Attendees vocalize frustration over USC links to fossil fuel industry at research forum

 Participants questioned the ethics of fossil fuel funding during the heated panel.

Connor Castillo and Valerie Kuo, co-executive directors of the USC Environmental Student Assembly, represented the student side of the forum. (Abeerah Siddiqui)

Two faculty members representing three USC energy research centers agreed to partner with the Environmental Student Assembly, Student Sustainability Committee and other advocates on campus to report the funding sources of their centers for the first time in recent history during a forum discussion on fossil fuel-free research Friday. 

Tiya Jain, a sophomore majoring in environmental studies who is also the ESA’s director of advocacy, called it a “first step, rather than a huge win” in their advocacy against USC’s ties to the fossil fuel industry. The research centers which apply to the partnership include the Ershaghi Center for Energy Transition, CiSoft, and the USC and Kuwait Oil Company Center of Excellence for Research and Academic Training.

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The discussion comes amid criticism levied at the University by the Environmental Student Assembly and other community members for promoting a sustainable future while partnering with fossil fuel companies to fund research and other educational programs. 

The Student Sustainability Committee organized the event with support from ESA to improve transparency around the University’s research and funding ties to the industry. 

Connor Castillo and Valerie Kuo, the co-executive directors of the ESA, were in conversation with Iraj Ershaghi, director of the petroleum engineering program and executive director of the USC-Chevron Center for Interactive Smart Oilfield Technologies, and Donald Paul, executive director of the Energy Institute and the William M. Keck Chair of Energy Resources. 

Paul said one of the largest contributors to fossil fuel-related research is the Department of Energy, and that most of its grants to universities require industry participation. He said research conducted without the participation of the energy industry is unrealistic because funding from the government and the energy industry itself would disappear without the continued involvement of such companies. 

The discussion also addressed whether funding from fossil fuel companies for programs like the Ershaghi Center for Energy Transition and CiSoft is necessary to advance sustainable energy research. 

“If universities actually come up with solutions, and we have been able to do that, then it’s a pick and choose,” Ershaghi said. “As a consumer, you can decide which source of energy you want to use.”

The Ershaghi Center for Energy Transition aims to promote research and education efforts toward a low-carbon future. CiSoft, a partnership between USC and Chevron, works with research scientists at the Viterbi School of Engineering, offers a Master of Science in petroleum engineering and facilitates research on smart oilfield technologies that improve the efficiency of oil and gas fields

One of the expanding areas of interest in energy research is the impact of digitization on the energy system. Paul said the digital economy is the largest area of growing energy demand — including the expansion of data centers, digital chip manufacturing, devices such as smartphones and computers, and artificial intelligence-based software like ChatGPT.  

Paul said research today should focus on developing carbon-free energy sources but also on continuing efforts to decarbonize the energy system, which predominantly relies on fossil fuels. Decarbonization is one of the research areas of the Ershaghi Center for Energy Transition and the Energy Institute.

Tensions grew with a debate over the ethics of fossil fuel involvement in the University’s research and education. Several individuals said fossil fuel-related industry funds to the University are a form of greenwashing, because they create the illusion of sustainability objectives while companies that fund USC research continue to pollute.

The Fossil Fuel-Free Research Forum also addressed whether funding from fossil fuel companies for programs like the Ershaghi Center for Energy Transition and CiSoft is necessary to advance sustainable energy research. (Abeerah Siddiqui)

Owen Ramsby, a senior majoring in political economy, said he was frustrated because he felt the panel was “designed to prop up authoritative knowledge and whatever the certified experts have to say.”

“I see exercises like this as sort of a greenwashing practice, sort of a PR stunt for the University, and so I feel that, as students who are aware of this — which is unfortunately a small percentage of us — we have a particular duty to speak up,” Ramsby said.

In response to the University’s partnerships with energy companies such as Chevron, ESA helped spearhead DivestSC in 2020, a movement calling on USC to divest from the fossil fuel industry. The movement is part of a larger mission from a multi-university coalition called the Campus Climate Network, which helps universities disentangle from fossil fuel companies. 

Kuo reiterated ESA’s request for the Ershaghi Center for Energy Transition, the USC-KOC Center and CiSoft to increase their transparency through semesterly reports, made in collaboration with students, that disclose funding the centers receive from fossil fuel companies and federal grants and how the centers use the money. 

Both Ershaghi and Paul agreed to the proposal, but did not provide a specific timeline. 

Kuo said students championing USC’s divestment are concerned that fossil fuel-funded research could skew results to favor fuel companies by distorting data that reveals their harm and ultimately influences future policy decision-making. 

“I think that we need to invest in our futures because we as students are obviously looking for a sustainable future that doesn’t destroy our Earth,” Kuo said.

While the conversation included critiques of the fossil fuel industry, Ershaghi said all sources of energy, even renewables, come with challenges. He said USC can use grants and funding from energy companies to develop solutions to these problems. 

“If you actually handicap the scientific community to do research in this area, that is extremely dangerous for the country because we’re not going to have all the blessings that you had with ample sources of energy and it’s going to put us at a security risk,” Ershaghi said.

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