Universities' love affair with fossil fuel companies must end

The Ecologist 15th March 2016

This is what we know. If we are to avoid dangerous climate change, then we need to keep the majority of fossil fuel reserves in the ground.

So continually exploring for new oil and gas fields and developing more coal mines makes no sense.

It doesn't make any financial sense either. Pouring billions of dollars into developing new reserves is effectively setting fire to profits in a bonfire of denial. These hydrocarbons cannot be exploited, and so represent costly stranded assets.

More importantly, it makes no moral sense. By continuing to prospect for gas and oil in the deep waters of the Gulf of Mexico, or developing new coal mines in Australia, fossil fuel companies continue to feed our civilisation's addiction to hydrocarbons.

An addiction that could impoverish, if not kill, a significant proportion of humanity over the following decades and centuries. These are not just fossil fuel companies, they also are climate-changing companies which profit from driving our civilisation closer to catastrophe.

This is why an increasing number of organisations are making the decision to divest from fossil fuel companies. Divestment is achieved by selling shares, stocks and bonds in a company. The intention behind the divestment movement is to highlight the immorality of continued fossil fuel exploration. It doesn't seek to destroy these companies, but is one way to pressure them to change their bad behaviour.

These are the main arguments for fossil fuel divestment. There are others, and of course there are also opposing views. Here, I want to consider this issue within the context of divestment by universities. It's a subject which is close to my heart, given that I work in a university and much of my teaching and research features climate change.

The mission statements of most universities evoke noble ambitions of changing the world for the better. When it comes to the necessary transition away from fossil fuels, they certainly could make a difference. Unfortunately, they are too often part of the problem instead.

It's the funding, stupid

Last October, Greenpeace UK was able to establish, via Freedom of Information Requests, that UK universities had received £134 million in funding directly from the major fossil fuel companies. I know this to be an underestimation of fossil fuel funding of university research, staff and facilities.

This money is an important reason why some universities have not embraced the fossil fuel divestment movement. Senior management reason that if they were to divest investments from fossil fuel companies, they would then be urged to also return funding from fossil fuel companies.

In this respect, some of the critics of divestment are entirely correct here. To divest while taking money from fossil fuel companies could be seen as hypocritical, and so pressure would soon be applied to reject future funding. First they came for the endowment funds, but that didn't affect my horizontal drilling research program, and I said nothing ...

So the first line of defence against seeing a possible reduction in funding, is to reject any calls for divestment. Many UK universities are desperate for cash and fossil fuel companies have plenty of it.

This Faustian pact can be justified in all manner of ways. One way to do that is by playing the 'engagement card', and we can look to US institutions to see this most effectively in action.

An expensive engagement

Campaigns for divestment from fossil fuel companies emerged within US university campuses, but thus far has had limited success within the sector. The world's wealthiest university, Harvard, issued a firm 'no' in response to a divestment campaign, and last year MIT rejected similar calls that it's $12 billion endowment be divested from fossil fuel companies.

MIT is an instructive case, because it decided to actually work closer with the fossil fuel companies, through engagement in a five year climate change research program.

It argued that engagement with BP, Eni, ExxonMobil, Saudi Aramco, and Shell was necessary, to innovate and develop the new technologies and behaviours which could motivate further transitions to a sustainable economy. It will do this via a series of projects that will be funded to the tune of $300million.

This will be coordinated by the Environmental Solutions Initiative (ESI) and the MIT Energy Initiative (MITEI). The MITEI is one MIT's major research centres having attracted some $600 million of funding, the top sponsors being - can you guess? - BP, Eni, ExxonMobil, Saudi Aramco and Shell.

$300 million must buy a lot of belief in the power of engagement with corporations that are trying to develop new oil fields in the Arctic, or helping to detonate the carbon bomb held in the Canadian oil sands. This belief must also be maintained in the presence of evidence that such engagement has failed. Why wouldn't it? These are pure play fossil fuel companies. Extracting fossil fuels is what they do.

A necessary divorce

Even to an Ivy League institution, $300 million is a lot of money. In the UK, the prospects of such funding would leave many Vice Chancellors near catatonic.

But to these global fossil fuel companies it's loose change. In 2015, the total revenue of Saudi Aramco alone was very likely over 1,000 times this amount. What this funding buys fossil fuel companies is social acceptance, and the normalisation of the their core business activities.

Sponsoring open days, providing cash for exhibitions, facilities, centres, training programs and creating new staff positions are very effective and very cheap PR activities. Their partnerships with universities also maintains a supply of advanced research, and a steady flow of highly trained and capable new employees.

Here again, universities have an incentive to work with the fossil fuel companies, because research activities are assessed in terms of their economic impact which is easier to demonstrate when working directly with industry. And of course, graduate employment affects the ever important league table position.

This has to stop. And it has to stop soon because in a matter of years, greenhouse gas emissions will have to stop increasing, and then begin to decline and continue to get smaller each year until they hit zero with probably negative emissions thereafter.

There is a clear line here - you can see it in IPCC reports that show the various emissions scenarios - and universities need to be on the right side of it. Some have suggested this could be our 'Apollo moment' in which we massively invest our time, effort and resources at solving climate change.

New technologies, exciting apps, and shiny devices will all play a role. But it will all count for nothing if more reserves of coal, oil and gas are developed. Unfortunately, this is the side of the line that fossil fuel companies currently operate on.

To create a sustainable future, first we must ditch our dirty past

Fossil fuels have powered our civilisation since the industrial revolution. Without them we would be poorer and lead diminished lives. They have helped write much of our recent history. But that doesn't mean they have to be our future.

Indeed, if we cannot end our love affair with them and construct a new set of sustainable economic and industrial practices, then we will not have one.

Fossil fuel companies could play a significant role in the transition to sustainable energy generation. But this will require a transformation which thus far they have not demonstrated they will undertake of their own volition. Universities can have an impact here by withdrawing their support and sending a strong signal to them that they must change.

Unfortunately, many Vice Chancellors appear to regard this as too costly a divorce. Better to hold out and hope their partner can change while continuing to bank the cheques. Money that would certainly come in handy when the storms hit.