A report released on Tuesday reveals the extent to which Oxford University has received funding and donations from the some of the world’s biggest fossil fuel companies, including BP, Shell and Eni.

The report, entitled ‘Money, People, Reputation: Oxford’s Ties with the Fossil Fuel Industry’, was researched and written by the Oxford Climate Justice Campaign, a student campaign seeking to end the University and colleges’ links with fossil fuel companies, including in areas such as endowments, research and careers promotion.

The report has three main sections – research, social license, and revolving door – which all highlight the monetary and personal links connecting Oxford departments and research to fossil fuel companies.

Between 2015-20, the five year-period studied by the report, Oxford accepted at least £8.2m in research grants from fossil fuel companies, the biggest contributors being the Italian oil and gas firm Eni, the British-Dutch owned Shell, and BP, with funds and donations from 2017-19 totalling nearly £4m, over £2.5m, and over £1m respectively.

One example of research funding was the £27,150 donation given by BP to the Computer Science Department to fund a studentship into “‘AI and Cognitive Computing […] with Application to the Oil and Gas Industry’.”

A second example comes from the Earth Sciences Department, which in 2013 received a £5.9m grant by Shell to establish the Shell Geoscience Laboratory, in a Shell-Oxford Research Partnership of at least 5 years in length, alongside a Shell Professor of Earth Sciences. The report notes that current sponsors of the Laboratory include Anadarko, BG, BP, Chevron, Eni, Petrobras, Schlumberger, Statoil and Total, whilst Saudi Aramco, BG, BP and Petrobras have also provided funding within the Department.

Other departments to be implicated in fossil fuel linked research include the Engineering Department, which received £300,000 from BP between 2016-19; the Physics, Chemistry and Materials Science Departments, which have conducted research alongside the oilfield services company Schlumberger, the state-owned Saudi Aramco, and Sinopec, also owned by the Chinese state.

Social science departments such as the Said Business School also received large funds from fossil fuel companies, including a near-£2m research grant from Eni in 2019-20, and a £60,000 donation towards the School’s Centre for Business Taxation.

The second section of the report, entitled ‘Social License’ focuses on the donations used by fossil fuel companies to ‘greenwash’, and as the report argues, to use their ties with Oxford “to bolster their reputation and maintain their social licence (the degree of public acceptance needed for an organisation to operate).”

Whilst the report focuses on the years 2015-20, the £100m donation from INEOS earlier this year was also criticised by OCJC as a “clear example of greenwashing.”

One example that is included in the report however is the BP Scholarships which undergraduates in STEM and Economics & Management courses can apply for. Alongside receiving £3,000 per annum, these allow scholars to “attend informational events about the oil and gas industry and benefit from a fast track to interviews and internships at BP.”

A second case of fossil fuel sponsorship noted in the report is the Charlie Perkins Scholarship for Indigenous Australians, offered at colleges such as Green Templeton, which until recently was partly funded by Rio Tinto. The mining firm’s three most senior executives resigned in 2020 after the company destroyed the 46,000-year-old rock shelter at Juukan Gorge, one of Australia’s most significant cultural and archaeological sites.

The report notes, however, that, “The fact that, in recent months, the Charlie Perkins Scholarship Trust (which sponsors students to study at Oxford and Cambridge) has dropped Rio Tinto as a funder is proof that beneficial programmes can continue without the financial help of the fossil fuel industry: a lesson from which our University should learn.”

In the final Revolving Door section, the report highlights what it calls “extensive traffic in personnel between Oxford and fossil fuel companies and vice versa, with members of staff simultaneously working for both.”

For instance, the co-chair of the “International Advisory Board of Oxford’s Blavatnik School of Government was formerly BP’s Group Chief Executive and is currently Executive Chairman for L1 Energy.”

Additionally, a member of the Steering Committee of the Business Economics Programme at Oxford is employed by Shell as Vice President of its Global Operations for the Trading and Supply Business.

The section concludes: “By having former and current employees of the fossil fuel industry hold influential positions at Oxford, such as Board Members, Chairpersons, Bursars, and Directors, the University is inevitably tied to prioritising the decisions favoured by the financial interests of oil and gas companies over those of climate justice.”

The report lists several immediate, short-term, and medium-term demands, the two most urgent of which being:

  1. That Oxford University commits to not taking any further sponsorship, grants, or donations from fossil fuel companies.
  2. And that the Careers Service stops advertising jobs at fossil fuel companies, by establishing the same policy as it has in place for the tobacco industry.

Speaking to The Oxford Blue, the OCJC said: “It’s been a long process getting all this research together. Piecing together the information in the public domain was laborious and bitty, and chasing up FOIs was tedious and long drawn-out.”

We feel that Oxford’s connections to industry should be public and accessible, and this is why we call for greater transparency. We were continually shocked and alarmed by what we discovered, and we hope that the startling information in our report will start a national conversation about universities and the fossil fuel industry.”

Alongside the report, OCJC has launched a petition calling on the University to sever its ties with fossil fuel companies, and accept the demands made in the report. As of writing, the petition has over 150 signatures.

In a response to the Guardian, an Oxford University spokesperson said: “The University of Oxford safeguards the independence of its teaching and research programmes, regardless of the nature of their funding. Those donating money or sponsoring programmes at the university have no influence over how academics carry out their research or what conclusions they reach.”

They added: “Partnerships with industry allow the university to apply its knowledge to real challenges of pressing global concern, with funding often going directly into research into climate-related issues and renewables.”

Image Credits: Flickr

Max Spokes

Max (he/him) was formerly Environment News Editor and Climate Columnist at The Blue. He is in his final year studying History and Politics at Balliol.