The Troubling Oil Money Behind Dartmouth’s New Energy Institute

To create a new institute focused on society’s pressing energy problems, Dartmouth has accepted $80 million from a powerful oil family surrounded by controversy. Such a gift seriously undermines the credibility of such an institute.

When a really good school like Dartmouth College decides to take on the future of energy as a priority for its faculty and students, you would want it to be rigorous and independent—a beacon guiding the way as we grapple with climate change, sustainable development and environmental justice.

And you know what? Dartmouth’s new Arthur L. Irving Institute for Energy and Society may very well turn out to do some great work. 

But $80 million, half of the institute’s funding, comes from Irving Oil and the powerful family behind it, which is surrounded by controversies environmental and otherwise. This casts serious doubt over the initiative’s credibility before it has even started. 

As sums in philanthropy balloon and universities across the country augment their budgets with multibillion-dollar fundraising campaigns, a lot of concerns about academic integrity, or at least the appearance of impropriety, have followed. Some of these are knee-jerk responses, and large donations can be credited for launching many admirable endeavors, including academic work on energy and sustainability all over the country. 

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But now and then, a donation is so blatantly suspect in the context of the gift’s purpose that it threatens to undercut the intent and integrity, or at least the perceived integrity, of the project at hand.  

In the case of the Dartmouth gift, Irving Oil and the Irving family are deeply financially connected to the problems the institute seeks to solve, and not in a good way. Irving Oil is a Canadian oil and gas company that owns, among many other things, the country’s largest oil refinery. The company and its chairman, Arthur Irving, are behind a controversial pipeline proposal that critics say would bring huge increases in tar sands oil production and carbon emissions. 

It’s hard to believe the university would shrug that off as a “cosmetic” conflict, as Robert Hansen, the Dartmouth business professor who headed the task force behind the initiative, did in recent local news coverage. Campus environmentalists, who are in the midst of organizing Dartmouth to divest from its fossil fuel holdings, had a different word for it—“horrific.”  

It’s one of the more questionable examples of private money flowing into academia we’ve seen, in fact, and it raises all kinds of questions about the growing role of industry in campus funding. 

Maybe the gift wouldn’t be so troubling if we weren’t at such a tipping point for climate change. It’s a historic moment for global emissions reduction efforts, and universities are playing an important role, both in their campus organizing efforts and faculty and student research. 

Energy and/or sustainability centers have popped up at schools all over the country in recent years. While you would hope any academic center studying the field would prioritize climate change, an institute dedicated to energy can actually be a lot of things. Some set out explicitly to find low- or no-carbon solutions, like at MIT, while others are even advancing oil and gas research.

Dartmouth’s institute seems to be somewhere in the middle. Climate change and cutting carbon emissions are not explicitly part of its mission, which is to be a “driver in the creation of ideas, technologies, and policies that will improve the availability and efficient use of energy for every person on the planet.” But the president’s announcement does directly address sustainability and climate change. And Dartmouth environmental science professor Ross Virginia says, “The institute’s focus is a great combination—it’s not energy alone, it’s energy and how it connects to people, to society, to broad issues like climate change and environmental justice. There’s no other problem facing our global society that’s as important.”

All of this is to say that the institute sounds well intentioned, and there’s a good case that the school’s liberal arts background can provide an interdisciplinary advantage.

And Dartmouth leadership clearly views a partnership with an oil company as a plus. The school’s announcement praises Irving Oil, calling it an early adopter of technology that improves environmental performance of their products, and Dartmouth alum Arthur Irving a “visionary leader.”

When the Valley Newsasked Hansen, the professor who helped land the funding, about the potential conflict, he defended Irving’s involvement: 

Oil companies, Hansen said, are as interested as everyone else in adapting to the sweeping transformation of the energy sector.

“I don’t think that’s the right way to frame this discussion. The future of energy, I’ll guarantee you, is going to involve business, and it’s going to involve large companies. The world of academia needs to bring the outside world in, including energy companies, and understanding what they do,” he said. 

Hansen said that a practical view of the institute shouldn’t include holding Irving Oil accountable for its history. 

“The past is past,” he said. “We are concerned about the future.”

OK... but the large company he speaks of here isn’t simply “involved.” It’s funding half of the whole thing. And we’re not talking about a company that dabbled in oil and gas, which is now trying to nobly steer the world away from fossil fuel-driven disaster. This isn’t some third-generation Rockefeller heir trying to right the family’s wrongs.  

Consider that Arthur Irving and Irving Oil are playing a central role in the development of the proposed $15.7 billion Energy East oil pipeline, able to carry 1.1 million barrels of crude a day, according toNational Observer’s extensive coverage. It would be a windfall for the company’s refinery and export operations. 

As with the Keystone XL and Dakota Access pipelines, there’s strong environmental and indigenous community opposition, and those against the pipeline charge that the company is “blithely unaware,” failing to engage with communities affected. By one estimate, Energy East would expand tar sands oil production—the country’s fastest-growing source of GHG emissions—by up to 40 percent, transporting a third more than Keystone XL would have.  

Dozens of groups and even the Quebec government have come out against the pipeline. According to the NRDC: “The pipeline would also bring a significant increase in carbon pollution, equivalent to the annual emissions of as many as 54 million passenger vehicles, and lock in high-carbon infrastructure expected to operate for at least 50 years.”

The broader Irving family controls hundreds of companies, with brothers Arthur and J.K. Irving each helming one of its main corporate entities; they have also been caught up in multiple scandals in their home province of New Brunswick, which you can read all about here, including environmental violations related to spills and air pollution. Also troubling in the context of the Dartmouth gift is the Irvings’ notoriety for exerting their influence or “throwing their weight around.”

Even if you’re making a pragmatic case for the oil industry being involved in the transformation of the energy sector, this does not seem like a company that would be a good ally in working toward a low-carbon, sustainable and just energy future. 

Especially as Irving companies expand into New England, is this really a name Dartmouth wants on a new institute that’s setting out to shape the world’s energy future? Can faculty and students be comfortable with the fact that such an endeavor is launching with $80 million from this company and family? I really wouldn’t be.

Even if we assume that the donors here will not attempt to exert one iota of influence on the work of the center—and to be clear, I don’t mean to question the integrity of the faculty involved—what kind of a message does this send about the work the school is doing? Isn’t there some residual chill resulting from source of the funding? 

Universities no doubt face an increasing need to raise outside funding to stay competitive and expand their research, but as we see more of these donations in the tens, even hundreds of millions of dollars, these are the kinds of questions beneficiaries need to reckon with.  

In the school’s announcement of the Irving Institute, the president of Irving Oil Ian Whitcomb says, “When industry and academia work together, we all stand to benefit.” 

I’m not so sure that’s the case, and if I’m in Dartmouth’s administration or faculty, that’s what’s keeping me up at night.