Van Wie: Dirty Money, Clean Cause

Funding the Institute for Energy and Society with Irving Oil money was a major blunder.

by David Van Wie | 9/27/16 12:15am

 I am dumbfounded. When I read that Irving Oil was funding Dartmouth’s Arthur L. Iriving Institute for Energy and Society, I checked to see if the article was in The Onion. Sadly, it was not.

As an energy and environmental professional who works to find real life solutions to our energy challenges, I was excited when College President Phil Hanlon established a task force to explore how the College could be at the forefront of energy, one of the greatest issues of our time. But with oil money as the foundation? On optics alone, this should have been a clear “no,” even to an alumna like Sarah Irving. How could so many smart people think this is a good idea?

This is clearly a public relations coup for Irving, Irving Oil’s chief brand officer. I am sure she’s glad to offset the bad press Irving has gotten about its disregard for climate change issues.

Having the Irving family fund and name an institute at Dartmouth or any other academic institution, which requires freedom from bias, is a mistake. It puts Dartmouth’s name, its academic freedom and its prestige in jeopardy. This blunder could set Dartmouth back from the pursuit of a sustainable future. The faculty and students in this institute and at the College will forever be trying to dance around the Irving connection, while all the papers and positions will be suspect, despite the “statement of academic independence.”

Top researchers and faculty will work elsewhere, where their research won’t be questioned. Will anyone at the institute take on a project that might even indirectly besmirch Irving? Of course not. Academic freedom is already compromised.

I recognize, as environmental science professor Ross Virginia has noted, that oil companies must be at the table on energy issues. He noted further that these funds may be used to tackle “broad issues like climate change and environmental justice.” But neither Irving nor the College directly mention climate change as a focus for the institute. Virginia’s comments in the announcement sounded desperate to put a spin on this — to take big oil money and try to do some good with it.

Funding an “Energy and Society” institute with money from a vested interest is a problem in its own right, and then we have the question of Irving’s environmental track record. The list includes improving efficiency of its refineries and trucks, and researching adaptation to climate change. Even worse is the company’s demonstrated lack of interest in confronting issues of carbon emissions and climate change. Irving’s investment strategy includes no effort to find replacements for fossil fuels. On the contrary, the company is a leading proponent of the “Energy East” pipeline to bring oil sands bitumen to its refinery in New Brunswick.

The Irving Institute is a done deal. So, how can we make the best of the situation? First, we must be vigilant that the institute is, in fact, an open forum for new ideas, unencumbered by bias. Funding an Institute of Energy and Society has to be more than a PR stunt and an ego trip for Mr. Irving. We really don’t have time to wait for “future energy leaders” to develop new knowledge and take action decades down the road. We already know what the problem is and we need to take action today.

My mentor, the late Dartmouth professor Donella Meadows, studied these kinds of issues. By her definition of sustainability, we have long exceeded the planet’s capacity to absorb CO2, and we produce waste at an alarming rate. We must immediately reduce and eventually cease burning fossil fuels, even natural gas, if we wish to minimize the impacts we are witnessing. We must use non-renewable resources sparingly, and it is incumbent on oil and energy companies to make serious investments in renewable energy. These are not political rules; these are physical rules that affect all aspects of our biosphere.

I’d like Irving to match its $80 million with a second gift to the Thayer School of Engineering to research renewable energy technologies that can replace oil and other fossil fuels, or on technologies and programs that immediately reduce our dependence on such fuels. This would mitigate the poor optics of the Irving Institute and its squishy mission by demonstrating a commitment to the necessary outcomes. Then, beyond Dartmouth, let’s challenge the Irving family to be advocates for a non-carbon energy future — to invest $8 billion in renewable energy industries. This would give them a decent ROI, while moving us away from fossil fuels. No new pipelines, no new refineries. We need carbon-free solutions.

Irving must become part of the solution, and not just by naming an institute after Arthur Irving. We don’t have time for more talk. Meadows and her colleagues identified the problem over 40 years ago. It is time Irving Oil started heeding her advice and invested directly in a sustainable energy future.