28 November 2023

European universities accept €260 million in fossil fuel money

Juliet Ferguson
Juliet Ferguson
Chris Matthews
Chris Matthews
Universities across Europe have accepted millions in funding from oil, gas and mining companies since 2016, despite many having pledged to reach net zero targets or even publicly committed to divest from fossil fuel investments.
An investigation by Investigate Europe in tandem with openDemocracy has found fossil fuel firms poured at least €260 million into research, tuition fees, sponsorships and grants at some of Europe’s leading universities. The findings have stoked concerns among campaigners about industry influence over academic research.

France-headquartered Total dismissed such fears, insisting academic independence was guaranteed. The oil and gas giant said universities and other institutions were “not selling their souls to the devil by joining forces” with them.

Freedom of information (Foi) requests submitted by openDemocracy revealed that 60 universities in the UK accepted a total of at least €170 million (£147 million) between 2016 and 2023. Shell, along with its subsidiaries and associated entities, contributed the most, with at least €62 million going to British universities. The next largest donors were BP, Malaysia’s state-owned oil company Petronas, Total, and mining firm BHP.

On the continent, Investigate Europe found that universities in eight countries have accepted at least €90 million. The findings, obtained from a selection of universities, show that 10 of Norway’s universities and university colleges received €68 million (812 million kroner) in fossil fuel money.

Shell said it has “long and valued relationships” with a number of UK universities. “Our collaborations aim to combine the brightest minds, with the right resources, as well as the commercial ability to scale-up and implement new lower-carbon energy solutions.” BP did not respond to the request for comment.

Total, Italian oil major Eni and Norway’s Equinor, including their subsidiaries and associated entities, have also committed millions to higher education in the UK and Europe. Eni gave at least €2.1 million to fund Oxford University’s Centre for Corporate Reputation, where work has included a case study on how Eni “built legitimacy through its sustainability programmes in Republic of Congo and elsewhere”. The university did not respond to requests for comment.
Italian oil major Eni has contributed millions to European universities.

Shell is the by far the biggest fossil fuel funder of UK universities.

UK Green Party MP Caroline Lucas called on universities to immediately cut financial and academic ties with fossil fuel companies. “Students will be horrified to learn of the shady and manipulative influence of fossil fuel companies happening on their own campuses,” she said.

Almost half of funding in the UK, where requests were sent to all universities, went to Imperial College London. Shell was its biggest donor, including funding research into low carbon energy and alternative battery technology. Next in line were the University of Cambridge (more than €18 million), and Oxford University (more than €12 million).

“Fossil fuel companies are the number one cause of climate breakdown,” said Alice Harrison, fossil fuels campaign leader at Global Witness. “By donating to universities, at best they’re trying to greenwash their image by associating themselves with respectable institutions. At worst they’re trying to warp research and learning in ways that will help bake fossil fuels into our energy future.”

Data obtained from Austria, Italy, Ireland, Norway, Poland, Spain, Sweden and Switzerland points to noticeable industry involvement. The Norwegian University of Science and Technology (NTNU) pocketed the most, with €29 million (344 million kroner) in unspecified funding for 2017-2022. The money came from Equinor, BP, Shell, Exxon, Total and ConocoPhillips.
The NTNU in Trondheim received €29 million in 2017-2022. Shutterstock

Toril Nagelhus Hernes, pro-rector for innovation at NTNU, said: “We have a long-standing collaboration with the petroleum industry that now has put sustainable and renewable energy solutions on their agenda.

“A majority of the projects relate to renewable energy. Many of the activities are concerned with technology development, but topics also include energy transition strategies, sustainable energy systems, carbon capture and storage (CCS), ecology, natural diversity and the social effects of energy transition.”

Shell also gave generously to ETH Zürich, providing €1.7 million of around €5 million received since 2016 by the renowned Swiss university. This included €200,000 for a project using machine learning to enhance “Shell’s Reservoir Simulator”. Reservoir simulation is a technology typically used to aid oil exploration and development.

ETH Zürich said the vast majority of the research work supported by the oil and gas sector “is not directly related to oil and gas or their extraction” and that “decisions on co-operation are always made on a case-by-case basis and independently of the specific sector.”

We will no longer accept funding from fossil fuel companies that is directed at propagating the existing extraction business

Imperial College London

Elsewhere, at least €5.2 million went to some of Spain’s top universities. Among them is the Complutense University of Madrid, one of the world’s oldest academic institutions, which received around half a million euros from energy giant Repsol and its associated entities. The money went mostly to pay the costs of research centres, to finance a scholarship and on tuition fees.

Universities in Italy have received €5 million since 2016, according to Foi data, much of it going to support PhD students. The figure is likely far higher given that half of the country’s 67 public universities contacted failed to respond. Meanwhile, Eni itself announced that it gave €10 million to Italian universities last year alone. The Foi data included €1.3 million from Eni to the University of Milan-Bicocca for a five-year research project, covering themes including geothermal energy and CCS.

Marco Grasso resigned as director of a research unit at the university in protest at the agreement. He said Eni and others use investments to foster “legitimacy with the public”. “For them it is nothing, a crumb. Eni made €22 billion in profits last year. But with that one agreement they can say: ‘Look, we are doing a project on energy transition with a public university’,” said Grasso, who remains a political geography professor at the university.

In a statement, the university said all its research projects with industry meet an “ethical criteria” and “aim to develop innovative solutions that are increasingly respectful of climate and environmental balance.”
60 UK universities accepted a total of at least €170 million during 2016-2023.

Almost 50 per cent of the total went to Imperial College London.

And why shouldn’t fossil fuel companies put money into research to help mitigate the effects of climate change? Some experts see solutions like CCS – in which carbon dioxide is stored underground – as currently the only viable option for sectors such as infrastructure, chemicals and cement that are some of the hardest to decarbonise.

Eni said its funding provides vital resources to developing new technologies and renewable energy systems and that it will “continue to invest” in universities. A spokesperson added: “Eni does not see any conflict between creating partnerships and making investments in technological research to support the transition, and continuing to ensure the supply of traditional energy”.

The industry’s eagerness to fund research is because it often aligns with their interests, according to Global Witness’ Harrison. “Carbon capture and storage is something the fossil fuel industry is particularly keen on promoting, because it’s a get-out-of-jail-free card for continued oil and gas production.”

Carbon capture and storage is a get-out-of-jail-free card for continued oil and gas production

Global Witness

Equinor said it “has a strong commitment to research and education” and is actively investing in renewables, CCS and other areas, including oil and gas. “We are proud to collaborate with universities in developing talented young people who will become the energy leaders of tomorrow.” A spokesperson confirmed that between 2019 and 2023 the company “provided over £6 million in funding for UK universities."

The donations, which also feature the likes of Rio Tinto and Saudi Aramco, come at a time when many of Europe’s universities are pledging to net zero agreements. And in the UK, where more than 100 universities have committed to divest from fossil fuel investments.

“It’s equally important to put this figure [of fossil fuel investment] into perspective of the overall funding of universities,” said Kevin Daly of the European Universities Association. “On the legitimacy of donations or collaborations, it is up to universities to autonomously engage in dialogue with their own communities.”

A spokesperson for Imperial College London said the university “pledged in 2020 that it will only engage in research partnerships with fossil fuel companies 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. We will no longer accept funding from fossil fuel companies that is directed at propagating the existing extraction business.”
An Equinor oil platform. The firm supports several universities in the UK and across Europe.Shutterstock

Dr. Stuart Parkinson, executive director at the UK’s Scientists for Global Responsibility, said the donations bring reputational risk to academic institutions. He believes universities must take a stronger position on where they get money from.

“It should be treated like the tobacco industry, which funded research for many years that undermined the transition away from tobacco. Eventually that money was refused because it was considered poor public relations. We should be going down the same path with the fossil fuel industry.”

Yet with universities facing funding cuts and increasingly struggling to balance the books, the pressure to find money is growing.

Parkinson said: “Different funding models could be used so industry is not directly involved, or certain industries are not directly involved in the research. There are ways of doing things like the corporate tax route so that there's more money coming into public research and it is under the control of democratically accountable institutions.”
Industry argues that most funding is used for developing renewable and low-carbon energy.

Geothermal energy and other related areas have been a focus of some investments.

But the industry’s role at universities goes beyond funding.

In Italy, for example, Eni is represented on at least four university steering committees. The influence of Total, meanwhile, which along with its subsidiaries and associated entities, committed €8 million to British universities and gave to several others in Europe, is seen strongest in France, A Greenpeace analysis last year of 103 French public research bodies showed more than half had links to Total.

Patrick Pouyanné, CEO of TotalEnergies SE, also sits on the board at the École Polytechnique in Paris, a prestigious public university where Total funds the ‘Technological challenges for responsible energy’ research program.

“The problem started around 2008 when the state started to pressure universities to seek their own resources, including from companies, without telling them how to do it properly,” said Matthieu Lequesne, a former École Polytechnique student.

He is not against such partnerships as long as there is transparency. “We have no visibility on the process,” said Lequesne, who has been fighting court battles for years trying to gain access to documents about the school’s relationship with Total.

It should be treated like the tobacco industry. Eventually that money was refused because it was considered poor public relations. We should be going down the same path with the fossil fuel industry

Dr. Stuart Parkinson

In a statement Total said agreements were often focused on “clean energy solutions”, adding that it had no influence on institutions: “We work with them to define research projects based on their areas of expertise. Their independence is guaranteed. TotalEnergies in no way intervenes in their strategy or governance”.

The statement said that Pouyanné does not represent the interests of TotalEnergies at École Polytechnique and is not “in any discussions or votes” concerning the pair’s relations.

The full extent of relations between Europe's academic institutions and fossil fuel firms is not clear. France, for instance, has very limited Foi laws. In Portugal universities are not obliged to answer Fois, 'university autonomy' exempts them from transparency obligations that bind other state institutions. And in Poland, requests were sent to 21 universities, but only five replied. In total, Investigate Europe contacted more than 150 universities, and while many provided candid responses, other responses were opaque.

After receiving Investigate Europe’s request, the University Federico II in Naples consulted with Eni on what information to release. The oil giant told them it “expressly denied” permission to disclose data. The university then offered to provide the sums of funding for each project but without giving specifics. Eni refused this as well, saying it would still fall “within the scope of trade secrets” and cause “concrete harm” to their commercial interests. In the end, no data was released at all.

Additional reporting by Lorenzo Buzzoni and Maxence Peigné
Editor: Ingeborg Eliassen

More information on UK university funding can be found on the Open Democracy website. European figures are based on freedom of information requests, email correspondence with universities and public data. All currency conversions of original figures were taken on 22 November 2023. Full responses can be read here.

This article was developed with the support of Journalismfund Europe.


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