On the afternoon of 9 May 2013, I joined dozens of Oxford alumni, staff and students, at a protest outside the prestigious Oxford University’s Earth Sciences department to denounce a new £5.9 million ($9.1 million) partnership with Shell, and the growing influence of big oil companies over the research agenda of Britain’s universities.
It was also the opening action day of student activism network, People & Planet’s, Fossil Free UK campaign. Far too many of our 160 higher education institutions support the continued extraction of fossil fuels, not only through their endowments being invested in companies like BP and Shell, but also through research partnerships and their role as de-facto recruitment agencies for the industry.
Shell is a particularly inappropriate and unsavoury choice of funder for a new Earth Sciences laboratory in Oxford, not least because Oxford’s own climate scientists are warning us that we need to leave the majority of known fossil fuels in the ground. Some of these scientists were among the 100 high profile alumni and students who signed a letter publicly denouncing the Shell partnership in the Guardian newspaper.
Shell’s core business activities and political lobbying are pushing us towards a future with a global temperature increase well in excess of two degrees and yet many of the new studentships funded by the deal specifically focus on the extraction of unconventional hydrocarbons such as shale oil.
Worryingly, the British government is endorsing this partnership, with Energy and Climate Change Secretary Ed Davey attending the launch in person. This suggests that our government feels no qualms about its cuts to university research budgets pushing our best universities into partnerships with the world’s worst companies and further towards a global climate crisis.
So whilst the official ceremony took place inside, students staged their own mock ‘Closing Ceremony’ outside. Set in 2018, it brought together the University’s Vice-Chancellor, Shell’s Head of Unconventionals and Climate Change Secretary Ed Davey to apologise for their ‘earlier mistakes and celebrate the University’s transition into a completely Fossil Free institution!’.
A few hours before the protest, student representatives had succeeded in passing an emergency motion through the Oxford University Student Union which formally opposes the Shell partnership, as well as launching a Fossil Free Oxford University petition that has already gathered nearly 300 signatures. Their campaign, modelled on the rapidly growing US divestment movement, calls on Oxford University not only to divest its large endowment from fossil fuels, but also to re-assess its research funding and other relationships with the fossil fuel industry.
People & Planet’s Fossil Free UK campaign will be launching nationwide later this summer, in partnership with 350.org. But until then, we must stand up and denounce the dangerous influence that oil companies are buying within our education institutions and stand up for a fossil free future whenever the chance arises. That’s why so many of us came out to urge Oxford University to lead by example and dissociate itself from Shell before its own reputation is tarnished and the future of its students is jeopardised by runaway climate change.