How TransAlta used a university-sanctioned research project to lobby for the coal industry

Energy giant TransAlta paid the University of Alberta $54,000 to hand-pick one of its researchers to produce a study and other materials it used to lobby the provincial government to try to protect the coal industry, documents obtained by CBC News reveal.

Emails obtained by CBC News show researcher worked with TransAlta to develop presentation, talking points

TransAlta's Keephills generating station is located 70 kilometres west of Edmonton. The coal-fired power plant first went online in 1983. (Sam Martin/CBC)

Energy giant TransAlta paid the University of Alberta $54,000 to hand-pick one of its researchers to produce a study and other materials it used to lobby the provincial government to try to protect the coal industry, documents obtained by CBC News reveal.

The deal was struck in 2015, after Rachel Notley's NDP came to power with a plan to phase out coal power across the province.

The documents, obtained under Access to Information, include emails between TransAlta officials and air quality specialist Warren Kindzierski, along with a copy of the contract signed by the company and Kindzierski's employer, the University of Alberta.

The materials show that not only did Kindzierski produce a report that found coal-fire power plants contribute small amounts of some pollutants, he also worked with TransAlta officials to produce lobbying materials, including a presentation and talking points.

The university stands by the research, and Notley's government continues its coal phase-out, which includes TransAlta's operations. But several academics who spoke with CBC News say the case shows why the role of private dollars to fund research at public universities deserves renewed scrutiny.

"We have to be cautious, especially when the private sector is paying for these grants," said Jeremy Snyder, an associate professor of health science at Simon Fraser University in Burnaby, B.C.

The research contract, signed on July 17, 2015, specifies Kindzierski as the study's principal investigator, and gives TransAlta the right to veto any possible replacements for him should he be unable to complete the work, or to end the agreement altogether. The portions of the deal released to CBC set out these terms and deadlines, but the particulars of the research itself were not released by the university's privacy office.

The emails show Kindzierski collaborated with TransAlta officials leading up to two planned meetings with Alberta's government, including developing talking points to be used with policy-makers and the public.

Warren Kindzierski is an associate professor with the University of Alberta's school of public health. (University of Alberta)

The study appears on TransAlta's website, with Kindzierski's name and the name and logo of the university but no mention that the company paid for anything.

The report, called "Investigation of Fine Particulate Matter Characteristics and Sources in Edmonton, Alberta," looked at the sources of air pollution in the province's capital region. In his suggested talking points to TransAlta, Kindzierski said "the study found that coal combustion emissions contribute to secondary sulfate and nitrate in Edmonton. However their contribution is small."

TransAlta owns five coal plants in Alberta, including two about 75 kilometres west of Edmonton.

Shortly after completing its own air quality assessment in September 2015, the Alberta government concluded the province was on track to have the worst air quality in the country.

Academics question ethics

"Why would the university be OK with having its motto, its images, its branding tied up in this research?" Snyder said of the TransAlta study.

He said it is important for anyone reading the study to know up front that the information was a product paid for by a company with "a vested interest in a certain outcome."

CBC asked both TransAlta and Kindzierski for interviews, but they declined.​

In emails between Kindzierski and Oliver Bussler, formerly TransAlta's director of sustainable development, Bussler invited the researcher to present his findings to provincial government bureaucrats. He suggested removing technical slides from Kindzierski's main presentation to an appendix, in a bid to "simplify the messaging." He also proposed adding some paragraphs to deliver a "layperson perspective."

"It is definitely not my intention to suggest what you should say," Bussler told Kindzierski. "The study is very much your work and independent."

Kindzierski later wrote to Don Wharton, at the time TransAlta's vice-president of policy and sustainability, with the following proposal: "Maybe I could offer some points from the report that your communications people could consider in developing the messaging."

It is unclear if those meetings with the government, planned for mid-September 2015, took place, though TransAlta did make a submission to the government's climate change advisory panel in October. By then, the company was talking about "dialling down coal," though it did also mention Kindzierski's report, saying "the research shows minimal impact from operation of coal-fired generation."

Documents obtained by CBC News under Access to Information include email discussions between University of Alberta researcher Warren Kindzierski and executives at TransAlta. (Sam Martin/CBC)

In a statement, the company told CBC it provided feedback on Kindzierski's work but did not influence or alter the findings. It also said the researcher's "impartial expertise was sought in order to analyze data taken over nine years from provincial monitoring stations."

"Funding for this research went to the University of Alberta's general research accounts, and was not directly tied to Dr. Kindzierski's analysis or conclusions," TransAlta said.

In previous reporting on the study, The Narwhal, an online news organization focused on environmental issues, quoted Kindzierski as saying the money from TransAlta was used after the study was completed to support a post-doctoral research assistant, and not to pay for the work itself.

But language in the contract indicates the fee was calculated according to a budget proposal written up by Kindzierski. The contract says the grant is "to assist the university in conducting the study."

CBC News asked TransAlta to clarify the apparent discrepancy. In a second statement, the company said: "Notwithstanding the initial terms of the agreement, the funding did in fact go to the university's general research account."

The university's research services office said its records show expenses were incurred during the term of the contract and that the spending was in accordance with the budget for the contract. It also said an unspent balance of $522 was returned to TransAlta.

Research 'always ... independent'

The office's director, Lorraine Deydey, said she stands by both Kindzierski's work and the university's role.

"Research, contract research, whether it is funded by industry, whether it is funded by government, whether it is funded by private foundations, is always going to be independent."

She said she was unaware the company would use the research to seek an audience with the government, but did not see anything wrong there, either.

Lorraine Deydey, director of the University of Alberta's research services office, says the TransAlta study was a 'standard type of arrangement.' (Terry Reith/CBC)

"That was not part of the contract," she said. "That was obviously something that Dr. Kindzierski and the company agreed to."

It's normal for clients to look for beneficial scientific evidence, Deydey said, but the university "did not guarantee that the work that would be done would support TransAlta's position."

Report 'industry-friendly'

The 74-page paper published on TransAlta's website was not peer reviewed, though Kindzierski also co-authored an 11-page article based on some of the same data. Published in Environment International, it acknowledged funding from the company, and did go through a peer-review process.

A former colleague of Kindzierski's says the difference between peer-reviewed papers and those commissioned by clients can be significant.

David Spink, previously a director with Alberta's environment department and now an independent environmental consultant, said peers are looking for several things: "What was the question or issue you were trying to address? What was your methodology for addressing that issue? And what did you find?"

In a report for a client, on the other hand, "you don't have to be as rigorous, and you can express more of your own personal views," he said.

Environmental engineer David Spink questions Kindzierski's conclusions in a report on coal pollution paid for by TransAlta. (Terry Reith/CBC)

Spink said Kindzierski sent him a draft of the TransAlta report in 2015 for feedback.

"They'd underestimated the impact of coal-fire power plants," he said, arguing some emissions of gases known as secondary organic aerosols from the stacks of coal-fire plants were ignored. "It was what I call an industry-friendly interpretation.

"Warren and I agreed to disagree."

Spink says corporations hiring professors to produce research they want is a problem.

"Are university academics guns for hire or are they independent researchers who sort of are providing this expert analysis, view, perspective on things based on science?"

The University of Alberta found no issues with the TransAlta research, but Deydey did say researchers would prefer if all their funding came from peer-reviewed funding grants.

She said many provincial and federal granting agencies require universities to seek matching money from private industry.

The University of Alberta received $33.3 million, or roughly six per cent of its external funding, from industry during the 2016-17 academic year.

Dalhousie University in Halifax had similar percentages over the past five years.

And the University of British Columbia's figures showed a 9.4 per cent average over the past decade.

With files from Terry Reith

Corrections

  • The original version of this story reported the University of Alberta received $3.3 million from industry during the 2016-17 academic year. In fact, it received 33.3 million from industry that year.
    Jul 24, 2018 2:53 PM MT

About the Author

Raffy Boudjikanian

Raffy Boudjikanian is a national reporter with CBC in Edmonton. He has also worked in Calgary and Montreal for the public broadcaster.