The ABCs of Big Oil: How Big Oil Killed Our Political Imagination

The ABCs of Big Oil: How Big Oil Killed Our Political Imagination
Illustration: Elena Scotti (Photos: Shutterstock, PixelSquid, Getty Images)

On The ABCs of Big Oil, a new podcast miniseries produced in collaboration with Drilled, my co-host Amy Westervelt and I have been exploring the oil and gas industry’s infiltration of grade school curricula to promote the false idea that humanity needs fossil-fuelled capitalism to survive. This week, we’re moving on up to college, where things get even more insidious.

Of all the work out there on the fossil fuel industry’s disinformation campaign, some of the most important has come from folks at Harvard. This past May, Harvard researchers Geoffrey Supran and Naomi Oreskes published a groundbreaking analysis of 50 years of Exxon documents, showing that the company has used discursive tricks to discourage the public from demanding real climate action. In 2017, the two published the first-ever analysis of ExxonMobil’s 40-year history of promoting climate denial.

Listen to The ABCs of Big Oil on your favourite podcast platform.

Another crucial scholar on the fossil fuel industry’s history of promoting climate denial is Ben Franta, a PhD candidate in history at Stanford University. He was also once at Harvard; he got a doctorate in applied physics there and was also a research fellow at the university’s Belfer Centre for Science and International Affairs at the Kennedy School of Government, which is one of the world’s top academic policy think tanks.

When at the Belfer Centre, Franta began looking into what programs in higher education were funded by fossil fuel companies. He found lots of examples of policy institutes at top schools that were funded by oil and gas companies, like ones at MIT and the University of Texas. He dug a little further and found that his own university wasn’t exempt: Harvard’s Kennedy School had taken millions from Shell while the founder of the Belfer Centre had also founded an oil and gas company.

Much has been written about oil and gas companies’ funding of universities’ engineering and science departments — from the University of Texas to Colorado State University to Oxford — including here on this very site. This creates a pipeline (no pun intended) that funnels students into jobs in the extractive industry.

But perhaps even more pernicious is the money that energy companies pour into social science departments. As Franta details in a study released in August about fossil fuel involvement in economics research, their influence can serve to limit students’ and researchers’ understanding of how governments can take on climate change, inflate the predicted costs of climate action, and generally put a damper on political imagination.

“[The study] tracks the activity of a group of economic consultants who were hired by the petroleum industry for decades to produce analyses that were then used by the companies and by others imposing restrictions on fossil fuels to tell the public that it would just be way too expensive to act on climate and that in any case, climate was not going to be a big deal,” Franta said. “So the best thing to do is just do nothing.

This form of influence stretches back decades. While digging through some archives dating to the 1950s, my co-host Amy found that Frank Abrams, vice president at Standard Oil, led his company’s university investments. Those investments were targeted at pushing some key ideas: The free market is good, government intervention is bad, and extraction equals freedom.

Obviously there’s a conflict of interest when these programs are meant to defend society against the problems that these companies are creating, and yet these programs are dependent on those companies to exist,” Franta said.

Listen to The ABCs of Big Oil on your favourite podcast platform.