Tulane professor signs letter opposing fossil fuel money for research

Rohan Goswami, News Editor

Keenan is one of hundreds of academics nationwide who signed a letter demanding their universities stop accepting funds from fossil-fuel companies to conduct research on climate change. (Courtesy of Jesse Keenan)

Tulane University’s location in New Orleans — the former heartland of oil and gas extraction in the United States — has long benefitted the institution when it comes to fundraising, donations and development. 

The Murphy family, of Murphy Oil, have given millions to Tulane. The Murphy Institute, Deming Pavilion and most recently a $25 million gift to name the Department of Medicine after John W. Deming have all been connected to Murphy Oil.

Beyond that, multinational oil corporations provide millions of dollars in support to universities just like Tulane for research in myriad fields.

But for Jesse Keenan, associate professor of real estate at Tulane and internationally-recognized expert on climate change, that is not acceptable.

Keenan was one of hundreds of academics who signed a letter demanding that elite institutions and universities stop accepting research funding from fossil fuel companies to conduct climate change research.

Keenan was the only signatory from Tulane. The paradigm for him is simple.

Quite simply, taking funding from these companies allows them to “use the language of transitional economies.”

In other words, Keenan says, it lets them “greenwash” to talk about “low-to-no carbon” initiatives.

And while it might be true in some cases, the major fossil fuel firms harness such language “in very counterproductive ways,” he said. 

“In some ways,” he added, “it’s probably illegal or unethical as it relates to misinformation.”

Keenan is clear to emphasize that there is nuance in these decisions, as with everything else. Many companies are making legitimate efforts to pivot away from carbon-based energy sources — a transition that will take time and investment.

But for the major oil firms — companies like Shell, ExxonMobil or BP — Keenan draws a clear line in the sand.

“I think that when you’re talking about the majors, I don’t think we should have anything to do with the majors.”

“I don’t want to say … they’re doing evil,” Keenan continues, “but I think on principle … I’m more interested in those companies who really legitimately have some integrity behind promoting a transition.”

As for Tulane’s endowment — a history of investment in fossil fuel companies — Keenan is pragmatic. 

“I love Jetblue,” Keenan says as an example. “But … that’s an oil stock, basically.” 

“You have to do this strategically, you have to phase it, you have to prepare for it,” he said.

He is not willing to write university administration off, but he does think that accountability is important.

“You can’t just pick a date, and then say I’m gonna sell everything on this day,” Keenan said on a hypothetical Tulane divestiture. “It doesn’t work like that. But what I think we do need to hold Tulane to is developing a plan to transition away from that in their portfolio.”

Tulane’s holdings in fossil fuel firms are not readily quantifiable. As recently as 2019, though, Tulane was the direct and beneficial owner of oil and gas royalties through a Tulane LLC.

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