana. ExxonMobil and Shell have both helped fund a similar Energy Initiative at Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), where the highest level donors can have an office on MIT’s campus, according to Inside Climate News. In 2021, Exxon funded and co-wrote a research paper with MIT researchers with conclusions that supported the argument for federal subsidies for carbon capture and use. 

Students are likely to be disappointed if they take carbon-capture curricula believing that it will solve the climate crisis, said Charles Harvey, a professor in environmental engineering at MIT. While working at a carbon-capture startup more than 15 years ago, Harvey found that, because of the outsize levels of energy needed to operate the equipment that strips carbon dioxide from industrial emissions, the process barely put a dent in greenhouse emissions.

Since then, Harvey has been outspoken in his belief that the current buildup of carbon-capture projects is slowing the transition to renewable energy. 

“If we don’t reduce emissions, there are going to be more and more disasters like sea-level rise. But carbon capture and sequestration is not going to help,” Harvey said. “These university carbon-capture programs train students that oil companies then recruit and hire.” The students may be determined to forge new career paths to save the world, but instead, they’re traveling well-worn carbon-producing paths, he said. “They’re getting jobs producing more oil and gas.”

This story is part of the “Captured Audience” series, which is supported by a grant from the Fund for Investigative Journalism sponsored by The Lens, a nonprofit newsroom in New Orleans.