An Open Letter to Jody Freeman
One of Harvard’s top climate policymakers takes $350,000 a year from a major fossil fuel producer. FFDH calls on her to end this conflict of interest.
In the wake of President Joe Biden’s approval for the Willow Project, an environmentally catastrophic oil drilling project undertaken by ConocoPhillips, Fossil Fuel Divest Harvard writes to a ConocoPhillips board member who holds important climate positions here at Harvard. Students call on Jody Freeman to terminate her $350,000-a-year position with ConocoPhillips, ending her fiduciary duty to this destructive corporation and taking a stand against the fossil fuel industry’s co-opting of academia.
ConocoPhillips, Office of the Board of Directors
P.O. Box 2197, Houston, TX 77252–2197
Harvard Law School, Environmental and Energy Law Program
1585 Massachusetts Ave, Cambridge, MA 02138
Dear Professor Jody Freeman,
We write to you as a law professor and director of the Environmental and Energy Law Program, as well as co-chair of the Harvard Presidential Committee on Sustainability, a position that has made you a top climate advisor to the President of Harvard. You also sit on the board of directors of ConocoPhillips, where you collect over $350,000 a year (in the words of your job description) “shaping federal environmental and energy policy” on behalf of the company. But ConocoPhillips is not listening to sound environmental policy advice: ConocoPhillips is listening to the call of profit without regard for climate degradation. The time has come to choose between your Harvard leadership responsibilities and your loyalties to the fossil fuel industry.
This month, ConocoPhillips was approved to conduct a new decades-long oil drilling project, one of the largest in the United States, on previously undisturbed federal land. The Willow Project will devastate the Arctic land it is conducted on and risk poisoning air, water, and food sources in the region. A recent analysis of ConocoPhillips’ proposal found that the project would lead to emissions dwarfing all those cut by the Biden Administration’s renewable energy commitments. The International Energy Agency has already warned that new oil projects are incompatible with the world reaching “net zero” emissions by 2050. Any serious pledge to limit global heating cannot coexist with the Willow Project. ConocoPhillips even wanted the project to be larger before the federal government advised it to scale back; this “scaled back” version of the project, however, is still a carbon bomb that our world cannot afford. Climate change is a global emergency, as fossil fuel companies have known and denied since the 1970s. ConocoPhillips is still choosing to exacerbate the emergency.
Professor Freeman, until now, you have justified your position as helping reform ConocoPhillips from the inside. The Willow Project makes clear that this isn’t working. Despite your years of service, ConocoPhillips remains further from Paris alignment than almost all of its peer investor-owned fossil fuel companies. This makes it a laggard even by the overall standards of an industry nowhere near net-zero ready. At a certain point, it is important to ask yourself whether you are being used — if ConocoPhillips isn’t paying for your expertise, but instead co-opting the respect and legitimacy accorded to someone of your position.
We know you care about fighting climate change. That’s why we hope you see that there’s a more effective way for you to use your expertise and authority. You have the power to make a stand against big oil right now. Currently, you owe a fiduciary duty to a company whose business model is materially reliant on more fossil fuel extraction. By ending your position as a board member at ConocoPhillips, you would send a clear message that fossil fuel expansion is not the path of a responsible actor. You would protect Harvard — and yourself — from exposure to an industry on the wrong side of history and science. And you would support Harvard’s broader movement towards dissociation from fossil fuels. Empirically speaking, fossil fuel ties skew research agendas, undermine academic freedom, and harm universities’ public standings. If the university’s climate leaders want to best help the institution fulfill its potential, it’s their responsibility to lead it from big oil’s toxic grip.
Professor Freeman, you have done important climate work in the course of your career, but it risks being overshadowed by the conflict of interest posed by your simultaneous leadership roles at Harvard and ConocoPhillips. A stronger stand against the fossil fuel industry is necessary across all of academia, and your time to make a stronger stand is now. Do not continue to grant legitimacy to ConocoPhillips by sitting on their board of directors. 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. We urge you to act now: we are amidst a real opportunity to build a better future, but the window is rapidly closing.
Fossil Fuel Divest Harvard
Fossil Fuel Divest Harvard is the organization that successfully won the university’s commitment to divest from fossil fuels. To learn more, follow us on Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram. Harvard students, want to get involved in our student campaign? Email firstname.lastname@example.org. Are you an alum? Check out DivestHarvardAlumni.com