Exxon’s Donations and Ties to American Geophysical Union Are Larger and Deeper Than Previously Recognized

Donations tied to Exxon have totaled more than $600,000 since 2001, and a former Exxon vice president sits on the AGU's board of directors.

Exxon ranks among the AGU's top donors. Credit: American Geophysical Union

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The board of the American Geophysical Union (AGU) sparked a protest among member scientists when it announced last month that it would keep accepting money from ExxonMobil amid new revelations the oil giant misled the public on climate science. At issue was the company’s sponsorship of a $35,000 student breakfast at its annual conference.

What AGU president Margaret Leinen did not discuss when announcing the decision was Exxon’s other, longtime financial support and close ties to the world’s largest organization of earth scientists.

ExxonMobil Exploration is recognized by AGU as a top donor, and some of that money was raised by two longstanding AGU members who are Exxon employees: Carlos Dengo, a former company vice president and a member of AGU’s board of directors, and Exxon scientist Pinar Yilmaz.

In all, donations tied to Exxon have totaled a little over $620,000 from 2001-15 and less than half was secured by Dengo and Yilmaz. Both are listed in AGU’s annual reports among the top 10 living AGU donors for their bundling efforts, the practice of gathering contributions. Both have also personally donated to AGU in much smaller amounts, according to Dana Rehm, AGU’s director of communications. Dengo contributed as recently as 2015.

AGU would not detail the exact amounts bundled for Exxon or personally donated by Dengo and Yilmaz.

The $620,000 represents just 0.1 percent of AGU’s total revenue during that time, but it reflects the company’s deep ongoing, even mutually beneficial involvement with AGU. According to interviews with more than a dozen past and present AGU members and officials, severing ties with the company is not a simple issue, despite the calls from more than a hundred scientists and AGU members to stop accepting the company’s money. From recruiting AGU scientists to sharing common interest in better understanding Earth’s geoscience, the AGU and Exxon have been intertwined for at least four decades. In recent years, however, Exxon’s funding of climate misinformation campaigns has come to light, raising ethical concerns among the scientists.

The latest revelations, detailed in an investigation by InsideClimate News, that Exxon’s knowledge of climate change reaches back at least four decades while it also worked to discredit that very science, led to the most recent discontent about sponsorship among members. AGU announced in April it would continue the relationship. At the time, Leinen wrote, “it is not possible for us to determine unequivocally whether ExxonMobil is participating in misinformation about science currently, either directly or indirectly, and that AGU’s acceptance of sponsorship of the 2015 Student Breakfast does not constitute a threat to AGU’s reputation.”

Leinen, however, said in an interview the board of directors will continue to discuss Exxon’s sponsorship at their next meeting in September, raising the possibility of another vote.

She said the decision to re-open the topic for debate was triggered by a letter from Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse (D-R.I.) and Rep. Ted Lieu (D-Calif.) on May 10. The letter provided examples from 2014 and 2015 where Exxon gave money to organizations (such as the American Legislative Exchange Council) that cast doubt on climate science and lobbied against climate action.

“Everything I have known about AGU over the years is they don’t need ExxonMobil money to be financially stable,” said Alan Robock, past president of AGU’s atmospheric science section. “I don’t think [the reluctance to sever ties] is about the money at all,” but the company’s overall relationship with AGU.  

Exxon has sponsored the student breakfast at AGU’s fall conference since at least 2001, and has funded travel grants for students to attend meetings. Exxon, which employs 16,000 scientists and engineers, used the event for recruiting purposes.

That began to change in December 2006, the start of the first pushback against Exxon’s funding of AGU, driven in part by complaints from AGU student members. That year, the Royal Society, the United Kingdom’s science academy, accused Exxon of being “inaccurate and misleading” on climate science and demanded that Exxon stop funding organizations that undermine public understanding of climate risks.

Under pressure, AGU officials considered distancing itself from Exxon. In May 2007, it decided to no longer allow Exxon, or any other sponsor, to be given special access to students at sponsored events, including the Exxon-funded student breakfast. AGU leaders also discussed severing all financial ties with the company, though never brought that to a formal vote.

AGU’s counterpart in Europe, the European Geosciences Union, faced the opposite decision that year—whether to start accepting corporate sponsors, including Exxon—for the first time. Some EGU climate scientists vocally opposed accepting Exxon money, and the group never brought the sponsorship issue to a vote.

AGU executive director and chief executive Christine McEntee defended her organization’s acceptance of corporate sponsorship money, saying: “No sponsor influences anything we do about the science.” Exxon has no input on AGU’s scientific position statements or its programs, McEntee said.

Still, as the science behind man-made global warming became irrefutable and climate science became a more popular field of study among AGU’s 60,000 members, AGU’s relationship with Exxon grew more controversial.

Following the recent details unearthed by InsideClimate News, the company is now under investigation by four attorneys general for possibly misleading the public and its investors about climate risks. AGU has a policy to “not accept funding from organizational partners that promote and/or disseminate misinformation of science, or that fund organizations that publicly promote misinformation of science.”

Exxon Ranks Among AGU’s Top Donors

The AGU was founded in 1919 as a scientific organization to study earth physics. The group initially shied away from applying geophysics to discover petroleum deposits, preferring instead to focus on the “pure” sciences of physics, chemistry and geology according to History of Science in the United States by Marc Rothenberg. As early as 1977, AGU’s executive director Fred Spilhaus discussed corporate membership with Exxon representatives, according to correspondence held at the Niels Bohr Library & Archives in College Park, Maryland.

Today, AGU is a 501(c)(3) non-profit organization that gets most of its funding from publications, meetings, an $89 million endowment and membership dues, according to its 2014 annual report. In 2015, approximately 24,000 scientists attended the organization’s annual conference, making it the largest earth and space science meeting in the world.

AGU offers special recognition in its annual reports for donors who have made lifetime contributions of $100,000 or more, as well as those who have bundled the same amount. AGU stopped recognizing bundlers after 2012. In the organization’s 97-year history, only 14 individuals or entities have reached that threshold, according to an ICN review of seven years of annual reports. Four are deceased.

Of the three Exxon-related donors who have received recognition at this level, perhaps most controversial is Dengo, the former director and geoscience vice president of ExxonMobil Upstream Research Company.

Dengo, who sits on AGU’s current board of directors, recused himself from the April vote and discussion on whether or not to continue accepting Exxon funding. However, Dengo did give a brief statement after the board decided that it wouldn’t be a conflict of interest for him to do so. Dengo told InsideClimate News he shared his “personal knowledge and insights on the matter.” According to Leinen, Dengo’s talk emphasized that Exxon “felt strongly about supporting students at the meeting…[and] was not centered on trying to convince the board that they should vote one way or the other.”

Dengo told InsideClimate News that he did not give $100,000 himself, but solicited funds from Exxon, along with his personal donations.

Dengo also served on AGU’s development board, which raises funds for the organization, from 2006 to 2012. AGU conducted a review of its development program in 2013 and ‘14 and the development board did not meet. Dengo retired from Exxon in 2012 and joined Texas A&M University’s faculty in 2014. When the development board reconvened in 2015, Leinen appointed Dengo as chair, a position that gave him an automatic seat on AGU’s board of directors.

Pinar Yilmaz, manager of external project collaboration at ExxonMobil Exploration, brought in major donations from Exxon between 2001-07. This similarly earned her a spot on the top donors’ list. AGU characterized Yilmaz’s personal donations as “not large” and her last donation was in 2005. Yilmaz, who started working for the Mobil Oil Corp. in 1980 and later worked for Exxon, which became ExxonMobil in 1999, has served on AGU’s international participation committee. She was an officer of the Geological Society of America, a smaller geological community; Yilmaz has given at least $100,000 to her alma mater, the University of Texas at Austin. Yilmaz did not respond to repeated requests for comment.

ExxonMobil Exploration, a subsidiary of ExxonMobil that specializes in locating and extracting oil and gas reserves, is the third Exxon-related top donor.

Choosing Engagement Over Severing Ties

The AGU board’s decision to continue accepting Exxon funding, according to Leinen, stems from a desire to engage the company on climate change moving forward.

Robock, who led the effort to end AGU sponsors’ special access to students in 2006, said Leinen elaborated on the board’s recent decision during an AGU dinner at the EGU annual meeting in Vienna on April 19. Severing ties with Exxon would make a political statement in the short term, Robock recalled Leinen telling him, but AGU was focused on the long term and believed companies like Exxon have to be part of the climate change solution. According to Robock, Leinen said it would be more valuable for AGU to work with the industry rather than cut them off for short-term political gain.

When InsideClimate News asked Leinen about that conversation, she said she didn’t recall talking about short-term political statements, but she “certainly would have said” that the board had decided to engage over the long term with the entire energy industry, including non-fossil fuel companies.

Robock is among those who signed the recent petition asking AGU to stop accepting Exxon’s sponsorship. He said the current debate revisits much of what was discussed by AGU leadership a decade ago.

“I wish they would have divorced themselves from Exxon 10 years ago,” Robock said. “I wish they would have said ‘we are a science organization and this company, they are actively confusing the public about climate science. We are an organization that promotes science and we don’t want to take their money.’”

Geologists Vs. Climate Scientists

Kerry Emanuel, a professor of meteorology at MIT who studies hurricanes and climate change, said the AGU’s decision to continue ties with Exxon likely reflects AGU’s constituency, which includes some climate skeptics.

“I know that AGU has gotten a lot of pressure from geologists in general not to pay much attention to the climate issue,” said Emanuel, who also signed the petition and is considering boycotting AGU’s annual conference this year. “I just don’t know how to quantify that.”

According to several scientists who spoke to InsideClimate News, there’s disagreement among AGU members about the seriousness of human-caused climate change, and what policies should be adopted to fight it. That debate is playing out in at universities across the country where earth and atmospheric science departments include climate scientists and geologists, according to Charles Greene, an Earth and Atmospheric Sciences professor at Cornell University.

“One side is saying what the impacts [of climate change] are going to be and the other is training students to go into oil and gas exploration,” said Greene, who also signed the petition. “With reports in last five years saying we can’t exploit all of the resources we already know about, why are we training students to go out and find more?”

Catherine Gautier, an emeritus professor at UC-Santa Barbara who specializes in earth systems science, said AGU historically has been dominated by geologists in the broad sense, including what’s called solid earth geophysicists. But growing awareness of the urgency of climate change has raised the issue’s profile within AGU.

There are now more presentations about climate research at AGU events, and scientists in global warming-related fields are taking on more leadership roles within the organization, she said.

Gautier, also a petition signer, said AGU’s board of directors is denying “ample evidence” that shows Exxon has continued to support climate misinformation campaigns, even though the company vowed to stop such activities in 2008.

“Some people have suggested that…shaming Exxon isn’t the right strategy,” Gautier said.

“I think that we need to have both a carrot and stick approach. I don’t think they will change their [actions] until we force them.”

Will AGU Reconsider?

Leinen said she hadn’t finished reviewing the information provided by Whitehouse and Lieu. She added that the board will continue to monitor the progress of the investigations of Exxon and will evaluate their findings.

“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,” Leinen told InsideClimate News in an email. She defined concrete evidence as “documentation that is either publicly accessible; 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.”

When asked how recent the communication of misinformation would have to be to qualify as “current,” Leinen declined to specify.

“We have not defined ‘current’ quantitatively, rather our emphasis on ‘current’ is intended to recognize that the positions of organizations and corporations may evolve (and ideally improve) over time,” Leinen said.

Clarification: This story has been updated to more accurately reflect the historical make-up of the AGU. The organization has been historically dominated by all types of geologists, in the most broad sense. By that, we mean any scientist who studies processes happening on or below the ground, including mineralogists, geomorphologists, seismologists, volcanologists, petroleum geologists, and, importantly, solid earth geophysicists (physicists who study solid earth processes). This is in contrast to scientists like climatologists who study atmospheric sciences and other processes happening above the ground.