Big oil, big row;

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Environmentalists are determined not to let oil companies ‘greenwash’ their image through tie-ups with some of America’s top universities

The Guardian Unlimited (UK)

Controversy is raging in the US over links between big oil companies and some of the country’s leading universities.

Environmentalists are furious that strategically donated research money to institutions such as Stanford and Berkeley is giving “Big Oil”, in the shape of ExxonMobil and BP, the opportunity to “greenwash” their images in the US.

The greenwash accusation has led millionaire film producer and environmentalist Steve Bing (perhaps best known in the UK as the father of Elizabeth Hurley’s son) to withdraw the final $2.5 million of a $25 million donation from his alma mater Stanford University, in northern California, because of its relationship with ExxonMobil.

And across San Francisco Bay from Stanford, at the University of California’s Berkeley campus, there is an equally vociferous protest campaign against a new $500 million research agreement with oil giant BP.

At Stanford, environmentalists have been concerned about the university’s relationship with ExxonMobil since it was announced in 2002 that the company would donate $100 million over 10 years to fund research.

The money from the deal goes to the university’s Global Climate and Energy Project, which also includes General Electric, Schlumberger and Toyota as corporate sponsors.

One aspect of the deal that galled opponents is the fact that the oil company reserves five-year, exclusive rights to any discoveries resulting from the research it funds.

Another was the fact that the oil company also receives — for what environmentalists regard as a pittance — the ability to trade off the independent reputation of Stanford to promote itself as environmentally responsible — ExxonMobil recently announced 2006 profits in excess of $39 billion, the most ever recorded by a single company, and has funded the efforts of global warming sceptics.

The final straw for Mr Bing was newspaper and TV adverts ExxonMobil recently took out. The TV commercial tells viewers that ExxonMobil has teamed with Stanford to find breakthrough technologies to deliver more energy while reducing greenhouse emissions. “It’s a challenge but we are getting there,” says the voiceover. The advert portrays young children learning to play golf as the visual hook to demonstrate the difficulty of the task.

Mr. Bing, who has made the gossip columns over the years as a playboy boyfriend of some of the world’s most beautiful women, is famously reclusive and doesn’t give interviews with journalists.

He comes from one of the U.S.’s richest families — the Bings originally made their money in real estate — and inherited $600 million from his grandfather more than 20 years ago. His wealth today is something of a mystery, although it was estimated at $900 million a year ago, but he is not afraid to spend large amounts.

Apart from the $25 million he promised Stanford, he invested $80 million in the film The Polar Express, and has contributed tens of millions of dollars to the Democratic Party and its individual candidates.

Late last year he is said to have spent $50 million in a failed attempt to persuade Californian voters to approve a tax on oil company profits, the proceeds of which would be used to create a $4 billion war chest to fund research into alternative energy fuels. ExxonMobil was a deeper pocketed opponent of the measure which was defeated at the polls with 54.7% opposed to 45.3% in favour.

Despite being the main sponsor of the measure, Mr. Bing was criticized in some quarters for not giving interviews to promote his position. As is the case today in this latest dispute over Big Oil he prefers simply to let his money do the talking and to speak though Yusef Robb, a colleague who advises him on environmental issues.

Stanford University should be acting in the public interest not in the interest of ExxonMobil,” Mr. Robb told Guardian Unlimited, claiming that the oil company is trying to greenwash itself and using Stanford as its brush.

Mr. Robb added that Mr. Bing is trying to persuade other Stanford alumni to withhold their donations to the university. So far he has been unsuccessful.

For their parts, both Stanford and ExxonMobil defended their agreement and would not comment on the Mr. Bing contretemps.

“We are proud of our support for the Global Climate and Energy Project at Stanford University. We helped found GCEP, the largest privately funded, long-term research programme of its type in the world, in 2002 with the charge to accelerate the development of commercially viable energy technologies that can lower greenhouse gas emissions on a global scale,” said ExxonMobil media advisor Gantt Walton.

ExxonMobil and its fellow sponsors, he added, had no control over the research conducted by Stanford and, he added, “We scrupulously follow our agreement”.

The news of Mr. Bing’s stand against ExxonMobil was the lightning rod that sparked protests at Berkeley over its deal with BP. The oil giant has pledged $500 million over 10 years to create what is to be called the Energy Biosciences Institute, which has a primary goal finding a way to facilitate large-scale production of biofuels hopefully resulting in a net drop of carbon emissions. The university competed with several others for BP‘s money.

Berkeley is famous or infamous — depending on your viewpoint — as a hotbed of political protest dating back to the 1960s and the row over the BP deal is more strident than that in the more genteel cloisters at Stanford. For instance, two Berkeley students were arrested a few days ago for pouring what appeared to be oil on the steps of a campus building. The substance was in fact organically grown molasses.

Robert Reich, a professor of public policy at Berkeley and labour secretary in President Bill Clinton’s administration, is leading the call for safeguards for the university’s reputation in the still to be finalized agreement with BP. The management of safeguards “will determine if this deal will be a huge feather in Berkeley’s cap or a huge noose around Berkeley’s neck,” he said at a forum on the deal where he and other faculty and students were largely opposed to the agreement.

The main points of contention are a clause that gives BP the exclusive rights to the results of the research for a number years and whether Berkeley will become a cog in BP‘s self-promotion machine.

BP is clearly looking for a place to wash itself clean and green and UC Berkeley shouldn’t be that place,” complained Jamie Court, the president of the Foundation for Taxpayer and Consumer Rights, an advocacy organization asking Berkeley officials to cancel the deal if BP insisted on exclusive patent rights and retained the ability to advertise the partnership.

BP refused to be drawn into the controversy and simply praised UC Berkeley for its successful application to establish the institute on its campus. Spokesman Ronnie Chappell wouldn’t comment on the opposition at Berkeley nor on the agreement itself, the details of which, he said, were not yet finalised. “I can tell you though that BP will not undertake advertising to which the host institutions object. Can I be much clearer than that?”

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