Wednesday, March 14, 2007

Global Climate Energy Project, Big Oil, and Big Benefactors

I read this article today about a recent decision by a major benefactor of Stanford University to withdraw a $2.5 million dollar gift to the university because Stanford recently accepted a $100 million dollar gift from ExxonMobil. The ExxonMobil gift was part of a combined $250 million dollar grant from a variety of of donors to create a new research institute at Stanford called the Global Climate and Energy Project. This institute will bring together scientists from a wide variety of disciplines to look for ways to "meet future energy needs without worsening global warming." Included in the article is this quote.

“Exxon Mobil is trying to greenwash itself, and it’s using Stanford as its brush,” Yusef Robb, who has worked with Bing on climate issues, told The Mercury News. “We think that people who give to Stanford do so because they want to help the future leaders of this nation, not because they want to advance the agenda of ExxonMobil.”

I am by no means a fan of ExxonMobil in the political or environmental sense, I am sure they, like most any other company in the world, make decisions based on short term profits and not on some sun-shiney moralistic ideal. But I think Bing's logic is twisted for a few big reasons.

  1. I don't see the problem with a company trying to "greenwash" it's image. I don't believe companies can be moral or immoral, they can just do good things or bad things. ExxonMobil has plenty of bad company points, as I have already blogged about (and then some for sure), but why should that stop them from doing something good? Giving money to research aimed at developing energy alternatives seems like a good thing (as long as there are no strings attached, see point #3.)
  2. I am sure the Bing family has in the past had plenty of money invested with oil companies (perhaps without them even knowing about it.) Most banks and mutual funds and things of that sort do. So why would it be OK to have investments that use companies like ExxonMobil to make money, but not want anyone else to benefit. Bing could of course only have "socially responsible" investments. I don't know all that much about him, other than what I can find on imdb.com and related entertainment sites, so if Mr. Bing does only have socially responsible investments, flies commercial airlines (so as not to waste energy with private planes), takes public transportation as often as possible and drives a hybrid when he can't, lives in a modest home complete with native fauna in the garden and of course, no swimming pool (I am guessing he lives in Southern California since he is a Hollywood dude), a nice compost pile where he can put the scraps from his locally grown vegetarian cooking, then I will perhaps agree with his decision.
  3. This institute could be very important. It makes sense that energy companies want to invest in the future of energy, but isn't this something we all have a vested interest in. It states explicitly that Stanford University will own any and all patents produced by the institute, so they won't directly make money from this.
  4. The gift he is rescinding was a general gift to the university; the gift he is complaining about is building a new institute. So, the general student population will be hurt, but those involved in the institute won't.
  5. I think oil companies are easy targets to complain about. Truth is, like almost all large companies, they do some pretty bad stuff. I have no problem passing laws that regulate oil companies or the use and/or acquisition of energy, but I also think that the first place we need to look is at our energy use. If there wasn't such an absurd demand for oil, then oil companies would just be another podunk company, it is our use that gives them the power they have. Another example, I think, is Ted Turner. I again agree with him on most things, but he flies around the world in a private jet, perhaps the most energy inefficient mode of transportation known to man (well, except for perhaps spotted owl powered space shuttles or other monstrosities). Fly first class if you must, mingle with the dregs of society and enjoy the average in-flight movie; a small price to pay for your planet. Hell, they could even afford those super sweet Bose noise cancelling headphones, those would make even coach seats bearable. This kind of reminds me of people who drive SUV's to Whole Foods so they can buy organic arugula.
  6. Stanford, I am sure, has had investments in ExxonMobil for a long time, as does anyone, or anything, with a diversified investment portfolio (see point #1). Why is it an issue now? Why doesn't Bing work with Stanford to create a socially responsible investment portfolio, or encourage Stanford to use it's shareholder clout to help redirect wayward corporations?
  7. Let's pretend that every major oil company in the world except ExxonMobil had contributed to the institute, my bet is that people would then complain about how ExxonMobil isn't doing enough to help find energy alternatives.
  8. Does his action help solve a problem, or is it simply a publicity stunt? If the end goal is to reduce our dependence on fossil fuels and reduce the production of greenhouse gases, does this help, hinder, or do nothing? Would he rather take away $100 million dollars from the institute, would that solve the problem?

I have no problem with Mr. Bing's positions or politics, I just think this is an odd reaction. Perhaps he could direct the gift into something that directly counteracts what he dislikes about ExxonMobil. Maybe create his own institute, one that develops oil company free investment plans. This isn't the first time a major benefactor has broken a promise of support to Stanford, and I don't think in either case the decision made much sense.


I am, however, excited to see that Steve Bing is producing a film version of Beowulf, which ranks as my #1 all time solo--road- trip book-on-tape. It got me to and from Seattle many times.

3 comments:

Lab Lemming said...

Exxon also needs to look after its medium-term profitibility, which means maintaining a steady supply of geologists and engineers to get the oil outta the ground. So supporting the universities that train such people is a smart thing to do.

Lab Lemming said...

Did you turn comments off for the alvarez post?

'cause I'm pretty sure the paper was 1980, not 1990...

Thermochronic said...

I didn't turn them off, wonder why they don't work? You be right, another proof read f-up. muchos appreciatos.