Left: The Irving Institute Building at Dartmouth; Right: Irving Oil’s massive Saint John’s Refinery in New Brunswick, Canada.
Dartmouth College, a private, Ivy League university located in Hanover, New Hampshire, with an $8.1 billion endowment, prides itself on its focus on sustainability. In 2021, the school announced its intention to divest from fossil fuels.
Despite these positive climate gestures, the university maintains a close relationship with key owners of major fossil fuel operations. Dartmouth has accepted tens of millions of dollars in donations from Arthur L. Irving, owner and chairman of Canada’s biggest oil refinery, and Daniel Revers, who oversees an energy-focused private equity firm that has major stakes in numerous oil, gas and coal companies.
With these donations, Dartmouth has established “energy” institutes that bear the names of Irving and Revers and that purport their dedication to “sustainability.” Meanwhile, both Irving and Revers continue to profit from owning and overseeing huge fossil fuel operations, some of which have made news headlines for their polluting impacts.
The relationship between Dartmouth and these fossil fuel magnates should concern anyone who cares about addressing the accelerating climate catastrophe. The driving cause behind the climate catastrophe is the extracting and burning of fossil fuels, and the key force behind this cause is the fossil fuel industry and its owners. As scientists and political leaders increasingly claim, any serious effort to address the climate catastrophe involves, at its core, ending fossil fuel expansion and rapidly and drastically drawing down the production of fossil fuels.
By accepting millions in donations from the producers of these fossil fuels, and then establishing centers with their names that invoke “sustainability” and carry the prestigious Dartmouth imprimatur, Dartmouth is offering reputational gloss to the very actors who are knowingly profiting from and driving fossil fuel production. These relationships effectively greenwash huge fossil fuel companies like Irving Oil — which invokes its Dartmouth ties in its official “sustainability” report — and fossil fuel-investing firms like ArcLight Capital.
While Dartmouth is a noteworthy example of higher education’s ties to the fossil fuel industry, the phenomenon is hardly unique to that institution. Harvard University environmental law professor Jody Freeman recently resigned from a lucrative board position with ConocoPhillips after investigators revealed that she lobbied on the company’s behalf without disclosing her director position. A 2022 Reuters report showed how many universities that invoke sustainability — Harvard, Dartmouth, and others — rely on deeply polluting fossil fuels. LittleSis previously highlighted examples of fossil fuel industry greenwashing at schools like the University of Buffalo, the University of Texas-Austin, and the University of Minnesota Duluth.
It’s an odd thing that universities are fleeing from names like the opioid-profiteering Sacklers but remain close with other billionaires whose wealth is built on oil money accumulated through business operations that are accelerating the planet’s climate catastrophe. For universities, the question is increasingly being pressed upon them: will they continue to greenwash those who make a fortune from oil, gas and coal operations, or will they make a clean break?
Irving Oil and the Irving Institute
The Irving family has long overseen a business empire, rooted in energy, forestry, and media, throughout the Canadian province of New Brunswick, where it is one of the biggest employers. Some have averred that New Brunswick operates like a feudal territory, with the Irving family — its business conglomerate, its philanthropic spending, its political influence — as lord. One investigative series, entitled “The House of Irving,” extensively profiled the family’s regional dominance.
The heart of Irving Oil’s fossil fuel kingdom is the enormous Saint John Refinery, the largest refinery in Canada — which, given the nation’s huge levels of fossil fuel production, says a lot. The refinery has a capacity to produce 320,000 barrels of oil per day, or roughly 16 percent of Canada’s entire refining capacity of 2 million barrels of oil per day.
Nor is Irving Oil just a refining behemoth. The company also operates more than 900 fuelling stations throughout eastern Canada and the northeastern U.S. It supplies around two-thirds of Maine’s gas, diesel, and heating oil. Across the Atlantic, it also owns Ireland’s only refinery, the Whitegate refinery, which has a capacity to produce 75,000 barrels of oil per day.
While Irving Oil has made public gestures around sustainability, the company is one of Canada’s very top oil and gas lobbyists, often meeting with officials and regulators. While the company says it plans to cut emissions, the Scope 1 greenhouse gas emissions from both its St. John’s and Whitegate refineries that it reported in 2021 appear higher than what it reported in 2019.
The Arthur L. Irving Institute for Energy and Society at Dartmouth was launched with a $80 million gift in 2016 by the Irving Oil, the Arthur L. Irving Family Foundation, and Arthur L. Irving and his family. The Irving Institute is housed in the 55,000 square foot Irving Institute Building, which is also home to the Revers Center, discussed below.
According to its website, the institute’s mission is to “to advance an affordable, sustainable, and reliable energy future for the benefit of society.” Neither the “Mission & Governance” page nor the “About the Institute” page mention terms like “climate crisis” or “global warming” or variants of them.
The institute says it does not take positions on policy issues involving climate and energy. If you click on the FAQ question, “What is Irving Oil’s position on climate change?,” Dartmouth shows you a sentence that says “Read more about Irving Oil’s commitment to environmental responsibility and their work to reduce their carbon footprint here,” with an Irving Oil company link that brings you to vague statements like “We take our responsibility in helping to protect our planet seriously,” and mentions mostly distant climate commitments that are par for the industry.
Most of the “About the Institute” page contains biographical information on Irving Oil and the Irving family, which lauds the oil refining giant’s “commitment” to the “environment.” It emphasizes Irving Oil’s conservationist philanthropy, declaring “the company continues to contribute in many ways to the betterment of the natural environment.”
Irving’s biography on the “About the Donors” section states: “Throughout his career, Arthur has demonstrated an enthusiasm and support” for a range of categories that include “the environment.” Irving Oil is described as having a “commitment” to “the environment” that is “evident in many longstanding partnerships,” including Ducks Unlimited, a wetland conservation non-profit, and the New England Aquarium.
As another example of Irving Oil’s contribution to the “betterment of the natural environment,” the Dartmouth’s website mentions the company’s “joint project to protect the wetlands and its inhabitants” near its Saint John refinery and its work with “the New England Aquarium to support right-whale research” that helped move shipping lanes in the Bay of Fundy “away from the right whale’s critical habitat area.”
It’s alarming that, in order to invoke credibility around its commitment to the environment, Irving Oil resorts to corporate-aligned conservationist partnerships, which have historically served as greenwashing gestures by the fossil fuel industry as it continues developing and profiting from its core business of extracting and burning fossil fuels.
It’s even more alarming that Irving Oil is able to use its Dartmouth ties as green cover. For example, the company’s annual report to investors on “sustainability” repeatedly invokes Dartmouth, listing Irving Oil’s “support and engagement in the global mission” of the Irving Center “to advance an affordable, sustainable and reliable energy future for the benefit of society.” All this, while Irving Oil annually releases millions of tons of CO2 equivalent into the atmosphere.
The Irving Institute’s advisory board includes three people tied to Irving Oil: Irving Oil President Ian Whitcomb, former Executive Vice President and Chief Brand Officer Sarah Irving, who is also the daughter of Arthur Irving, and Sandra Irving, Arthur Irving’s wife. It also includes the corporate brand manager for ExxonMobil, and other advisors with fossil fuel industry ties, such as a partner at a gas industry consulting firm. It also includes several consultants, firms and former officials tied to the “renewable energy” business.
It should be noted that, according to news reports, Irving Oil is now conducting an internal strategic review concerning a “full or partial sale” of the private company. The reasoning behind this is unknown. Arthur Irving is currently 93 years old.
Danel Revers and the Revers Center
Daniel Revers is the Founder and Managing Partner of ArcLight Capital Partners. ArcLight is an energy-focused private equity firm based in Boston, Massachusetts. According to its website, it has had “$27 billion invested across 122 transactions with 73 exits.”
Revers founded ArcLight in 2001. According to his biography on the firm’s website, he “is responsible for overall investment, asset management, strategic planning, and operations of ArcLight and its funds.”
ArcLight’s website currently states that the firm “believes that a fundamentals-driven, real asset investment strategy, in support of decarbonization, accessibility, affordability, and reliability, is as important as ever.” ArcLight also has some investments in renewable energy sources like wind and hydroelectric, but its portfolio page and its investments listed in a 2022 report are overwhelmingly in fossil fuels.
The “support of decarbonization” comes off as misleading, and moreover, it’s quite new, with archived descriptions of the firm from just two years ago highlighting its focus on “midstream” investments. Indeed, a recent report states that ArcLight’s power plant holdings emit the second-highest amount of carbon dioxide among all private equity firms with power plant holdings.
ArcLight’s website lists around a dozen-and-a-half current portfolio investments in oil, gas and coal operations, nearly half of which were made in the past three years, indicating that, despite its professed “support of decarbonization,” the firm is intent on profiting from oil and gas operations for years to come even as climate chaos deepens around the world. Some of these investments are:
|Company Name||Fossil Fuel Operations|
|Parkway Generation||Gas-fired power generation|
|GCX||Natural gas pipeline in Permian Basin and Gulf Coast|
|Griffith Energy||Gas-fired power generation|
|Natural Gas Pipeline Company||Interstate gas pipeline systems|
|Eastern Generation||Gas-fired power generation|
|Generation Bridge||Oil and gas power generation facilities|
|Generation Bridge II||Oil and gas power generation facilities|
|Lightstone Generation||Coal- and gas-fired power generation|
|Greylock Energy Holdings||Fracked-gas upstream and midstream|
|Saber||Natural gas gathering system|
|Chief Power||Coal-fired power generation|
|Element III||Oil and gas production|
|AL-Perdido Holdings||Offshore fossil fuel production|
|Ridgetop||Mineral and fracking interests|
|Third Coast Midstream||Offshore oil and gas midstream|
In addition to these investments listed on its website, a pamphlet that ArcLight published in 2022 lists over a hundred energy investments, many of which are fossil fuel investments.
ArcLight’s fossil fuel investments are far from minor. For example, it has a 37.5% stake in Natural Gas Pipeline Company of America (NGPL). According to a press release, NGPL is “the largest transporter of natural gas into the high-demand Chicago-area market as well as one of the largest interstate pipeline systems in the country,” and is also “a major transporter of natural gas to large liquefied natural gas export facilities and other markets located on the Texas and Louisiana Gulf Coast.” It has “approximately 9,100 miles of pipeline.” ArcLight’s investment in NGPL began in 2021, more than five years after the Paris Agreement on climate change was adopted.
Moreover, several ArcLight investments have been mired in controversy because of their heavily polluting impacts:
- Gen. James M. Gavin Power Plant: ArcLight, in partnership with the Blackstone Group, purchased this coal-fired power plant in 2017 (they call the partnership “LightStone Generation”). The Gavin plant is one of the biggest and most polluting power plants in the entire U.S. According to one reputable environmental news site, it was the sixth-most polluting plant in the nation as of 2022. In November of 2022, the Environmental Protection Agency ordered the plant “to stop dumping dangerous coal ash into unlined storage ponds and speed cleanup of the site,” according to the Associated Press.
- Limetree Bay Refining: In 2015, ArcLight purchased the Limetree Bay oil refinery in the Virgin Islands which “had shut down after facing a deluge of lawsuits alleging serious environmental violations,” according to the Washington Post. The Trump administration approved its reopening, and in early 2021, just three days after its reopening, the Biden administration shut the refinery down again because it “rained oil” on nearby communities, deeply polluting them. The refinery may have also caused groundwater contamination. ArcLight lost hundreds of millions of dollars on the refinery, whose investors included teacher pensions, and it eventually ditched its holdings in the refinery.
- Oswego Harbor Power: According to NY Focus, this power plant in upstate New York “stores 68 million gallons of oil on site” and was the source of a huge oil leak into Lake Ontario. Oswego Harbor Power is owned by ArcLight’s Generation Bridge. It also owns “a massive fossil fuel-burning power plant in Staten Island,” says NY Focus.
- New York City peaker plants: ArcLight owns three of the biggest fossil fuel “peaker plants” in New York City, a type of power plant that has come under intense criticism for its polluting impacts on frontline communities.
While Revers and ArcLight might position themselves as advocates of “sustainability” with support from Dartmouth, the reality of their extensive holdings in polluting coal, oil and gas tell a different story.
The Revers Center was launched in 2016. It was originally called the Revers Center for Energy. A 2017 report states that the center’s mission was to “inspire and shape tomorrow’s leaders in energy while engaging today’s energy community of scholars.” After already having donated $10 million to the center, Revers gave another $4.5 million in 2021, when Dartmouth renamed the center as the Revers Center for Energy, Sustainability and Innovation.
Around the time the center added “Sustainability” next to Revers’ name, Revers and ArcLight had dozens upon dozens of oil, gas and coal investments.
Dartmouth and the Problem of University Greenwashing
The programmatic content of the Irving Institute and Revers Center is a mixed bag, with much talk of the challenges of the “energy transition.” Recent Revers Center events include titles like “Energy 101: Fundamentals of Power & Gas” and “Friends, Not Foes? Business and Climate Change.” It hosts a “Tuck Renewable Energy Finance Challenge” whose sponsors do business in both fossil fuels and renewables. Its 2021 Impact Report touts a “Tuck Carbon Offsets Project.” The Irving Institute’s Spring 2023 highlights include a trip to the Big Oil-backed CERA 2023 conference in Houston, Texas; an Appalachia Energy Immersion Trip, and “Electricity Grids and Markets Bootcamp.” It recently launched “an accelerator, Greenshot, for climate solutions entrepreneurs,” and is hosting a “Dartmouth Climate and Energy Week.” Its events and research projects run a gamut of climate and energy topics.
One can speculate on the extent to which the oil money behind the Irving Institute and the Revers Center limits Dartmouth’s capacity to aggressively address the challenge of the fossil fuel-driven climate crisis. It’s worth remembering that Dartmouth is one of the world’s most famous universities, a multi-billion dollar Ivy League institution with access to the highest levels of alumni donor networks and foundation money. It could fund a center that focuses on climate and energy without relying on billionaire oil money donated by fossil fuel profiteers. Given the stakes of the climate crisis, it could also opt for stronger mission-driven centers that are less outwardly ornate and expensive but also unencumbered by oil money ties.
There is no way of addressing the climate crisis without taking on fossil fuel interests. Institutes like those at Dartmouth help preserve the underlying power of fossil fuel corporations, burnishing their reputations and shielding them from critique, as these corporations continue to operate, expand and buy up oil, gas and coal operations, while using their donations and ties to Dartmouth and other universities to assure investors they care about “sustainability.” Daniel Revers’ ArcLight can rain oil over St. Croix and pump coal-fired pollution from Ohio power plants, and the Irving family can swim in profits from Canada’s biggest fossil fuel refinery, but with Dartmouth’s help they can point to their support for “sustainability” and their deep concern for whales and ducks.
Given the urgent stakes of addressing the climate crisis, and the necessary confrontation with fossil fuel power and profits that this involves, many campus organizers have been working to wean universities away from fossil fuel ties. A vibrant college divestment movement has scored significant victories. Groups like Divest Harvard have focused on removing university trustees who perpetuate and profit from fossil fuels. Organizers with Fossil Free Research are part of an expanding movement calling for a ban on fossil fuel industry funding of university climate research. All of these campaigns, and more, understand that truly addressing our accelerating climate catastrophe involves not only directly challenging the fossil fuel industry, but also the institutions that help perpetuate that industry’s underlying power, prestige, and respectability.
November 2, 2023 addendum: We encourage readers to check out this new and powerful report from Fossil Free Dartmouth that deeply examines the school’s ties to Irving Oil.