Opinion letter to the editor

An open letter urging dissociation from the fossil fuel industry in MIT’s new climate project

To President Kornbluth, Professor Lester, Professor Zuber, and members of the Climate Project Selection Committee

10391 image1
This graph was produced using data from Almond et al. 2022.

We, the undersigned MIT community members, are optimistic about the new Climate Project and are excited to see that MIT is committing its own money to this effort. However, we call for a commitment to prevent fossil fuel influence in this project.

The fossil fuel industry has repeatedly demonstrated that they are unwilling to change their business model of indefinite oil and gas production, and association with the industry for climate and energy research is an inherent conflict of interest. For decades, MIT has accepted large sums of money from the fossil fuel industry for climate and energy research, and has allowed the industry to influence research directions. This has led to proven bias towards fossil fuels in our research [1], and a skewed focus on technologies that are favored heavily by the industry for the self-serving reason of promoting fossil fuel production while climate experts agree that production must fall. 

The new Climate Project is a fresh opportunity to shift our Institute’s research towards true climate solutions, free of the ulterior motives of the fossil fuel industry. To accomplish this goal, we call upon the leaders of the Climate Project and the MIT administration to fully dissociate from the fossil fuel industry by taking the following actions:  

Peer institutions like Princeton [3] and Cambridge [4] have already committed to dissociating from fossil fuel companies for these reasons, and other institutions like Harvard [5], the University of California system [6], and Columbia [7], have divested their endowments from fossil fuel investments out of acknowledgement that the fossil fuel industry is not an ally in the climate fight. As a leader in climate and energy research, MIT should dissociate the Climate Project from the fossil fuel industry in the name of scientific independence and integrity. 

The Fossil Fuel Industry’s Active Opposition to Climate Action

The fossil fuel industry is fundamentally opposed to climate action. In the past, the industry has discredited climate science through blatant climate change denial and the funding of disinformation. One of the most well-known cases of this is Exxon Mobil’s accurate predictions of anthropogenic climate change as early as the late 1970s, predictions they actively hid from the world, instead funneling millions of dollars to climate disinformation campaigns. 

Exxon is not the only organization to propagate climate disinformation: virtually all major fossil fuel companies participated in an American Petroleum Institute task force on CO2 in the late 70s and early 80s [9]. 

However, as the reality of climate change becomes undeniable, the industry has shifted to a new strategy: continuing status-quo fossil fuel production, while greenwashing their image and selectively promoting “clean” technologies that enable the continued production of oil and gas. 
Burning all of the world’s developed reserves of fossil fuels will blow past the 1.5℃ goal set at the Paris Climate Accords. In order to keep global warming below catastrophic levels, we must immediately curb the use of current fossil fuel reserves and not develop any new reserves [10]. Despite this, the top 20 fossil fuel companies are set to spend a staggering $932 billion on new oil and gas fields between 2022 and 2030 [11]. In comparison, the industry spent a mere 2.5% of its capital expenditures (~$20B) on clean energy investments in 2022, and oil and gas companies only account for 1% of global clean energy investments [12]. These numbers show a very clear corporate strategy to continue the status quo production of fossil fuels indefinitely, without regard for the world’s nearly depleted carbon budget. 

The fossil fuel industry has repeatedly stalled climate action through their lobbying efforts, a force that they continue to exert to this day. In 2022 alone, the oil and gas industry spent $124.4 million lobbying the federal government [13]. In the same year, the Inflation Reduction Act (IRA) required the Department of Interior to offer 60 million acres of land for offshore oil and gas leasing before issuing leases for offshore wind. The IRA also reinstated four offshore oil and gas leasing sales that were previously paused by President Biden. These pro-fossil fuel clauses have set our climate goals back by promoting increases in US oil and gas production, and are a direct result of the fossil fuel industry’s influence. 

Despite this, fossil fuel companies continue to portray themselves as “green”, with over 60% of their corporate messaging including a claim about sustainability [14]. Most major fossil fuel companies have also released climate plans in recent years, but these plans are completely misaligned with the Paris Accords in critical areas. They largely fail to include scope 3 emissions [15] (emissions from the burning of their products), rely on dubious carbon offsets, and do not include plans to scale back production [16]. Congressional investigators recently obtained an internal Shell email from 2020 in which they internally admitted that their advertised “net zero” plan had “nothing to do with our [Shell’s] business plans” [17].

The fossil fuel industry has also worked to influence research agendas and policy through hundreds of millions of dollars in donations to U.S. universities in the past decade [18]. They have heavily promoted technologies such as “natural” gas to greenwash themselves and further entrench fossil fuel infrastructure – a tactic that MIT has participated in by accepting fossil fuel money and influence in our climate and energy research. 

How Fossil Fuel Influence at MIT has Delayed Climate Solutions

During the early 2010s, MIT aided the fossil fuel industry in promoting “natural” (methane) gas as a “bridge fuel”. A semantic analysis [19] of reports published by university energy centers and environmental groups from 2010-2020 showed that fossil-funded universities were significantly more favorable of “natural” gas in their reports than non-fossil-funded universities and centers; the fossil-funded MIT Energy Initiative (MITEI)  had the most favorable views out of any group studied (see figure below). Methane has a global warming potential 86 times that of carbon dioxide over 20 years, making natural gas systems worse than coal for global warming in this time frame if above leakage rates of 0.2%, which is far below real leakage rates (between 0.65% and 66.2%) [20]. 

MITEI was founded in 2006, and has since accepted ~$450 million from fossil fuel companies [21]. Companies that donate enough money have a direct influence on MITEI’s research portfolio [22]. Unscientifically favorable reports such as MITEI’s “The Future of Natural Gas” – which was co-authored by a former executive at BP, and included many other conflicts of interest [23] – enable the fossil fuel industry to entrench new fossil fuel infrastructure and continue their dangerous strategy. This report was the central focus of a 2011 congressional hearing presented by Ernest Moniz, in which he did not disclose any conflicts of interest [24]. The Obama administration fully embraced natural gas in 2012 [25], at a time when fracking was under intense scrutiny, and Moniz was appointed as Obama’s Secretary of Energy in 2013.

The fossil fuel industry used MIT to push the false climate solution of “natural” gas during the 2010s, and they continue to prioritize other self-serving technologies such as carbon capture and sequestration (CCS) here to this day. While fossil fuel industry proponents of CCS claim that we can rely on this technology to negate the effects of burning fossil fuels by capturing the emissions and storing them underground, the reality is that their widespread over-promotion of CCS is a delay tactic.

The IEA has warned that the history of CCS has “largely been one of unmet expectations” and “underperformance” [26]. Analysis has also shown that renewables, along with improved storage systems, are a significantly more energy  and resource efficient climate strategy for grid electricity production than fossil fuels with CCS [27]. 79% of carbon captured today is  used to squeeze more oil out of previously depleted wells in a process called enhanced oil recovery, which ironically adds to emissions [28]. Over-reliance on CCS would also cost $30 trillion more than a low-CCS pathway to net-zero by 2050, mainly because the cost of the technology has been stagnant for 40 years [29]. Despite the overwhelming evidence against prioritizing CCS and instead focusing on fossil fuel phase-out, it is still heavily researched at MIT – at least partially due to the fossil fuel industry. Out of all clean energy technologies, CCS received the second most funding from the fossil fuel industry at MIT in 2022 [30]. 

While we do not allege that MIT researchers who currently accept fossil fuel industry funding are acting in bad faith, the reality is that accepting fossil fuel funding for energy and climate research allows the industry to influence which technologies are prioritized and legitimized and which are not – influence that is amplified globally due the high impact of MIT research. The Climate Project is an exciting opportunity that could provide our university’s top minds with no-strings-attached funding to tackle the world’s largest challenge. We must reject fossil fuel industry influence to enable our researchers alone, not vested interests, to decide which technologies should be prioritized in the Climate Project. 

The undersigned members of the MIT community. 
MIT Divest
UA Sustain 
GSC Sustain

Over 200 current undergrads! See the full list here: https://tinyurl.com/nofossilsigners

Sign this letter: https://www.mit-divest.com/open-letter


[1] Douglas Almond, Xinming Du, and Anna Papp. “Favourability towards natural gas relates to funding source of university energy centres”. Nature Climate Change, 2022.
[2] Science Based Targets. “Oil and Gas.” 2023.
[3] Princeton University. Fossil Fuel Dissociation. 2024. 
[4] University of Cambridge. Grace on fossil fuel industry ties. 2024. 
[5] Jasper Goodman and Kelsey Griffin. Harvard will move to divest its endowment from fossil fuels. The Harvard Crimson, 2021.
[6] Sam Smithies. UC fully divested from fossil fuels. 2020. 
[7] Columbia University. University announcement on Fossil Fuel Investments. Columbia News, 2021.
[8] Shannon Hall. “Exxon Knew about Climate Change almost 40 years ago.” Scientific American, 2015. 
[9] Neela Banerjee. “Exxon’s Oil Industry Peers Knew About Climate Dangers in the 1970s, Too.” Inside Climate News, 2015.
[10] Simon Evans. “New fossil fuels ‘incompatible’ with 1.5C goal, comprehensive analysis finds.” Carbon Brief, 2022.
[11] Global Witness. “World’s biggest fossil fuel firms projected to spend almost a trillion dollars on new oil and gas fields by 2030.” 2022.
[12] IEA. “The Oil and Gas Industry in Net Zero Transitions.” 2023. 
[13] Inci Sayki and Jimmy Cloutier. “Oil and gas industry spent $124.4 million on federal lobbying amid record profits in 2022.” OpenSecrets, 2023.
[14] InfluenceMap. “Big Oil’s Real Agenda on Climate Change 2022.” 2022.
[15] Center for Climate Integrity. “Big Oil’s Climate Pledges: A Dangerous Distraction.” 2022.
[16] David Tong. “Big Oil Reality Check.” Oil Change International, 2022.
[17] Hiroko Tabuchi. “Oil Executives Privately Contradicted Public Statements on Climate, Files Show.” The New York Times, 2022.
[18] Amy Westervelt. “Fossil fuel companies donated $700m to US universities over 10 years.” The Guardian, 2023. 
[19] Douglas Almond, Xinming Du, and Anna Papp. “Favourability towards natural gas relates to funding source of university energy centres”. Nature Climate Change, 2022.
[20] Deborah Gordon et al. “Evaluating net life-cycle greenhouse gas emissions intensities from gas and coal at varying methane leakage rates.” Environmental Research Letters, 2023.
[21] Phil McKenna. “MIT’s Sloan School Launches Ambitious Climate Center to Aid Policymakers.” Inside Climate News, 2024.
[22] Id.
[23] Kevin Connor and Robert Galbraith. “Industry Partner or Industry Puppet?” Little Sis, 2013.
[24] “Hearing … to Receive Testimony on the Recent Report of the MIT Energy Initiative entitled ‘‘The Future of Natural Gas.” U.S. Government Printing Office, 2011.
[25] Whitehouse.gov. “Blueprint for an America Built to Last.” 2012.
[26] IEA. “Net Zero by 2050.” 2021.
[27] Sgouri Sgouridis et al. “Comparative net energy analysis of renewable electricity and carbon capture and storage.” Nature, 2019.
[28] Oil Change International. “Carbon Capture’s Publicly Funded Failure.” 2023.
[29] Andrea Bacilieri, Richard Black, Rupert Way. “Assessing the relative costs of high-CCS and low-CCS pathways to 1.5 degrees.” Oxford Smith School of Enterprise and the Environment, 2023.
[30] Conversation with an MIT employee in the Office of the Vice President for Research. March 12, 2024.