Energy interests fund Duke University's research on climate change policy | News Feature | Indy Week
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Energy interests fund Duke University's research on climate change policy 

Three's a crowd

Duke Energy and ConocoPhillips have donated $3.5 million to Duke University's Climate Change Policy Partnership, and that financial support may have influenced academic research.

In 2005, Duke Energy, which, by company estimates, ranks third among the nation's electrical utilities in carbon dioxide emissions and coal consumption, donated $2.5 million to help found the CCPP, tasked with evaluating potential federal climate policies. ConocoPhillips, the third-largest integrated energy company in the U.S., joined as a corporate partner in 2007 and contributed $1 million.

That money bought representatives from the utility and the energy company each a seat on the CCPP's advisory panel, but also the ability to vet climate policy research before it is released to the public.

Duke Energy spokesman Tom Williams said that academia must partner with industry because students might eventually work for energy companies, and therefore must understand "how industry works."

"It's a natural outgrowth of academia. To suggest that there's some kind of nefarious activity by funding—[Duke University] came to us and asked us for funding," he said.

ConocoPhillips did not return calls for comment.

Jonas Monast, manager of corporate and government relations for the CCPP, said he is unaware of any university-wide policies regarding funding. He said that there is no "vetting process" for companies who wish to contribute to the CCPP, only that they "actually want to contribute to furthering the information you need to develop good climate change policy."

"All of the money that's given to us for the CCPP is given to us as gifts without strings attached," Monast said.

Williams was more forthcoming about the power of the purse.

"When you give someone 3 or 4 million dollars, whatever the number was, 2.5 or 3, you have some sort of working arrangement set up. You don't just write the check and say, 'Be on your way.' I think Duke [University] was interested in working with our experts."

That relationship has yielded anti-regulatory policy statements published under the CCPP's moniker. This year, the CCCP published "A Convenient Guide to Climate Change Policy and Technology," which discusses a federal "cap-and-trade" scheme in lush terms. Such a scheme, part of a bill that Congress is considering, would allow companies to surpass preset emission thresholds by purchasing "carbon credits" from companies and farmers who produce less carbon than they are allotted.

Critics point out the program would do little to reduce the burning of fossil fuels, and would be susceptible to manipulation by energy companies.

However, the CCPP guide, which thanks Duke Energy and ConocoPhillips for their "support and valuable feedback" on Page 2, reads: "[Cap-and-trade] programs are often touted not only for their political feasibility and administrative variability, but also for their ability to achieve measurable environmental results."

The guide dismisses emission standards, framing those regulations as a "carbon tax."

"We recognize that the major thrust of the debate is assuming that some kind of cap-and-trade system is the way Congress is going to go with this. We use that assumption with some of the work we do," said Monast.

"We're not against climate change [policy] at all," Williams said when asked if his company's funding of academic climate-policy research presented a conflict of interest. "The sooner we get the rules of the road set, the better off we're going to be, in terms of our long-term decision making process. It's not like we're against it. We're probably the leader."

The CCPP's report echoes a letter signed by Duke Energy and ConocoPhillips and sent to Congress asking for an "economy-wide, market-driven approach" to federal climate policy. Yet predictably, neither company signed last month's a communiqué, approved by 150 companies, calling for an "international and comprehensive legally binding United Nations agreement to reduce greenhouse gas emissions." The letter was written in anticipation of international climate talks in Bali.

"I don't know whether we're going to Bali. I don't think we are—it's just far away, on the other side of the world," Williams told the Indy.

According to a recent study by the Center for Global Development, the U.S. burns more coal and emits more greenhouse gases than any other country. Forty percent of U.S. emissions result from power plants.

The CCPP reconciles Duke Energy's support for climate policy research, even though the utility is the third-largest coal burner in the country.

"Any energy policy modeling recognizes that coal is going to continue to be a part of the energy mix domestically," Monast said.

Monast and Williams pointed to technical exchanges between Duke Energy and the CCPP that explored the potential for storing carbon and burning coal more efficiently.

"I know I've taken three or four classes of 20-plus students to power plants," Williams said. "They've actually been able to see how power is made, meet with our plant managers, understand that—for example, we have a 2,400-megawatt [coal] plant north of Winston-Salem that burns 18,000 tons a day, but it's also consistently been one of the top five coal plants in the country, in terms of efficiency," he said.

The Center for Global Development ranks the Winston-Salem plant, Belews Creek, as the second-dirtiest power plant in North Carolina, with carbon emissions roughly equaling that of Venezuela's entire power sector—despite producing less than a fifth of its energy.

Representatives from Duke Energy and ConocoPhillips sit on a CCPP advisory panel, which Monast described as a way for corporate partners to help "define research." He also said partners were able to hear the results of the research before its release to the public. He insisted, however, that the CCPP was not acting as a "consultant" to Duke Energy or ConocoPhillips. Duke Energy chose the same phrase in making its argument.

"One of the things about the CCPP is Duke University is not a consultant to us; they're a research partner to us," Duke Energy spokeswoman Heather Quinley said. "The way the foundation gift was given is such that it's good for the public debate itself and to fund research so that others are educated, not just Duke Energy. I don't see an inherent disconnect there when it's for the public good."

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