The Harvard environmental law professor at the centre of a conflict-of-interest row lobbied the regulator on behalf of the oil and gas company that pays her more than $350,000 a year, a new investigation can reveal.
Emails seen by the Guardian and the Bureau of Investigative Journalism (TBIJ) show that Jody Freeman facilitated a meeting between a director at the Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) and ConocoPhillips, one of the world’s worst polluters that is pushing to weaken forthcoming climate regulations. The company’s Willow drilling project in Alaska was recently approved by the Biden administration, despite scientists warning it will be catastrophic for global heating.
Freeman, who has served on the ConocoPhillips board since 2012, vouched for two of the fossil-fuel company’s executives in emails in 2021, which she signed off as a Harvard law professor. Failing to disclose her position at the company appears to breach university policy.
Freeman told the Guardian that she requested the meeting on behalf of a Harvard colleague, another law professor who was also an SEC director at the time, and that her intervention did not violate conflict-of-interest rules. She insisted her role as director of the oil and gas company was “common knowledge”.
But disclosure of the emails have triggered fresh calls for Freeman to cut ties with ConocoPhillips amid mounting anger at the corrupting influence of the fossil-fuel industry on US university campuses.
Nathan Phillips, professor of earth and environment at Boston University, said he was “shocked but not surprised” by the revelations, and called for Freeman to resign immediately from the ConocoPhillips board – or at least by Harvard’s high-profile climate week of action beginning on 8 May.
“We get conditioned by the circles we move in. I hope [exposing] this conflict can wake Prof Freeman out of the fog of capture and help them to regain their bearing,” Phillips said.
The revelations come days after the Guardian reported that Freeman won a prestigious grant to research corporate climate pledges, which led to colleagues and students raising questions about the reputational damage and conflict of interest posed by her fossil-fuel ties.
Kyla Bennett, director of science policy with Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility (Peer), whose work with whistleblowers has exposed industry’s influence with regulators, Congress, academia and the media, said: “Our current ecological predicament means we can no longer afford to let things like this slide.
“History shows us that the tobacco, gun, chemical and fossil fuel industry will greenwash and lie and distort solely to make more money. They are merchants of doubt, pushing science denial and buying scientists, lawyers, and college professors to achieve their goals. We cannot waste time trying to change industry from the inside.”
Freeman is a respected name in environmental law and sustainability, serving as an adviser on energy and climate change in the Obama White House and the Biden administration’s climate action plan. She founded Harvard’s environmental and energy law program, and is currently co-chair of the elite institution’s sustainability committee.
Her Harvard biography states that “Freeman is an independent director on the board of directors of ConocoPhillips, where she is an important advisor on climate change and the energy transition”. It does not state that as a paid board member, Freeman has a responsibility to act in the financial interest of ConocoPhillips. (Freeman is compensated for her role as company director in salary and stocks.)
Freeman’s emails to the SEC, sent in 2021 and obtained via a Freedom of Information Act request, were sent after the regulator announced proposals to require companies to publish greenhouse-gas emissions.
The emails show that she set up a meeting where ConocoPhillips executives could present their position in private before the regulator publicly requested input from investors and companies.
In an email to the acting director at the SEC, Freeman praised Dominic Macklon, a ConocoPhillips executive, and Lloyd Visser, head of sustainability: “I can tell you from personal experience that these are the right people to help with this exercise … They are hugely knowledgeable, thoughtful, and interested in solving problems – I can promise that you will get high value from this engagement.”
She added: “ConocoPhillips is widely recognized as the oil and gas industry leader on climate related disclosure … Lloyd himself is highly influential on these issues … and both he and Dominic – as the senior executive in the company with responsibility for this brief – are intimately aware of the financial sector’s interest in these issues.”
But Freeman’s emails to the SEC then director do not disclose her affiliation with the oil and gas giant. This omission appears to violate Harvard policy that states: “Faculty members must make public disclosures of financial interests in related outside entities … when reasonable members of the audience would give weight to those interests in assessing the opinions, advice, or work they are presenting.”
In the emails, Freeman also said that Visser chaired the climate committee at the American Petroleum Institute (API), an influential fossil-fuel lobby group whose mission is to “influence public policy in support of a strong, viable US oil and natural gas industry”.
Having proposed an initial meeting with the SEC that she would attend herself, Freeman added that “a couple of briefings would be well worth the time”.
In a statement, Freeman said that she made the request on behalf of John Coates, a Harvard law and economics professor and then director of finance at the SEC, who asked her for contacts as he was aware of her role as director at ConocoPhillips. In an email, Coates supported her account.
Freeman added: “I am compliant with the university’s conflict of interest rules, and I disclose my board work prominently in my bio, my webpage, with media, and in my classes … Moving the world to a low-carbon future as fast as possible and forcefully addressing the enormous challenges posed by climate change is my core motivation for all my work. My role as an independent director on the board of ConocoPhillips is about helping advance the transition to a low-carbon economy.”
The company did not respond to requests for comment, but SEC filings suggest Freeman is viewed as an asset. “Ms Freeman’s expertise in environmental and energy law and policy and her unique experiences in shaping federal environmental and energy policy, especially in matters critical to ConocoPhillips’ operations, enable her to provide valuable insight into our policies and practices.”
The SEC put forward its proposed climate disclosure rules last year, which included requirements for companies to publish their direct and indirect emissions, and the risk posed to their business by the climate emergency. Oil and gas companies have reportedly stepped up lobbying efforts in an attempt to dilute the proposed rules, though most investors are in favour, an analysis by Harvard Law School found.
ConocoPhillips has since sent its official response to the SEC, opposing the disclosure rules – which are expected to be finalised in the coming months, more than two years after they were first proposed. The firm’s Willow project in Alaska is an environmentally destructive decades-long drilling venture that will release millions of additional tons of planet-warming emissions into the atmosphere.
“Despite a well-honed PR effort and polished climate pledges, ConocoPhillips is lobbying behind the scenes to gut the SEC’s climate disclosure rule. It undermines Harvard’s climate ambitions if a faculty sustainability leader is using the university’s prestige to run cover for an oil company’s greenwashing efforts,” said Kelly Mitchell, senior oil and gas analyst at Documented, an accountability watchdog.
The emails also raise awkward questions for Harvard.
Harvard received $21m from the fossil-fuel industry between 2010 and 2020, according to Data for Progress, among the highest of American elite academic institutions.
But amid growing pressure from students and staff to divest from fossil fuels, the Ivy League school promised not to use its $39bn endowment to make any new direct investments in companies that explore or further develop fossil fuel reserves, and pledged to be “fossil fuel-free by 2050 and fossil fuel-neutral by 2026”.
Its new Salata Institute for Climate and Sustainability goes even further, stating that it “will not accept funds from, or partner with, any company that does not share the goal of moving our global economy away from fossil fuels”.
Yet the Salata Institute awarded Freeman a grant to research corporate net-zero pledges – which some environmentalists have condemned as greenwashing – despite her financial and fiduciary ties to ConocoPhillips.
“Giving her leadership roles at Harvard while allowing her to remain on ConocoPhillips’ corporate board raises serious doubts about Harvard’s commitment to fossil fuel independence,” said Carolyn Becker, professor of medicine at Harvard Medical School and an outspoken critic of conflicts of interest.
Becker also called on Freeman to resign from the oil company, arguing that her fiduciary obligation to advocate in favor of shareholders, growth, and profits was incompatible with her roles as a “credible, respected, and unbiased climate leader and researcher at Harvard”.
Last week, student campaign group Fossil Fuel Divest Harvard wrote an open letter to Freeman urging her to resign from ConocoPhillips. “Choose your commitments to the climate over your commitments to an industry whose influence on academia and on the world has been nothing but toxic.”
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