How Companies Buy Social License: the ExxonMobil Example

The Mobil Foundation sought to use its tax-exempt grants to shape American laws and regulations on issues ranging from the climate crisis to toxic chemicals – with the explicit goal of benefiting Mobil, documents obtained by the Guardian newspaper show.  Recipients of Mobil Foundation grants included Ivy League universities, branches of the National Academies and well-known civic organizations and environmental researchers.  Benefits for Mobil included – in the foundation’s words – funding “a counterpoint to so-called ‘public interest’ groups”, helping Mobil obtain “early access” to scientific research, and offering the oil giant’s executives a forum to “challenge the US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) behind-the-scenes”….

A third page reveals Mobil Foundation’s efforts to expand its audience inside environmental circles via a grant for the Environmental Law Institute, a half-century-old organization offering environmental law research and education to lawyers and judges.  “Institute publications are widely read in the environmental community and are helpful in communicating industry’s concerns to such organizations,” the entry says. “Mobil Foundation grants will enhance environmental organizations’ views of Mobil, enable us to reach through ELI activities many groups that we do not communicate with, and enable Mobil to participate in their dialogue groups.”

The documents also show Mobil Foundation closely examining the work of individual researchers at dozens of colleges and universities as they made their funding decisions, listing ways that foundation grants would help shape research interests to benefit Mobil, help the company recruit future employees, or help combat environmental and safety regulations that Mobil considered costly.  “It should be a wake-up call for university leaders, because what it says is that fossil fuel funding is not free,” said Geoffrey Supran, a postdoctoral researcher at Harvard and MIT.  “When you take it, you pay with your university’s social license,” Supran said. “You pay by helping facilitate these companies’ political and public relations tactics.”

In some cases, the foundation described how volunteer-staffed not-for-profits had saved Mobil money by doing work that would have otherwise been performed by Mobil’s paid staff, like cleaning birds coated in oil following a Mobil spill.  In 1987, the International Bird Rescue Research Center’s “rapid response and assistance to Mobil’s West Coast pipeline at a spill in Lebec, CA not only defused a potential public relations problem”, Mobil Foundation said, “but saved substantial costs by not requiring our department to fly cross country to respond”.d of trustees at the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution (recipient of listed donations totalling over $200,000 from Mobil) and a part of UN efforts to study climate change.

Wise ultimately co-authored two UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change reports, serving as a lead author on one. One report chapter Wise co-authored prominently recommended, among other things, burning natural gas (an ExxonMobil product) instead of coal as a way to combat climate change.

Excerpts from How Mobil pushed its oil agenda through ‘charitable giving’, Guardian, June 12, 2019

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