A Cambridge Zero Carbon rally from 2018Louis Ashworth

A research project led by the director of Cambridge’s BP Institute amounted to an estimated annual value to oil production companies of between $300m to $3bn (£233.5m to £2.335bn), a new report by Cambridge Zero Carbon (ZC) has revealed.

The project, which developed understanding of optimised oil extractive techniques and was led by Professor Andy Woods, developed methods that “increased the effectiveness of thermally sensitive polymers ... in recovering oil”, corresponding to “increases in oil production by several [percent] to several [tens of percent]”. It was presented to BP engineers in 2011 and 2012.

The report by the student-led pro-divestment campaign also details how developed understanding of tectonic plates by researchers in Cambridge’s Bullard Laboratories improved the ability of deep-sea drilling companies to extract oil from off-shore basins.

A 2009 issue of Cambridge’s Research Horizons, cited in the ZC report, wrote that the research, led by Professor Nicky White, “reduce[d] the uncertainty of finding oil in these hostile environments by developing an understanding of the structure and evolution of the Earth’s tectonic plates”. According to the issue, the research was funded by multinational oil and gas production company BP.

Another professor at the Bullard Laboratories, Robert White, also developed a technique of using seismic imaging that has been “widely adopted by the oil industry,” according to a summary report submitted to the 2014 Research Excellence Framework (REF), in particular by “companies expanding exploration into deeper waters”. According to the summary report, “much of the research was done during 2002-2010”, following surveys conducted in 1996 and 1998 by Professor Robert White.

An additional “important benefit” of the project has been “the supply of trained researchers into industry”, as “three out of four postdocs employed on this research at Cambridge University now work in the hydrocarbon industry” according to a statement from the REF summary report on the impact of Professor Robert White’s research.

Varsity contacted Professor Robert White, Professor Nicky White, and Professor Andy Woods for comment. The University noted in a statement that none of the research cited above was conducted after 2012.

Alongside revelations of research projects by the Cambridge BP Institute and Bullard Laboratories is information on CASP, formerly called the Cambridge Arctic Shelf Programme, whose researchers have led searches for oil and gas in the Arctic, among other regions.

An ABC News article from 2009 described CASP as “an institute affiliated with Cambridge University”, and archived CASP webpages describe the charity as “affiliated to the Department of Earth Sciences”. A University spokesperson said in a statement to Varsity that “CASP is an independent charity which is registered with the Charity Commission and none of its staff are employed by the University”.

The report also argues the existence of a ‘revolving door’ between the University and the fossil fuel industry, arguing that as affiliates of the industry take up positions at Cambridge, it draws recent graduates into the same sector, terming this an “active strategy for the renewal of fossil fuels companies’ functions”.

ZC note that connections extend to within BP too, with a former head of the Engineering Department, Ann Downling, sitting on its board as non-executive director. Two former CEOs of the company are also honorary fellows, though that position holds little direct contact with University operations.

The University’s consulting arm - most notably the Education and Consultancy Services of the Institute of Manufacturing - offers direct services to fossil fuel companies in pursuing projects.

On the student side, the report argues the University “facilitates the recruitment of students and staff to the fossil fuel industry through supporting recruitment opportunities”.

Further examining the links between the university and fossil fuel companies, the report cited a number of university professorships including: the Shell Professor of Chemical Engineering, the BP Foundation McKenzie Professorship of Earth Sciences and the Schlumberger Professorship of Complex Physical Systems.

According to ZC, professorships allow fossil fuel industries to portray themselves as “academically necessary” and “prestigious, charitable and scientifically rigorous.”

The report also listed the Cambridge lectures with brand naming from the fossil fuel industry, which ZC have taken issue with previously.

In 2018, Cambridge ZC staged a protest at the University’s Shell Annual Lecture over comments by a Shell Director the previous year who said he was “fundamentally proud” of his company’s actions in Nigeria. Shell were accused of being complicit in abuses of human rights in Nigeria by Amnesty International.

Campaigners disrupted Shell Annual Lecture in 2018Cambridge Zero Carbon

Alongside fellowships and annual lectures are academic prizes, such as the BP Achievement Award, the BP Chemistry Prizes and the ExxonMobil Prize, which ZC claimed were “cheap attempts by fossil fuel companies to greenwash and funnel students into fossil fuel jobs on graduation.”

The report also noted that first-year chemistry students and earth sciences students received branded BP lab coats and hard hats.

Based on its findings, the report calls on Cambridge University to stop accepting sponsorships and advertising from fossil fuel companies and to stop inviting fossil fuel companies to host careers fairs hosted by the University.

ZC has also called for an end to honorary fellowships for former fossil fuel executives and the removal of fossil fuel company branding from buildings, departments, prizes, scholarships and academic appointments.

In a comment on the report, a University spokesperson said: “The University of Cambridge adopted a position of considered divestment in 2018 and is committed to tackling climate change.”

“This year we were the first university in the UK to adopt science-based targets to cut our own carbon footprint. Our researchers are developing solutions that will decarbonise the global economy and we have commissioned a responsible investments programme. Much of the information contained in this campaign leaflet is factually incorrect or outdated.”

Is the report airtight?

At times, the report’s findings relied on outdated information, including 2014 figures from a student campaign blog, People & Planet, on the University’s current investments in the fossil fuel industry. The University disputes the statistic, as it was an approximation based on Cambridge’s indirect holdings in funds at the time, a varying number.


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Some of the allegations made – for example, that a ‘revolving door’ between the fossil fuel industry and the University exists – at times lacked definitive evidence.

Its description of the connections between the University’s newly appointed Chief Investment Officer Tilly Franklin and petroleum companies, for example, do not make clear that Franklin was only a non-executive director of Celtique Energie Petroleum and Chrysaor Holdings. Franklin resigned from both roles in October 2013, prior to when she became a member of the University’s Investment Board, in December 2014.

A non-executive director, whilst having the same legal obligations as executive directors, are not considered members or employees and are usually not involved in the day-to-day running of a company.

The report also details how five members of the Finance Committee, who advise the University on management of its assets, and two from the Research Policy Committee, responsible for research initiatives, have links with the fossil fuel industry.

Yet here, some connections are looser than others. Richard Anthony of the Finance Committee, for example, worked for EDF but in corporate finance. Others, such as Ruth Cairnie of the same committee who worked with Shell in some capacity for almost 40 years, have much closer and long-lasting links with the sector.