AGU’s History with ExxonMobil: Relevant Facts

EDITOR’S UPDATE (27 MAY 2016): We received an additional question about funding from the oil and gas industry and have added that question and answer below.

Q: How much financial support have oil companies given to AGU?

A: AGU has received less than $700,000 in donations from oil companies. Over the same 2001-2015 period of ExxonMobil’s $620,000 in contributions, AGU received a cumulative total of $75,000 from Chevron, BP, and Shell. AGU received more than $11 million in charitable giving contributions during that same period from individuals, foundations, and corporations. The financial support from Chevron, BP, Shell and ExxonMobil amounts to roughly 6.3 percent of our total contributions and 0.131 percent of AGU’s total operating revenue during that same time.

ORIGINAL POST: As you know from my previous posts, since earlier this year, we have been discussing AGU’s relationship with ExxonMobil and their sponsorship of our student breakfast. In April, I updated you on the Board’s decision to grow and improve our engagement with ExxonMobil on issues critical to the geosciences, and to also allow them to continue sponsoring the student event at the Fall Meeting. This decision followed on the receipt of a letter in February signed by about 100 AGU members asking us to sever all ties with ExxonMobil. Most recently I updated you on another letter we received, this one from Senator Sheldon Whitehouse and Representative Ted Lieu, which offered some new information, and also asked us to reverse our decision.

Since my last update, we have continued to reflect on the feedback received from members, have been in touch with the offices of both members of Congress, and have had conversations with some members of the media. We are making plans for the Board to discuss the new information that has been received since our decision to maintain the relationship, and we looking forward to consulting with the AGU Council and others on how to best pursue engagement with the private sector and others on the topic of energy.

In the course of many of these conversations, basic questions about the facts associated with our connection to ExxonMobil and the scope and scale of their contributions to AGU have arisen. Because I know this is of interest to many of you, and I expect at least some of this will be covered by the media, I want to share the answers to some of those questions with you:

Q: How much money has ExxonMobil given to AGU?

A: ExxonMobil’s cumulative contributions from 2001-2015 were just over $620,000. During that same timeframe, AGU’s cumulative revenue was over $530 million (our yearly revenue for each of those 14 years added together). That means that ExxonMobil’s cumulative contributions to AGU from 2001-2015 amounted to .117%, or one tenth of one percent of our revenue during that same period.

Q: Why is ExxonMobil listed in the 1919 Society in AGU’s Annual Reports?

A: Prior to 2012, AGU recognized sponsors in the same way that we recognized individual donors. The 1919 Society includes those who have contributed more than $100,000 cumulatively over the course of their lifetime of giving to AGU. Because of their previous gifts, under the old way of recognizing contributors, ExxonMobil qualified for the 1919 Society designation. In 2012, we updated our practices and began to recognize individual donors and sponsors separately. Since then, any organization that gives AGU more than $100,000 (either as a single large gift, or cumulatively over time) will no longer be listed as ExxonMobil was in the 1919 Society. Instead, they will be recognized as a sponsor. Individual donors will continue to be recognized in the 1919 Society for their contributions.

Q: Some of the donors in the 1919 Society are current or former ExxonMobil employees. Does that mean that ExxonMobil has given AGU more than $620,000?

A: The reason those individuals are listed in that group relates to a practice of donor recognition that was once very common in fundraising, but that is used less frequently today. Some organizations recognize the individuals who directly helped to secure a major donation for the amount of that donation. For example, if a member of the Development Board helped to secure a $100,000 donation, not only would the individual or organizations be recognized for the gift/sponsorship, so would the member of the Development Board.

This practice is called a ‘soft credit,’ and is less common today. AGU no longer uses it. However, individuals who earned their ‘credit’ during the time period in which we were using that type of recognition are still listed in the 1919 Society.

In the case of those current and former ExxonMobil employees who are listed in the in the 1919 Society, while they have made personal contributions to AGU, they have not individually risen to the level of being part of the 1919 Society. The combination of their soft credits and their personal donations is what has qualified them for the 1919 Society under the prior recognition practice. We thank them for their personal generosity and for their commitment to AGU.

Q: Has AGU discussed this issue of whether to take Exxon funds in the past?

A: Concerns regarding ExxonMobil’s sponsorship of the student breakfast were previously brought to AGU’s attention in 2006. That year a mistake was made in the way AGU advertised the student breakfast. Instead of calling it the AGU Student Breakfast and listing ExxonMobil as a sponsor – as they had been previously recognized – the event was listed as “the ExxonMobil breakfast.” This was a mistake in how the meeting banner was printed. It was recognized as a mistake at the time and has not been repeated since.

At a Council meeting that December, the question of ExxonMobil’s role in the breakfast was raised, and a motion was introduced that asserted that sponsors should not be given special access to students and that their participation in the event should be limited. The motion was postponed to provide time for a sub-committee – comprised of the Development Board and the Committee on Education and Human Resources – to develop a more comprehensive policy and bring it back for consideration.

During their meeting the following May, the Council unanimously passed a motion that said, “If an AGU activity has a sponsor or sponsors, their names and/or branding information shall not be used in the title of the activity. The sponsor(s) will be formally acknowledged in the activity announcements, typically as a footnote. The sponsorship of an AGU activity by any government agency, corporation, or other external organization does not imply AGU’s endorsement of the sponsor’s policies or products, nor does it imply that AGU will exert any influence on behalf of the sponsor. At the specific invitation of AGU leadership, representatives of sponsoring entities may attend and participate in the sponsored activity in order to be acknowledged and thanked for their contribution.”

In 2015, our current policy on organizational support was passed by the AGU Board. It replaced the previous policy and is now the policy in effect.

Q: In his role as chair of the Development Board, what influence did Carlos Dengo – a former ExxonMobil employee – have concerning AGU’s relationship with ExxonMobil?

A: Carlos Dengo helped to secure contributions from ExxonMobil, as did other Development Board members for their organizations, a typical role and practice for a non-profit Board member who is an employee of a major organization. However, Carlos is no longer employed by ExxonMobil. When discussion of the letter requesting that AGU sever ties came to the AGU Board, he offered to recuse himself from voting and the Board accepted that offer. Carlos offered to share his insights, based on his knowledge of the subject. The Board discussed whether or not it would be appropriate for him to make a statement, and they concluded that it would not represent a conflict of interest and would be beneficial to their discussion. His comments to the board were his own reflections; he did not speak nor is authorized to speak on behalf of Exxon.

Q: You have mentioned that AGU is continuing to monitor the situation. What would it take for the Board to reverse its decision to continue engaging with ExxonMobil and allowing them to sponsor the student breakfast?

A: As we have said previously, we are very interested in the investigations by the Attorneys General, and will be carefully monitoring their progress and evaluating their findings. We will continue to welcome new information that comes to us directly or otherwise becomes available. If there were concrete evidence that could be independently verified that ExxonMobil is communicating scientific misinformation, then that evidence would be cause for the Board to reconsider our decision regarding acceptance of their sponsorship. We define concrete evidence as documentation that is either publicly accessible (such as online or published material of an organization); a direct quote in full context from someone at ExxonMobil that demonstrates an official connection to misinformation about science; or non-public and independently verifiable material that has been collected by a disinterested, unbiased source, such as via a legal investigation or academic study.

I hope you find this information helpful, and that you will share any additional questions or views you may have here in the comments section of this blog post, or by writing me directly at President@AGU.org. In the meantime, here is a link to the news story that came out today from Inside Climate News, detailing their review of AGU’s relationship with ExxonMobil. They, like other outlets, have been covering the ExxonMobil shareholder meeting that is taking place this week. As the home society for the many geoscientists who work in the oil and gas industry, as well as those studying climate science and the impact of climate change, and given AGU’s stated goal to engage broadly on the energy topic, AGU’s story no doubt provides a suitable background for that larger discussion of corporate and science society roles and responsibilities.

11 Responses to “AGU’s History with ExxonMobil: Relevant Facts”

  1. Charles Greene

    While I am glad that President Leinen and the AGU Board is “looking forward to consulting with the AGU Council and others on how to best pursue engagement with the private sector and others on the topic of energy,” that statement deflects attention away from the issue being addressed. Those of us requesting that ExxonMobil be dropped as a sponsor is not because it is part of the fossil fuel industry. Rather, our request arises from the recently released, irrefutable evidence that the company engaged in unethical, reprehensible, and possibly illegal behavior that has been and continues to be aimed at protecting its profits at the expense of the rest of humanity. Arguments about engagement with the fossil fuel industry to influence its business practices are entirely legitimate; however, this issue is entirely separate from whether AGU should be taking money from a private company that has a long and well documented history of suppressing climate change science and spreading misinformation. What message does it send to our students and young scientists when we let such a company sponsor the annual meeting’s graduate student breakfast?

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  2. Mathew Owens

    The relatively small size of Exxon’s donations ($620k or 0.1% of AGU’s total operating revenue) does not make this situation any better – it makes it all the more galling. For 2% of what they allegedly spent on the generation and dissemination of scientific misinformation, Exxon can apparently buy a tacit endorsement from a respected scientific organisation.

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  3. Jack Xie

    I totally agree with Charles Greene. I stress that well respected science policy organizations, such as the Union of Concern Scientists, are listing the AGU-ExxonMobile partnership (or whatever you want to call it) as a negative example of how environmental fouls industry tried to influence science. It is only natural for this company to try it. But the question is, why AGU accepts it without asking member’s opinion? I would like to see a vote by all AGU members on such an important and controversial issue.

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  4. Charles Greene

    On such an important and controversial issue, why do we not hold a vote by the full membership? I have asked this question of several AGU Board members and not received a reply.

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  5. Trevor McDougall

    Charles Greene has said it perfectly in asking should AGU “be taking money from a private company that has a long and well documented history of suppressing climate change science and spreading misinformation”, and that Exxon/Mobil is a company that has “engaged in unethical, reprehensible, and possibly illegal behavior that has been … aimed at protecting its profits at the expense of the rest of humanity.” For my part, I have resolved to not submit any manuscripts in AGU journals until AGU severs its relationship with Exxon/Mobil. The next step of resigning my membership of AGU is a step I have not yet taken.

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  6. Tim Baumgartner

    Earlier on I was neutral on this issue and wrote to President Leinen say so. Now, after reading Charles Green’s comment, I find that I am in total agreement.

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  7. David Reyes

    If Exxon’s donation is such a small portion of AGU funding, then obviously it will not be missed. AGU should do itself a favor and put this to rest by dropping Exxon sponsorship. Retaining Exxon funding taints the reputation of the AGU and reflects poorly on the leadership of the AGU.

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  8. Mark Chopping

    I agree with the comments above from Charles Greene, Mathew Owens, Jack Xie, and Trevor McDougall. Clearly, we would not be having the same discussion if this concerned a similarly momentous environmental or human health issue that was not related to fossil fuels: would any bona fide professional scientific society take funds from an entity that worked to dissuade people from using vaccines, for example? As Alan Robock has pointed out, AGU does not even need this sponsorship, so what does AGU hope to achieve through this continued engagement with ExxonMobil — and on what time frame? I hope that the Board will act appropriately should the current investigations show that ExxonMobil did in fact mislead investors, though I find it hard to believe that there is not already adequate evidence to support the contention that it has continued to support disinformation campaigns. Whatever the outcome of the Board’s meeting in September, I would like to see a vote by all AGU members on this issue.

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