Stanford disputes reports of researcher’s ties to Exxon-Mobil

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The Stanford Daily via University Wire

STANFORD, CA — A recent study by Stanford University civil and environmental engineering professor Mark Jacobson that was critical of ethanol as an alternative fuel source has drawn criticism from The Foundation for Taxpayer and Consumer Rights, which alleged that Jacobson’s report was “tainted by Exxon-Mobil ties.” University researchers and Exxon-Mobil officials, however, have provided counter-evidence to FTCR’s claim, calling the allegations baseless.

Jacobson’s study concluded that ethanol, which is increasingly cited as an alternative to fossil fuels, “may be a greater overall public health risk than gasoline.”

FTCR official John Simpson questioned Jacobson’s research because of the professor’s previous affiliation with the Global Climate and Energy Project, a Stanford research project sponsored by Exxon-Mobil, Toyota, Schlumberger and General Electric. Jacobson’s recent ethanol study was not funded by Exxon-Mobil; it was a GCEP grant for an earlier study about hydrogen fuel cells that worried Simpson.

“The American Petroleum Industry complained about [the earlier study],” Jacobson said. “I don’t see how it could possibly have been biased.”

GCEP Project Director Lynn Orr and Exxon-Mobil representative Gantt Walton both said that the energy giant has no influence over the direction of individual research projects.

“The claims made by the consumer advocacy group are completely baseless,” Walton said. “We have no control over the research with GCEP.”

Simpson, FTCR’s Stem Cell Project Director, said he was still concerned about any link to Exxon-Mobil, no matter how distant.

“I’m essentially concerned that the overall well has been poisoned,” Simpson told The Daily. “The science in that specific study could or could not be valid. Because Stanford takes $100 million from ExxonMobil, it’s very difficult for people on the outside to take research that comes out of the university at face value.”

“Stanford has essentially become part of Big Oil U,” he added. “This allows the research agenda to be inappropriately set by the oil companies. The focus is on the broader picture, not on the specific suggestions in Dr. Jacobson’s research.”

According to Orr, GCEP project proposals go through a rigorous two-phase peer-review process. In the first phase, proposals are reviewed by at least three discipline-specific experts. In the second phase, a wider audience reviews the proposals. At this point, technical experts from the sponsor companies can provide feedback. After considering the reviews from both phases, GCEP staff decide which projects will be in the final proposal package.

This package is then presented to a committee of sponsor representatives for lump-sum approval or rejection.

“With GCEP, I have no idea where my funding came from,” Jacobson said. “It could have come from Exxon, one of the other sponsors, or a communal pot.”

“It’s like me submitting work to the Department of Energy or the National Science Foundation,” Orr said. “I come up with the idea, but they decide whether to fund it.”

As for the criticism, Jacobson said he is concerned that the press release will affect the way his research is perceived in the broader energy community.

“It’s just really irritating,” he said. “My whole career is built around helping people, and trying to reduce people’s suffering from air pollution. My study clearly states that neither gasoline nor ethanol are good for you. I’m in support of things that don’t kill people — renewables that don’t emit pollution.”

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