Academic data is being exploited by the fossil fuel profiteers

The campaign to stop academic data being used for fossil fuel production

by Kip Lyall

In 2022, the Union of Concerned Scientists and Scientists for Global Responsibility initiated a campaign addressing Elsevier, a leading global publisher of scientific research that continues to support fossil fuel expansion. Last year, they delivered a petition to Elsevier’s parent company RELX, subsequently demanding that it cease support for new fossil fuel projects by 2024.

Elsevier provides data and information to fossil fuel companies that help them find and extract more fossil fuels. Elsevier is a member of The Open Group OSDU Forum, founded by oil majors to organise and analyse huge volumes of subsurface data to make exploration and development more profitable; employees of some of these same fossil fuel companies can be found serving as editors at Elsevier journals. Elsevier publishes papers in these journals and in others across its portfolio that cover tools, technologies, workflows, drilling strategies, and geographical hydrocarbon analyses to promote hydrocarbon exploration activities. RELX also hosts coal industry exhibitions, promoting companies that are failing to decarbonize, and maintains a political action committee that funds US politicians who block climate action.

We know that IPCC and IEA requirement for maintaining realistic pathways to net zero and staying in touch with Paris-based warming targets means the cessation of new oil and gas projects, and the sharp reduction of existing production this decade.  We need to drastically reduce fossil fuel production now, to maintain a realistic chance of mitigating climate change at any point in the future. RELX claims that “the Paris Climate Agreement is our best hope for avoiding dangerous climate change” and maintains that it is “minimising its contribution to climate change, in line with the scale of action deemed necessary by science.” However, the company has also proclaimed that it’s “not prepared to draw a line” at supporting “the expansion of oil and gas extraction,” activity that carries with it the likelihood of climate-related human rights harms.

As a former Elsevier employee, I can attest that these issues have been raised at the company for years. In 2021, an ethics complaint was filed concerning “observations about aspects of the larger company that fall well short of or contradict various statements, commitments, and policies that the company has in place – particularly ones that pertain to the environment and human rights.” It was reported that “while being signed on to a variety of environmental and human rights agreements that necessitate, among other things, a worldwide reduction in fossil fuel production, the company is trying to grow by directly and indirectly facilitating an increase in fossil fuel production, sometimes in collaboration with companies accused of various environmental and human rights crimes.” Despite observations of business activity that the scientific community associates with negative human rights impacts, leadership concluded that the company acts consistently with its climate, ethics, and human rights commitments.

Other observers have disagreed, sharing their concerns that RELX/Elsevier is making “demonstrably false” claims while falling short of “the clear standards set in its pledges.” Petition organizers have noted that RELX continues to support “a growth in fossil fuel reserves despite scientific calls for exactly the opposite.” They’ve highlighted that journals with updated scopes to focus on energy transition and achieving net-zero emission targets are still informing new oil and gas development and have flagged a UN Race to Zero membership that incorrectly implies the company has ended facilitation of new fossil fuel projects in line with IPCC and IEA scenarios. They’ve observed that the company is “turning a blind eye to its activities that enable other entities to remain high emitters” while “amplifying the disinformation of oil major customers,” concluding that “there is no scientific basis for claiming this activity can be associated with a just transition or net zero targets.”

In response to the petition and subsequent questions, RELX has not committed to cease support for fossil fuel expansion. The Union of Concerned Scientists and Scientists for Global Responsibility have therefore announced the launching of a grievance mechanism under the UN Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights. These guidelines are clear regarding the obligation of businesses to perform human rights due diligence regarding climate-related human rights harms with regards to its business relationships and across its entire value chain. This mechanism is being coordinated by the Climate Rights Coalition, a network of stakeholder groups from around the world. A primary aim is to give a voice to people being more directly impacted by these business decisions, with the hope to generate more substantive commitments that employees and scientists have been unable to secure. 

Previous dialogue with the company and CRC’s initial communication, which includes a complaint to the UN Special Procedures of the Human Rights Council, can be found here.

You can join us by adding your support here.

Kip Lyall is a former Elsevier employee and the Managing Director of Climate Rights Coalition.  The Centre for Climate Crime and Climate Justice is a signatory of the petition and a member of the Climate Rights Coalition.