Where Oxford University meets Big Oil

by Oxford Activist

Now more than ever we need academic research to focus on public interest concerns, not answer to Big Oil.

First published: 15 September, 2014 | Category: Activism, Education, Environment

9AM, Monday, 15 September: An unusual set of prospective attendees attempted to register for this morning’s Oxford Energy Seminar (OES). Clad in homemade windmill and solar panel costumes, a group of Oxford city residents made a colourful appearance at the Seminar’s welcome reception, hosted in St. Catherine’s, one of Oxford University’s colleges. Apparently unamused, event organisers were quick to show all unwanted guests the door. 

Despite their speedy exit, the protesters’ message was clear enough: it is high time for the OES—and any other so-called ‘energy’ seminar—to put climate change and renewables at the core of its agenda. Currently, as one protester noted, ‘this seminar is all about oil. It gets to use the brand and facilities of a prestigious university, but it’s created by and for the fossil fuel industry’.

The OES deserves particular scrutiny given the interests it serves and the role Oxford University plays in supporting those interests.

The seminar was first established as a two-week long series of lectures and workshops in 1979. According to its website, the OES ‘is now widely recognised as an important international forum on energy’. 

It is a highly exclusive event with only 65 participants each paying £6,250 to attend. While the organisers describe the OES as an ‘educational conference’, much of the value-for-money comes from the chance to hobnob with industry heavyweights and high-ranking government officials. The seminar’s list of stated objectives says as much, declaring its aim ‘to provide a privileged opportunity for close contacts and fruitful dialogue between participants from petroleum exporting and petroleum importing countries’. 

The list of speakers, past and present, reads like a who’s who for the oil industry. Among the regulars over the past few years are: 

The OES speakers do include a scattering of Oxford academics, and some have addressed issues relating to energy and the environment.  But in keeping with the general seminar focus, discussion of climate change and renewable energy technologies centres on what these mean for growth in the fossil fuel industry. Effectively counteracting climate change is hardly the priority. And no wonder. The sponsors of OES, in addition to St. Catherine’s College, are OPEC and OAPEC

But this leaves unanswered the crucial question, how exactly is the OES linked to Oxford University? The short answer is the Oxford Institute for Energy Studies (OIES), which overseas the organisation of the annual energy seminar. 

But understanding what the OIES actually is—and how it relates to Oxford University—is another matter. 

The OIES is a bizarre entity, balanced in a kind of limbo between the University and an ill-defined set of external members. These include, according to the OIES website, ‘a selection of government, public institutions, international and regional organisations from oil-producing and oil-consuming countries’. Each of these members has ‘made a financial contribution to the endowment […] of the institute’. 

A quick look at who belongs to the OIES Board of Governors helps clarify the identity of these external members. Among the more noteworthy Governors we find:

These names link the OIES to companies at the forefront of Arctic drilling and tar sands oil extraction, and to authoritarian regimes with an impressive record of human rights violations. The list of OIES benefactors, published on the institute’s website, reinforces the point.  

To be fair, some of OIES’s research does look at issues relating to climate change, and the institute employs, often in partnership with Oxford University, a number of highly respected academics. But this should not distract from—or excuse—the fact that OIES is clearly accountable to Big Oil. 

The Institute’s 2012 annual report, the most recent report available online, gives a few hints about what this accountability means in practice. Under the heading ‘Staffing and priorities’, the report highlights ‘a new scheme, made possible by the generosity of Saudi Aramco, of awarding three short-term Fellowships to promising researchers at the start of their careers’. Later on the report notes, ‘Priorities for recruitment include further appointments relating to oil and the economics and geopolitics of the Middle East’.

The OIES is able to operate as it does, in conjunction with the University of Oxford, because of its designation as a ‘recognised independent centre’ (RIC). According to the Oxford University website, RIC is a status which the University can confer on ‘educational charities in the Oxford area which are not part of the University, but which work with the University in research and teaching.’ RICs can access University facilities, jointly hire staff with the University, and share students, but they retain their financial and governance autonomy.  

The University claims that, ‘by establishing the [RIC] status, the University of Oxford is continuing its age-old commitment to innovation and co-operation in scholarship, but also affirming a support for greater diversity. Such Centres can help link distinct communities and cultures with scholars, the government and the media in a critically sophisticated way’.

Since the RIC designation was created in 2006, five institutions have been awarded RIC status, of which all bar the OIES are religious studies centres. It is not immediately clear how exactly the OIES contributes to ‘greater diversity’ or ‘critically sophisticated’ communication by enabling ‘co-operation in scholarship’ with the Bahrain government and Canada’s Suncor Energy. What it does do is ensure that actors with a vested interest in the further expansion of the fossil fuel industry get to benefit from the expertise and world-class reputation of Oxford University. 

This situation is by no means unique to Oxford. Nor are spin off events like the Oxford Energy Seminar particularly unusual. A former participant praises the OES on its website, commenting, ‘this was one of the best seminars I have ever been on (and I have done several at places like Stanford, Harvard, MIT etc.)’.

There is a pressing need for a transformative shift in our energy system away from fossil fuels and towards alternative energies. Scholars agree that 80% of known fossil fuel reserves must stay underground in order to ensure a decent chance of avoiding catastrophic climate change. Now more than ever, we need academic research to focus on public interest concerns, not answer to Big Oil. 


Photo credit: Hugh Warwick.

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