Defenders of Death
Meet the Boston-based company helping the fossil fuel industry manufacture doubt and fight regulations
In the heart of Boston, the 17th floor of the brutalist 1970’s skyscraper that towers over the State House is home to the headquarters of the Gradient Corporation, a company that makes a killing by defending fossil fuels.
Despite its prime location, expensive website, and distinguished staff of clean-cut Ivy League graduates and ex-professors, Gradient researchers produce studies-for-hire for some of the dirtiest industries imaginable, including lead polluters, producers of PFAS “forever chemicals,” and companies facing lawsuits over asbestos exposure. Gradient is also a particular favorite of fossil fuel companies and trade groups.
The fossil fuel industry—to give a short overview of its lengthy credentials—threatens both the basic long-term viability of the planet’s climate and ecological systems, and bears an oversized responsibility in the worldwide epidemic of disease and death brought about by burning fossil fuels. Air pollution, largely due to fossil fuel combustion, is one of the leading causes of mortality worldwide, causing millions of premature deaths each year.
This is, of course, only if you believe the body of peer-reviewed studies from the top independent scientists in the field. If not, Gradient researchers have come up with an entirely different set of facts that consistently line up with the financial interests of their fossil fuel funders.
While a 2021 study by a team researchers from Harvard and several UK universities found that fine particulate matter (PM2.5) from fossil fuel combustion is responsible for about one in five deaths worldwide, a different study from the same year, written by five Gradient researchers and funded by the American Petroleum Institute (API), came to essentially the opposite conclusion.
“The evidence for a causal relationship between long-term ambient PM2.5 exposure and mortality is inadequate,” the Gradient researchers found.
Over the past decade, Gradient published at least nine different papers funded by API, a fossil fuel trade group notorious for opposing climate action at all cost. Other funders of Gradient’s work include ExxonMobil, BP, Halliburton, Concawe (a research coalition of major fossil fuel companies), Range Resources, the American Forest and Paper Association, the American Gas Association (AGA), and the Electric Power Research Institute (EPRI), a nonprofit that gets funding from major electric utilities, and whose board is largely made up of utility executives.
The firm has also worked extensively for the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality (TCEQ), a Texas government agency which frequently aligns with the fossil fuel industry in denying the established links between ground-level ozone (created by burning fossil fuels) and lung disease.
Gradient’s work for the TCEQ can help shed some light on just how lucrative the business of science-for-hire can be. According to records obtained by the New England Climate Dispatch, TCEQ paid Gradient nearly $2.8 million for their work over a four-year period from 2013 to 2017.
Preventing regulation and protecting profits
Although Gradient claims to conduct independent and objective research, its findings essentially always align with the financial interests of its funders.
Gradient is one of the leading companies in the “product defense industry,” which includes companies like Exponent, Ramboll, and ChemRisk. One of the most in-depth looks into how this industry operates comes from Dr. David Michaels, a professor at the George Washington University School of Public Health, who has written two books on the industry. Michaels also served as the head of the federal Occupational Safety and Health Administration from 2009 to 2017.
“Corporations facing regulation or lawsuits engage Gradient because they need studies that minimize the harms caused by their products or activities,” Michaels wrote in a statement to the New England Climate Dispatch. “Gradient’s very lucrative business model is to produce studies that meet those needs of their corporate clients and that attract new clients. I believe the firm would go out of business if it produced studies that found their clients’ products were harmful."
Along with funding Gradient scientists to publish favorable studies, Gradient’s clients have also funded the company’s researchers to testify in regulatory proceedings at both federal and local levels.
Gradient has frequently testified before the EPA on air quality regulations, including in recent deliberations over the acceptable amounts of airborne particulates produced in the combustion of fossil fuels. US regulations around fine particulate matter are considerably weaker than the international recommendations set by the World Health Organization (WHO). While WHO recommends an average annual level limit of 5 µg/m3, the current US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) standard is over twice this amount at 12 µg/m3.
Over the past few years, the EPA has been reviewing these air quality standards, and announced its proposal to reduce its annual PM2.5 standard from 12 µg/m3 to between 10 and 9 µg/m3. While some environmental groups say that this update doesn’t go far enough, industry groups continue to fight against any tightening of the standard. To fight this update, API hired Gradient to prepare detailed comments casting doubt on the link between particulate matter and negative health impacts.
“Currently available scientific evidence and risk-based information does not provide sufficient evidence to call into question the adequacy of the public health protection afforded by the current annual and 24-hour PM2.5 standards,” testified Gradient scientist Julie Goodman to the EPA in 2019, echoing the findings of the Gradient’s 2021 paper sponsored by the API, which Goodman co-authored. Naturally, Goodman also received funding from the API to prepare her comments for the EPA.
A coalition of industry groups (several of which actively fund Gradient’s research) including the API, the American Chemistry Council, the US Chamber of Commerce, the American Forest & Paper Association then relied heavily on Gradient’s comments and research to make their case that acceptable pollution levels should not be lowered.
“Gradient has identified numerous uncertainties and biases in several of the epidemiologic studies identified,” the industry coalition wrote in their comments. “Significant uncertainties and weaknesses remain in the scientific evidence concerning health effects attributable to PM2.5 levels in ambient air.”
While Gradient moved its Massachusetts headquarters to downtown Boston in 2019, the organization was originally founded in Harvard Square in spring of 1985. For years, the company was located on University Road in Cambridge, sandwiched in between the Harvard Kennedy School and the Harvard Alumni Association.
To this day, the firm maintains strong connections to the region’s most prestigious academic institutions. Eight current Gradient researchers previously worked for Harvard, while three previously worked at MIT, and many others received postgraduate education at one or both of the schools. On its website, Gradient boasts about working with the MIT Center for Environmental Health Sciences to study the health risks of pollution in the Malden River.
Along with a small handful of community goodwill projects, Gradient has put its army of learned researchers from prestigious institutions to work defending the titans of polluting industries at a local level.
In Weymouth, residents worked for years in vain to stop the construction of the Weymouth natural gas compressor station, a potentially hazardous fossil fuel infrastructure project led by Enbridge, a Canadian pipeline company. In appeals proceedings before the Massachusetts Department of Environmental Protection, Gradient researcher Peter Valberg testified on behalf of Enbridge, arguing that the compressor station “cannot be expected to pose unreasonable health risks to populations in the Fore River Basin area.”
Despite fierce local opposition, Enbridge received the necessary permits from the state, and finished construction on the compressor station in 2020. It remains operational today, in close proximity to the site of the recent chemical fire at the Clean Harbors waste treatment facility.
Meanwhile, air pollution in Weymouth is a major hazard for residents. A peer-reviewed 2022 study led by researchers at Boston College’s Global Observatory on Pollution and Health analyzed air pollution deaths by town in Massachusetts, and found that air pollution is responsible for 42 deaths each year in Weymouth alone. Across the state of Massachusetts, the study estimated that 2,780 people die each year from air pollution, most of which comes from burning fossil fuels.
Along with Enbridge, which operates gas pipeline infrastructure in the state, the state’s major for-profit gas utilities have also indirectly utilized Gradient’s services. With the recent intense media attention to the health effects of gas stoves, the American Gas Association, the gas industry trade group whose board includes executives from local utility giants National Grid, Eversource, Unitil, and Avangrid, hired Gradient researcher Julie Goodman to defend gas stoves, as reported in a New York Times exposé.
Back on Beacon Hill, these same gas utilities spent over a million dollars lobbying lawmakers and regulators over the past year in Massachusetts, pushing back on efforts to phase out fossil fuel infrastructure.
Outside the State House, with Gradient’s 17th floor office looming over busy streets filled with idling cars and cookie cutter men in suits distractedly talking into their headsets amidst an alarmingly warm winter, the towering influence of the fossil fuel industry casts a long shadow.
Despite multiple attempts to contact the organization, Gradient declined to provide comments for this story.
Thanks for reading! Subscribe and share to support more reporting like this.
Climate News Roundup
High demand for fuel assistance has forced a nonprofit organization based in Hartford to pause its fuel assistance program until April (Luther Turmelle — CT Insider)
Maine’s landfills are filling up as the state’s new waste processing facility remains shut down (Sawyer Loftus — Bangor Daily News)
With the end of meteorological winter, Boston received about 70% less snowfall than the historical average from 1991 to 2020 (Dharna Noor — The Boston Globe)
Amidst high energy costs, stakeholders are split on how to bring down utility bills (Hadley Barndollar — New Hampshire Bulletin)
Climate change is projected to increase damage from high winds in Rhode Island, costing an additional $5 million by 2053 (Alex Kuffner — The Providence Journal)
Despite opposition from climate and public transit activists, Rhode Island’s Department of Transportation director is set to be reappointed (Edward Fitzpatrick — The Boston Globe)
Vermont is struggling with what to do with PFAS chemicals leaching into wastewater from the state’s only landfill (Logan Solomon — VT Digger)
Across the region
Between 2010 and 2020, top universities received over $677 million in funding from fossil fuel companies, including Brown ($4 million), Harvard ($21 million), and MIT ($40 million) (Amy Westervelt — The Guardian)
Experts say that there is no link between offshore wind development and recent whale deaths off the coast of the Northeast (Robert Zullo — Maine Beacon)
how do readers reach out to you
how do readers reach out to you