Photo by Michelle Mendieta Mean

On the one hand, the University of Oxford’s scientists, economists and other academics have led ground-breaking work to tackle the climate and ecological crises, producing invaluable research and finding solutions to some of our most pressing problems.

At the same time, however, their employer accepts millions of pounds in donations from fossil fuel companies to whom much, if not most, of the responsibility for the climate crisis can be attributed.

In a report released on Tuesday by the Oxford Climate Justice Campaign (OCJC), it was revealed that between 2015-20, the University, its related departments, schools, and colleges, have received substantial funds and donations from the likes of Shell, BP, Saudi Aramco and Sinopec, contributing to research, scholarships and events.

As the Guardian revealed in 2019, companies with which Oxford has close ties – including BP, Shell, Saudi Aramco, and PetroChina – are part of a group of 20 companies who are responsible for more than one-third of greenhouse gas emissions since 1965, “the point at which experts say the environmental impact of fossil fuels was known by both industry leaders and politicians.”

Let’s recap a few of the most worrying findings from the OCJC report…

Perhaps first on the list is the difficulty OCJC had in obtaining relevant information about funding links and donation ties. Much of the report’s findings were made through Freedom of Information (FOI) requests, which the University should answer within 20 working days.

However, as the report notes, “the University’s Information Compliance Team (ICT) frequently missed this deadline (for example, the information asked for in an FOI request sent in May 2020 was only received in full in January 2021).” Moreover, the information supplied was often “the bare minimum” and was often withheld up to the point of making a threat to complain to the Information Commissioner’s Office.

A world-leading university should not be using the same tactics of cover-up and delay as the fossil fuel companies they are happy to take money from with regards to information transparency.

Concerning research, examples of collaboration flow in from all directions, whether it be the £232,580 grant from BP to the Materials Science Department in 2017-18 for a “collaborative project”, or the grant worth £27,150 again by BP that same year to the Centre for Doctoral Training in Autonomous Intelligent Machines and Systems for a DPhil studentship into “’AI and Cognitive Computing […] with Application to the Oil and Gas Industry’.”

The social sciences are also far from fossil-fuel free; the Said Business School for instance was granted £1,903,759 by the Italian oil and gas firm Eni in 2019-20 for the “‘Renewal of the partnership between Eni SpA and Oxford’s Centre for Corporate Reputation’, research that may help increase Eni’s attractiveness to investors.”

Shell also donated £60,000 to the Centre for Corporate Reputation between 2016-19, funding the School’s Centre for Business Taxation, an irony of the highest order given that in 2019 the Australian Tax Office fined the company $755m for tax avoidance.

The close links between Oxford and fossil fuel companies should come as no surprise given the “revolving door” that the report highlights between the industry and the university. To give just one example in a sea of close ties, a member of the Steering Committee of Oxford’s Business Economics Programme is also Vice President of Shell Global Operations for the Trading and Supply Business.

The report covers the years 2015-20, yet perhaps the greatest example of greenwashing was to be found earlier this year, with the £100m donation from the petrochemicals firm INEOS, owned by tax-avoiding, Monaco-residing Brexiteer, and one of Private Eye’s 2020 Hypocrites of the Year, Jim Ratcliffe.

The findings of the OCJC’s report should deeply worry, and indeed anger, us all. Our tuition fees, our room rents and our support of Oxford merely by studying at the institution, tie each and every one of us to the fossil fuel industry, just as much as they tie us to the inspiring research being conducted to tackle the climate crisis

The reality, as the report suggests, is that “Oxford’s extractivist research [research improving fossil fuel/natural resource extraction technologies] makes our University directly complicit in a damaging and exploitative global system that is endangering our world and its people.”

As one of the most revered research and education institutions in the world, Oxford, its departments and colleges, cannot continue to be bedfellows with companies who have done more damage to our planet than anyone else in human history.

The foreword to the report is written by Benny Wenda, Chair, United Liberation Movement for West Papua and recipient of the Freedom of the City of Oxford, and provides a stark reminder of the actions of fossil fuel companies such as BP.

Wenda writes: “In my homeland, West Papua, my people have suffered ethnic cleansing, mass killing and the destruction of our environment for nearly six decades. The colonising Indonesian military has done the grunt work for the world’s resource extraction companies, including BP, Freeport McMoRan and Rio Tinto.”

Accepting donations and funding, whatever their form or purpose, from these companies, continues to legitimise the destructive actions of fossil fuel firms who are guilty of ecocide and human rights abuses the world over, from Nigeria to West Papua, the Gulf of Mexico to Australia.

On the other hand, refusing donations and cutting ties sends out a clear message: these companies do not deserve Oxford’ expertise, our research, our time or resources, for they are, inherently, part of the problem, not the solution.

In Coldplay’s song ‘Clocks’, we are asked, “Am I part of the cure, or am I part of the disease?” Oxford cannot be both, and as long as it continues to accept fossil fuel money, it continues to be part of the disease.

Time is ticking, and, I hope, change is coming.

ACTION: Reports like this demand and deserve action. First up, sign OCJC’s petition, calling on the university to cut its ties with fossil fuel companies. Secondly, I’d urge you to read at the very least, the foreword to the report, in which Benny Wenda highlights the destructive actions of BP. Finally, I, alongside my E+E rep colleagues, have been given PDF posters to print out to promote the report in colleges. If you’d like to help put these up, drop me a message!

Pura vida,

Max.

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.