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Last month we reported on an industry-backed study on Enbridge’s Line 3 pipeline released by the University of Minnesota Duluth. Now one UMD professor has resigned from the group that commissioned the study.

(Photo: Fibonacci Blue)

Last month we published a report that uncovered the undisclosed conflicts of interest and fossil fuel industry funding surrounding a University of Minnesota Duluth economic impact study on Enbridge’s Line 3 pipeline replacement. As a result, Minnesota Native News now reports that a key UMD faculty member has resigned from the board of the industry-backed organization that commissioned the study and withdrawn his institute’s membership.

Our report, “Enbridge to Nowhere: How Fossil Fuel Interests Funded, Influenced, and Promoted the University of Minnesota Duluth’s Line 3 Pipeline Study,” noted the deep ties that Enbridge has to the UMD study. We showed that Enbridge is a funder and director of the organization, APEX, that commissioned the UMD study, and that Enbridge provided the report’s data inputs.

We also noted that Line 3 pipeline backers had been promoting the UMD study’s questionable findings in the media and public hearings without disclosing Enbridge’s relationship to the study – in effect, using the trusted brand of a publicly-funded university to boost a private fossil fuel project.

Additionally, we showed that UMD itself is a funding member of APEX to the tune of $30,000 a year. We reported that two UMD personnel – Chancellor Lendley Black and and Rolf Weberg, director of the UMD Natural Resources Research Institute – sit on the APEX board, with Weberg sitting on its Executive Committee.

Now, in response to our report, Weberg has withdrawn the membership of the UMD Natural Resources Research Institute from APEX and resigned from its board. Weberg told journalist Melissa Townsend that he “doesn’t want his department to be involved in any organization that advocates for specific projects.”

Moreover, Monica Haynes, the head of UMD’s Bureau of Business and Economic Research – the entity within the UMD Labovitz Business School that released the report – said UMD will try to be more transparent about conflicts of interest in the future.

“Knowing now that there could be more attention paid to that,” Haynes told Townsend, “we are going to be more aware of it. I don’t know if we would necessarily turn down a project because of a conflict of interest with the university, but we would be more careful about disclosing those in the future.”

Enbridge’s proposed Line 3 pipeline replacement would run 337 miles across Minnesota, shipping Tar Sands crude oil from Alberta, Canada to Superior, Wisconsin. The pipeline has encountered strong resistance from environmentalists, native communities, and even the Minnesota Department of Commerce. As a result, Line 3 backers have sought to influence public opinion in favor of the pipeline, using tactics like commissioning the UMD study to push rosy jobs and economic impact numbers.

PAI’s report on the UMD study – another example of what we have often referred to as “frackademia” – was also covered by City Pages, the Twin Cities’ alternative weekly, possibly adding to the public pressure on UMD.

Weberg’s resignation from the APEX board and his withdrawal of his Institute’s membership is a victory for transparency and public trust, as is Haynes’s acknowledgement – if it goes fulfilled – to be more attentive to disclosing conflicts of interest.

However, a larger issue remains: should taxpayer-funded public universities be taking fees from the fossil fuel industry to produce industry-influenced studies – via the data inputs the private oil and gas interests provide – that will then be promoted in public by the industry using the imprimatur of a trusted university name?

It’s also unknown whether the Duluth News Tribune plans to take similar actions to address its own conflicts of interest with regards to the UMD study. As we noted, the Tribune is also a funder and member of APEX, but failed to disclose this in two editorials that cite the UMD study as well as op-eds published by APEX members that cite the UMD report.

Here is the full list of recommendations we made at the end of our report:

  • UMD should retract the Enbridge Pipeline Construction Economic Impact Study with a public statement.
  • UMD should publicly announce the establishment of a committee to explore and set and/or modify guidelines surrounding ethics and conflicts of interest pertaining to the research it publishes under its name.
  • UMD Chancellor Lendley Black should write a letter to the Minnesota Public Utilities Commission, before the November 22, 2017 deadline for accepting public comments on the Line 3 replacement proposal, to clarify that the numbers cited before the Commission based on the UMD study are in fact largely based on data inputs provided by Enbridge and taken from a report financially supported by an Enbridge-funded group.
  • The Duluth News Tribune should retract its September 16, 2017 and July 9, 2017 editorials and disclose its ties to the UMD study and to Enbridge in any coverage of the study and/or of Line 3. The Tribune should disclose its ties to APEX whenever an APEX member writes an op-ed for the Tribune.
  • Both UMD and the Tribune should leave APEX and its board to avoid future conflicts of interests.