Britain Climate Change Energy Fossil Fuels Geographical

Revealed: Big Oil given direct influence over university courses

From Open Democracy

Fossil fuel companies pump more than £147m into unis and get private access and input into handling of journalists

Jenna Corderoy Billy Stockwell Martin Williams Finlay Johnston
28 November 2023

Fossil fuel companies have ploughed more than £147m into British universities in seven years and been given “horrifying” influence over academic degree courses.

An investigation by openDemocracy today reveals that BP, Shell and Equinor are among the firms routinely invited to private meetings with university officials, with some institutions taking direct advice on how to run engineering and geoscience degrees.

One university even had discussions with an oil company about how to push back against “anti-oil rhetoric”.

The influence extends to Freedom of Information (FOI) laws, with corporations telling universities how to respond to questions from students and journalists.

In many cases, these cosy relationships have grown as fossil fuel giants pump huge sums of money into university campuses, including donations and research funding.

Records obtained by openDemocracy show 60 institutions have received donations since 2016/17, with Oxford, Cambridge and Imperial College London accounting for two thirds of the total figure.

The funding is part of an international trend that has seen fossil fuel companies also channelling at least £74m into universities in the EU.

Responding to openDemocracy’s investigation, Green Party MP Caroline Lucas called on universities to cut financial and academic times with fossil fuel companies immediately.

“Students will be horrified to learn of the shady and manipulative influence of fossil fuel companies happening on their own campuses,” she said.

“Fossil fuel giants seeking to youthwash their own reputation by handing over dirty money to universities, and even attempting to influence academic programmes, can’t hide the fact that their climate-wrecking pollution is putting young people’s futures in jeopardy.”

Countering ‘anti-oil rhetoric’

More than a dozen universities admitted taking advice on degree courses from fossil fuel companies, including inviting them to sit on advisory boards. They include Oxford, Edinburgh and University College London.

The University of Aberdeen has recently taken advice from at least 11 oil and gas companies and invited their officials to board meetings. At the same time, it has also accepted close to £4m from the industry, including BP, Shell and Equinor.

The university boasts that its Master’s course in “integrated petroleum geoscience” has a track record of getting graduates into “leading positions across the international oil and gas industry”, adding that more exploration in the future will make this a “vibrant industry to enter”.

But when student numbers started to fall – from 23 in 2020 to just eight in 2022 – officials discussed how to reverse the trend.

Minutes of a meeting that took place last year reveal an advisory board member suggested that a “significant publicity drive” could help boost student numbers in the face of “anti-oil rhetoric”.

When discussing the 50th anniversary of the Masters course, a member of the advisory board said it would be best to keep any celebrations “under the radar to avoid the negative press”.

A spokesperson for Aberdeen University admitted when asked by openDemocracy that the comment had related to concerns about the risk of negative commentary from “opponents of oil and gas” – but said the view did not reflect the university’s position.

The university has refused to disclose who made the remark, but officials from Shell, Equinor, Harbour Energy, Tantalus Oil and Spirit Energy were all in attendance, alongside university staff.

Equinor had enjoyed even closer access to Aberdeen’s courses after one of its officials was invited to become an external examiner, before stepping down last year. It has also given away tens of thousands of pounds’ worth of student scholarships.

A spokesperson said Equinor was currently sponsoring the integrated petroleum geosciences Master’s course, and confirmed that the company had provided more than £6m in funding for UK universities between 2019 and 2023.

“We are proud to collaborate with universities in developing talented young people who will become the energy leaders of tomorrow,” said a spokesperson.

The company also sponsors the GeoNetZero Centre for Doctoral Training, a programme of PhD research and training in geoscience involving 12 universities.

In 2021, the university announced plans to divest from all fossil fuel companies. But it said this would not extend to cutting ties with the industry altogether, as it would “continue to work with the energy sector to train the next generation”.

A spokesperson said the university’s “long-standing relationship with industry” made students more employable. They claimed Aberdeen was committed to reducing emissions and that industry partnerships were “vital” for meeting global targets around energy transition.

‘Confidential conduit of information’

At Imperial College London, more than £67m in funding has been taken from fossil fuel giants since 2016, including huge amounts from Shell.

The money is part of a cosy relationship. For the last ten years, an advisory board for its Department for Chemical Engineering has included a Shell senior director called Edward Daniels.

The executive left Shell last month after more than two decades, during which time he helped defend the company’s reputation “where Shell’s positions could be controversial”, according to his Linkedin profile.

Daniels took up the role at Imperial College London in 2013 – the same year that he personally lobbied government officials to help protect the company’s oil interests in the Niger Delta, despite having a terrible environmental and human rights record.

More recently, he has spoken in support of the controversial undeveloped Cambo oil field off the coast of the Shetland Islands, claiming that the environmental impact of the project would be “tiny” – despite warnings from the International Energy Agency that no new oil fields should be approved if the world is going to meet its climate targets.

Meanwhile, his university role involves him providing a “confidential conduit of information” to students, researchers and uni staff.

He has previously told students that Shell “sincerely believes” in sustainable energy. But he added: “For a company like ours we need to do that in a way that is profitable. We have to meet the needs of our shareholders.”

Daniels went on to refer to the “climate change debate”.

A spokesperson for Imperial told openDemocracy that, since 2020, it had committed to engaging in research partnerships with fossil fuel companies only where the research “forms part of their plans for decarbonisation, and only if the company demonstrates a credible strategic commitment to achieving net-zero by 2050”.

Analysis suggests Shell and a number of companies it wholly or partly owns have between them given more money to British universities than any other fossil fuel company since 2016/17, amounting to at least £54m. In some cases, officials for the oil giant have even been invited to take teaching positions.

They include Owain Tucker, who has lectured students at Edinburgh’s Heriot-Watt University since 2020 on a course the university says will prepare students for a career in the traditional oil and gas sector, among others. Shell has given more than £2.1m to the university since 2016/17.

In 2021, Tucker was invited by the University of Manchester to speak at a climate event. The university has accepted at least £1.6m from Shell in recent years.

Emails seen by openDemocracy reveal that Tucker insisted the discussion focused on technical challenges, instead of “philosophical debates” about “what society might choose to do” about climate change.

A spokesperson for Shell said its “long and valued relationships” with British universities have “driven research supporting the energy transition and UK energy security”. They added that Shell “aims to become a net-zero emissions energy business by 2050”.

‘Commercial interests’

When openDemocracy sent requests under the Freedom of Information (FOI) Act, several universities refused to disclose documents relating to these companies, claiming it would “prejudice” commercial interests.

Nottingham University received money from mining companies that have “very specific non-disclosure agreements” attached, which include a ban on releasing the names of the projects being funded.

Glasgow University said confidentiality was essential to attract industry employees to advisory boards who might otherwise be “hesitant to engage due to concerns about the potential public exposure”.

Heriot-Watt University has taken £7m from fossil fuel companies in recent years. Internal guidelines state that “no minutes are taken” during advisory board meetings, meaning there is no record of the advice given by a representative of the petrol firm TotalEnergies, which sits on the advisory board for the university’s Institute of Geoengineering.

A spokesperson later claimed that minute-taking was now being promoted as “best practice” at the meetings, adding that advisory boards don’t have authority to make decisions.

Meanwhile, Oxford University – which has taken nearly £1m from BP since 2016/17 – refused to disclose correspondence with a company official responsible for BP’s relationships with British universities. Oxford claimed that disclosure would breach data protection laws.

But records seen by openDemocracy show that some universities have given fossil fuel firms direct influence over how they respond to FOI requests.

They include Bristol University, which was the UK’s first university to declare a “climate emergency” in 2019, pledging to play a “key role in fighting climate change”.

Yet it signed research contracts in 2018, 2019 and 2020 with the likes of Shell and BP, which say that Bristol University must “immediately notify” the companies and give them “an opportunity to oppose” disclosures under the Freedom of Information Act. According to openDemocracy analysis, the university has benefited from more than £200,000 of funding from Shell and BP.

The University of Bath also had similar agreements with the two companies.

Meanwhile, two contracts with the mining company BHP Billiton say Bristol University will give it “all reasonable legal rights and avenues… to avoid or minimise the impact” of any disclosures made under the FOI Act. The university has taken at least £2.3m of funding from BHP Billiton.

These legal promises have been upheld by the university. In one case, internal emails show that Equinor was consulted over an FOI request about the funding it has provided, having signed a similar contract with the university.

The university’s FOI team asked Equinor whether it believed the information should be withheld. Equinor replied: “Could you please advise whom the FOI request is coming from?” The university told openDemocracy it did not give the person’s name, which would have been a breach of data protection laws.

A spokesperson for Bristol University said that these contract stipulations were “standard”. It admitted that funders’ views are taken into consideration but that the university has “ultimate responsibility for deciding what information is disclosed”.

Oxford University also regularly consults fossil fuel companies about FOI requests, having taken between £10.8m and £20m in funding from them since 2016/17.

When openDemocracy started this investigation last year, records show Oxford informed Shell and Equinor that we had requested information about their relationships. Oxford also flagged requests – but did not reveal names – from students and student journalists to Shell and BP

And emails reveal that it followed BP’s wishes that it should be vague about the amount of money it had donated to finance university projects, and to redact the titles of research projects it was funding.

Elsewhere, the University of Aberdeen was unable to give details about a research project with the Spanish petrochemical firm Repsol, saying that it was tied up in a three-year confidentiality clause. In another instance, an FOI response to openDemocracy was delayed after Aberdeen consulted BP about its response.

Funding across Europe

openDemocracy’s investigation follows hundreds of requests to universities asking for details on donations, grants and other funding from oil, gas and mining companies. They were also asked to provide details on funding from firms connected to oil exploration in the North Sea.

But the true scale of fossil fuel funding is likely to be far higher, as some universities didn’t respond and others refused to provide exact figures.

Our analysis comes as Investigate Europe – the investigative co-operative which openDemocracy worked alongside – reveals that universities in the EU have taken millions from fossil fuel companies.

According to the research, Norwegian universities received the most, while those in Ireland, Sweden and Spain also accepted funding.

BP and the University of Oxford did not respond to openDemocracy’s requests for comment.

*This investigation was developed with support of Journalismfund Europe.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.