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Report Reveals Oxford’s Continuing Links with the Fossil Fuel Industry

The University of Oxford accepted donations of more than £1.6m from fossil fuel companies during 2020-21 according to a report published by the Oxford Climate Justice Campaign.

The report, released on Monday 21st February, shows that four companies, Eni, Mitsubishi, BP and Shell provided at least £1.6m worth of donations and research funding to the University between 1st August 2020 and 31st July 2021. This is despite a commitment made by the University in 2020 to divest from the fossil fuel industry. It was written in response to a freedom of information request submitted by the Oxford Climate Justice Campaign (OCJC) in October 2021. 

Italian oil giant Eni made the largest contribution of the donors, providing £769,500 to ‘Saïd Business School Eni Scholarships’ and £571,125 to the ‘Saïd Business School Centre for Corporate Reputation’, which aims to understand the factors impacting the reputations of firms and organisations. This was followed by Mitsubishi, a prominent coal producer, who donated £208,700 for research across two projects: a ‘Study on the effect of Internal Structure on heat transfer in narrow path’ and £120,000 for ‘Neural Thermal Network Modelling’

The exact amount donated by BP remains unclear after the University refused to disclose the precise sum, citing risks to BP’s commercial interests. Oxford instead said they had received donations in the range of £20,000-£98,000. Between £10,000-£49,000 of this was for research funding and between £10,000-£49,000 was for BP STEM undergraduate scholarships. The BP scholarships are for first-year undergraduate students, offering the opportunity to explore BP’s work, which includes ‘using the latest technology to find oil and gas’ and ‘building platforms in the ocean’.  

Shell gave the smallest donation, giving £28,600 towards research into superior battery technologies. Oxford Climate Justice Campaign have accused Shell and Oxford of greenwashing, stating that although this research is in “aid of a transition away from fossil fuels, this funding is only a mere fraction of what Shell spends prospecting for and extracting oil, gas and other petrochemicals”.

Credit: Oxford Climate Justice Campaign

The campaign told The Oxford Blue that in accepting funding in the form of research grants and donations “Oxford University helps greenwash fossil fuel companies”, making “these companies and their exploitative business model socially acceptable”.

The report states that Oxford’s acceptance of donations from the fossil fuel industry are “hypocritical and harmful”. A student from OCJC said: “Oxford maintains a public image of being progressive on climate issues while simultaneously accepting donations from the companies which are most responsible for continued inaction in tackling climate change.”

They continued: “It is also strikingly inconsistent. Oxford does not accept money from or advertise positions in the tobacco industry, due to their harm to global health. However, the climate crisis – caused by burning fossil fuels – is the greatest threat to global health, and fossil fuel companies have launched disinformation campaigns at least as violently as the tobacco industry.”

The campaign has also argued that donations have the potential to impact Oxford’s research and teaching due to conflicts of interest between the donating companies and the University’s work. The report highlights that, despite its links with Eni, The Saïd Business School hosted the Oxford Citizen Climate Assembly in 2019 and claims to be bringing “relevant insights… into the COP26 process”.

A student from the campaign said: “It doesn’t take a genius to see that if you’re taking so much money, millions every year, this will influence what advice you’re giving to leaders.”

A spokesperson from the University of Oxford told The Blue: “The University of Oxford safeguards the independence of its teaching and research regardless of the nature of their funding. Those donating money to the University have no influence over how academics carry out their research or what conclusions they reach.  Researchers publish the results of their work whether the results are seen to be critical or favourable by industry or governments.” 

“None of the philanthropic funding … has gone into extraction and exploration research but has been used to widen access to education, to fund scholarships, academic posts, and capital costs.’”

OCJC have also accused Oxford of “prioritising its commercial interests over transparency” after alleging it responded to their Freedom of Information Request 54 days later than the legal deadline.