A Harvard scholar who sits on the board of ConocoPhillips - the company spearheading the contentious Willow oil drilling project in northern Alaska - has become the flash point of a debate on the merits of environmentalists trying to change corporations from the inside.
Jody Freeman, founder and director of Harvard Law School’s environmental and energy law program, has spent the past 11 years on the board of ConocoPhillips. Freeman, who was paid $367,584 for her work at ConocoPhillips last year alone, has said that she brings a unique viewpoint to the big oil company, one of the world’s biggest emitters of greenhouse gases.
“No single director can transform any company or industry,” Freeman said in an email exchange with The Post. “But I believe that I make a positive difference, and if I did not, I would not do this work.”
But in the wake of the Biden’s administration approval of the Willow project, climate activist groups, including Fossil Fuel Divest Harvard, have called on Freeman to quit the ConocoPhillips board.
“The time has come to choose between your Harvard leadership responsibilities and your loyalties to the fossil fuel industry,” the group said. It added that even the scaled-back version of the Willow project approved by the Biden administration “is still a carbon bomb that our world cannot afford.”
In the decade since Freeman got a seat on the ConocoPhillips board, the oil giant has increased the size of its oil and gas production, hardly the direction many climate activists favor. Now ConocoPhillips will pour more capital into Willow, which the Bureau of Land Management estimates could pull 576 million barrels from a remote part of the Arctic over the next 30 years.
Moreover, when it comes to renewable energy, ConocoPhillips is a laggard. It says it will keep “evaluating and supporting development of technologies for renewable energy,” but it has not yet invested substantial money the way BP, Shell and some of the other big oil and gas companies have.
“Professor Freeman, until now, you have justified your position as helping reform ConocoPhillips from the inside,” added the letter from Fossil Fuel Divest Harvard. “The Willow Project makes clear that this isn’t working.”
The group has also called attention to communications between Freeman and a colleague, John Coates, who was preparing to work for the Securities and Exchange Commission. Climate activists say these communications, first reported by The Guardian, pose further evidence of Freeman’s conflicts of interest.
Both Freeman and Coates have said that Coates reached out to her, not the other way around, and that they had a limited discussion about who would be best for Coates to contact at ConocoPhillips.
Moreover, Freeman says she has complied with Harvard’s policies on conflicts of interest and disclosure. Her role as ConocoPhillips director is well known.
“From an ethics perspective nobody has pointed to a specific violation here,” said Norman Eisen, a specialist on government ethics and senior fellow in governance studies at the Brookings Institution. “It’s ethical. Whether it’s virtuous or not is a genuine question for other authorities to debate.”
Freeman has a distinguished record in politics, academia and business. She served as a counselor for energy and climate change in the White House from 2009 to 2010 when President Barack Obama was trying in vain to forge a cap-and-trade system for controlling greenhouse gas emissions. Freeman helped negotiate a doubling of fuel efficiency standards with the U.S. auto industry.
Currently she is a member of the climate advisory board of Norges Bank Investment Management, the asset manager of the Norwegian sovereign wealth fund.
Other climate experts take seats on corporate boards. Susan K. Avery, an atmospheric scientist and engineer at the University of Colorado-Boulder and Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution, sits on ExxonMobil’s board.
Freeman’s position on ConocoPhillips’s board has attracted attention partly because so many young people passionately oppose the Willow project. TikTok videos in opposition went viral, attracting tens of millions of views, and activists have slammed the Biden administration for approving oil drilling while lecturing other countries to reduce emissions warming the planet.
ConocoPhillips chief executive Ryan Lance came to Freeman’s defense.
“I personally wanted Jody on our board because I knew she was passionate about energy and climate, I knew she had knowledge and insights we didn’t have, and I know she speaks her mind,” Lance said in an email. He said she “has aggressively advocated for ConocoPhillips to take tangible steps to address climate change and the energy transition.”
He said that during her tenure, ConocoPhillips slashed the greenhouse gas emissions from its own exploration and production operations, although the use of its oil and gas products by motorists and other customers far more than offset that. Lance also noted that the company had advocated for a price on carbon and cut methane emissions by about 70 percent since 2015.
“This is why engagement matters now,” Freeman said in an email to The Post. “During the energy transition, we must ensure that oil and gas are more responsibly produced and that over time, each barrel and cubic foot of fossil energy become less greenhouse-gas intensive.”
But ConocoPhillips’s track record doesn’t measure up at some money management firms that focus on climate conscious investing.
Jonas Kron, chief advocacy officer at Trillium, a socially conscious firm with $4.4 billion in assets under management, said that energy companies seeking investments from his firm must show a business model designed to succeed in a low-carbon economy. “At a minimum, the company must have no new commitments to initiate new fossil fuel exploration, production or refining,” he said.
“An outside director committed to that goal would be helpful, but insufficient alone if they were the only one committed to that goal,” Kron added. “Maybe that single outside director could start persuading the other directors and that could help, but that is a big if.”