21st September 2023

Jody Freeman, a renowned environmental lawyer at Harvard University, has stepped down from a highly-paid role at the oil and gas giant ConocoPhillips, following months of public scrutiny and pressure from climate activists.

“I’ve stepped off the ConocoPhillips board to focus on my research at Harvard and make space for some new opportunities,” she wrote on her website on Thursday.

Freeman, founding director of Harvard’s environmental and energy law program and former adviser to President Barack Obama’s administration, served as a board member at the fossil fuel company for more than a decade.

She received more than $350,000 annually in combined salary and stocks for the position at ConocoPhillips, a firm that has been in the spotlight this year over the Biden administration’s controversial approval of its massive $8bn drilling project in Alaska, known as the Willow project.

In April, reporting from the Guardian and the Bureau of Investigative Journalism revealed that Freeman lobbied the US Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) on behalf of the company, intensifying criticism from climate activists including Harvard students.

Emails obtained via the Freedom of Information Act indicate she helped set up a meeting between company top brass and an SEC director as the agency worked to write new regulations on companies’ emissions disclosure.

In correspondence with her then Harvard colleague John Coates, who was preparing to become acting director at the SEC, Freeman praised two high-level ConocoPhillips officials. “They are hugely knowledgeable, thoughtful, and interested in solving problems – I can promise that you will get high value from this engagement,” she said of the officials.

Freeman added: “ConocoPhillips is widely recognized as the oil and gas industry leader on climate related disclosure.” She did not state her affiliation with the agency in the email, in potential violation of Harvard policy. Freeman denied having initiated the meeting, insisting her role at the oil and gas company was “common knowledge” and that her actions were compliant with Harvard’s conflict-of-interests rules.

Fossil Fuel Divest Harvard, a student-led activist group who provided the emails to the Guardian and Bureau of Investigative Journalism, welcomed Freeman’s resignation.

“Jody Freeman’s resignation from ConocoPhillips shows the power of well-informed public pressure,” said Phoebe Barr, an organizer with Fossil Fuel Divest Harvard, noting that the organization has published research about industry links for years.

Freeman had previously come under scrutiny from climate and campus activists when a Harvard Salata Institute for Climate and Sustainability awarded Freeman a major research grant, the Guardian reported in April. The institute had pledged to eschew funding from, or partnerships with, “any company that does not share the goal of moving our global economy away from fossil fuels”.

The move prompted widespread outrage on Harvard’s campus. A climate-focused group of professors sent a letter to Harvard’s president-elect and vice-provost for climate and sustainability questioning the decision, and students held a protest calling on Harvard to fire Freeman.

Regina LaRocque, a professor at Harvard Medical School who signed the faculty letter, applauded Freeman’s resignation.

“Kudos to her for doing the right thing,” she said.

A 2021 analysis by Carbon Tracker, an independent research group, found that ConocoPhillips’ climate plans were less robust than most other fossil fuel giants’. During Freeman’s board tenure, ConocoPhillips expanded its fossil fuel production, according to the Washington Post.

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On her website, Freeman said leaving ConocoPhillips will allow her to prioritize her work on Harvard’s environmental law program. “I’m also excited about the prospect of writing a book on our environmental challenges and how we can make faster progress,” she wrote.

She said she did not regret her longterm board membership.

“I learned a lot from my decade-long board service, think I made a positive difference, and am glad I did it,” she wrote.

Jake Lowe, director of Fossil Free Research, an advocacy group focused on eliminating oil and gas company funding for academic endeavors, said the news shows that “organizing works”.

“Jody Freeman’s resignation from the ConocoPhillips board is a testament to the tireless efforts of student organizers to expose and dismantle big oil’s toxic influence on Harvard,” he said.

Hannah Story Brown, senior researcher at the Revolving Door Project, said student activists “deserve major credit” for pushing Freeman to leave her lucrative role, but noted that many other high-profile academics, including at Harvard, have similar corporate roles which raise questions about conflicts of interests.

“She’s a symptom of a larger issue,” Brown said.

Student activists are intent on taking on the problem at large, said Barr.

“We will continue our work to expose and dismantle the ties Harvard retains to the fossil fuel industry, through individual conflicts of interest, research funding policies, career recruitment and more,” she said. “Our organizing won’t stop until Harvard is truly fossil free.”