Exxon Takes Aim At Columbia University Over Climate Reports
Above Photo: Exxon Vice President for Public and Government Affairs Kenneth P. Cohen accuses a Columbia journalism professor and her team of potentially violating the university’s policy on research misconduct. Getty
ExxonMobil is hurling ethics accusations against a team of Columbia University journalists whose reporting helped stoke calls for probes into whether the company deliberately misled the public about climate change.
The oil giant went on the offensive in a Nov. 20 letter, a copy of which was obtained by POLITICO. It comes as investigations by the Columbia journalists in the Los Angeles Times and a separate report by the nonprofit website InsideClimate News continue to stoke Democratic calls for a federal probe into whether the company concealed its internal understanding of the global warming threat posed by burning fossil fuels. Exxon, which through its foundation gave more than $200,000 to the university last year, addressed the letter to Columbia President Lee Bollinger and sent a copy to university trustees.
In the letter, Exxon Vice President for Public and Government Affairs Kenneth Cohen accuses a Columbia journalism professor and her team of potentially violating the university’s policy on research misconduct by downplaying or ignoring information provided by the company. Cohen asks Bollinger for an opportunity to discuss “the possible remedies available to us” and seems to suggest the episode may damage Exxon’s relationship with the university in the future.
“ExxonMobil has had numerous and productive relationships with Columbia University for many years, whether through research programs, interactions with the business school or recruiting of graduates for employment with our company,” Cohen writes. “The interactions [between Exxon and the Columbia journalists] detailed above are not typical of the high standards and ethical behavior we have come to expect from your institution.”
Bollinger tasked Steve Coll, the dean of the Columbia School of Journalism, with handling the response. Coll, the author of “Private Empire,” a 2012 book investigating Exxon, told ClimateWire this month that he orchestrated the project to expand upon questions left unanswered during his own research.
In an interview Monday, Coll said he’s in the final stages of a rigorous review and will soon post a response to Exxon’s letter.
“I’ve reviewed the allegations in the letter, and I am preparing a response which we are preparing to publish on our website in the next couple of days. It would be premature for me to comment on details in their letter,” Coll said.
In the wake of the L.A. Times reports and an earlier series from the nonprofit website InsideClimate News, Green activist groups launched an escalating “Exxon Knew” campaign against the company, sparking an investigation by New York’s attorney general as well as endorsements of a Justice Department probe from prominent Democrats, including presidential hopefuls Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders.
Exxon’s letter seeks to turn the tables, aiming similar misconduct allegations back on the students involved in the Times story.
“It’s ironic — what they’re accusing us of is exactly what they’re doing themselves, which is trying to manipulate public opinion behind the scenes,” Exxon spokesman Alan Jeffers said.
In the letter, Cohen accused the Columbia postgraduate students and their adviser, Susanne Rust, of having “cherry-picked — and distorted — statements attributed to various company employees to wrongly suggest definitive conclusions about the risk of climate change were reached decades ago by company researchers.” The reporting was part of an energy and environmental reporting fellowship for recent graduates.
The Times identified its Oct. 9 and Oct. 23 stories as collaborations with Columbia but did not state that the project was partly supported by a grant from the Rockefeller Brothers Fund. Cohen slammed the fund, which has supported activism against the Keystone XL pipeline and boosted environmentalists by vowing to divest from fossil fuels, as holding “a stated position and bias against the oil and gas industry.”
A spokeswoman for the Rockefeller fund was unavailable to comment on Exxon’s charges by press time. A Times spokesperson, Hillary Manning, said the Rockefeller fund and other backers did not have any editorial control over the reports.
“The stories clearly indicate the role of Columbia University’s Energy and Environment Reporting Fellowship in the reporting,” Manning said in an email. “Its multiple sources of foundation funding have no editorial control over that reporting, and a listing of the funders is readily available on the Columbia Journalism School website.”
Jeffers said Monday that Exxon has “not codified any change” to its policy of engagement with the university. He declined to specify how or when the company might consider formally changing the relationship.
Through its foundation, Exxon gave $219,229 to Columbia in 2014 as part of a matching gift program for educational institutions, as well as $9,000 in direct grants. The company also gave $25,000 last year to the markets program at the university’s Center on Global Energy Policy.