Untangling the Web: Oil, Gas, and the Earth Sciences

by Words by Sasha Mills. Art by Ayna Li Taira. | April 27, 2021

The announcement of the University’s commitment to an Environmental Sustainability Strategy has been met with praise for its goal of “net zero carbon and to achieve biodiversity net gain, both by 2035.” It has also, however, been met with criticism, specifically for allowing continuing research collaboration with fossil fuel companies. A joint statement published on the Oxford SU website criticised the University for its continued collaboration with the oil & gas industry, stating that it “facilitates greenwashing and celebrates these companies.” The statement went on to suggest that “by neglecting these crucial issues, the Sustainability Plan still allows Oxford to continue exacerbating the climate crisis and perpetuating climate injustices.”


Fossil fuel companies tend not to have a great public image, but in Earth Science research, it seems to be a different story. Both researchers and students in this area feel heavily indebted to fossil fuel companies, and the links between industry and Earth Sciences are complex. “I felt quite lucky to not have those money concerns,” Victoria Elliot, a recent graduate of a PhD fully funded by BP tells me. “It allowed me to look at some really interesting data, which I wouldn’t have been able to have access to […] when you’re not linked with the industry.” Oxford is one of eighteen UK universities partnering with the National Environment Research Council to deliver funding opportunities to students. “[The] vision was to try and make research into the oil and gas industry [that] make the oil and gas industry more sustainable. Which sounds a bit like an impossible task.”


Divestment has long been an issue across UK campuses, including Oxford. These campaigns focus on urging universities to withdraw their investments from fossil fuels, and have in the past been successful. Eighty-five UK Universities so far have made commitments to take their money out of oil and gas investments, totalling fifteen-billion pounds in assets. The St John’s College divestment campaign led to a commitment from the University of Oxford to remove all investment from fossil fuel companies and commit to a net-zero investment strategy. However, campaigners have since argued that St John’s College has not honoured its commitments. Divestment campaigns, however, do not generally address the money being invested into universities from oil and gas companies. What does divestment mean when your research relies so heavily on the resources these companies provide?


The University of Oxford’s Earth Sciences department currently receives twelve-percent of its funding from oil and gas companies, a figure that Dr. Chris Ballentine, the head of the department, suggested would have been between two to three times higher in the past. The figures back this up: between 2015-2016 alone, a sum in the realm of 100-249.9 thousand pounds was donated to the department by Shell PLC for the position of Shell Professor in Earth Sciences, a role that no longer exists in the department. The heyday of the department’s relationship with oil and gas companies has passed, but the money remains important, particularly in defining their resources today.


The Shell-Oxford research project was envisioned as blue skies research: research aimed at answering fundamental science questions, not providing information for commercial uses, and involved an initial five-point-two-million pound investment from the company. Despite the pure science element, it is still notably a collaboration, a dynamic that Dr. Joe Cartwright concedes: “They’re obviously providing the financial support for a large number of researchers. So they would naturally want to help shape the questions.” At the beginning of the project, figures from Shell and the Oxford department sat down and defined the research aims together, defining the shape of the project. Would the output of Earth Sciences research look different if this funding hadn’t existed? It doesn’t seem to be a question that anyone can answer easily. As Dr. Steve Hessellbo of the University of Exeter tells me, “That dynamic has always been there. It’s been there for a long time, since the oil and gas industry started.” It’s a relationship that spans many of these researchers’ careers.


This particular research collaboration focused on two areas: the movement of fluids under the surface of the Earth, and the formation of fractures in mudstones, rocks made up of clay particles. Understanding why and how fractures form in the Earth’s surface allows for the determination both of possible locations for carbon capture storage as well as the location of more oil. The research funded by oil companies, while providing us with a way to reach sustainability targets, could also be used to find further oil deposits, an outcome that isn’t necessarily productive for reaching Oxford’s net-zero targets. The information about Shell’s use of the University of Oxford’s research is not yet in the public domain.


Funding for projects like this isn’t exactly accessible through other means. Dr. Chris Ballentine pointed out that subjects such as those covered in the Shell-Oxford research collaboration can’t usually be pursued through government funding, because the UK government feels that industry have an obligation to fund these research initiatives. Speaking to these researchers, however, the overarching impression is that it is not the funding that is the most valuable thing that oil and gas companies possess: it’s their data.


Vast datasets exist “behind the doors” of these companies, alongside core samples; rock samples drilled from the earth. These cores are arguably invaluable (although you could price obtaining them at a ballpark figure of 100 million USD). In Dr. Hessellbo’s words, “[they] are the archive of Earth history. So from a fundamental science point of view, if you want to understand the history and understand the processes that operated in the past, then that’s one of the resources that it’s really valuable to look at.” Understanding the Earth’s complex geological history can’t really be done without these cores. And without the involvement of oil and gas companies, it is impossible for researchers to access them.


Cores and datasets mostly exist as a by-product of oil exploration. Without fossil fuel exploration, this information would simply not be available. “The quantity of data is absolutely phenomenal”, as Dr. Joe Cartwright puts it. “I’ve likened it […] to the geological Hubble.” These datasets give researchers the opportunity to look inside the Earth to depths of up to ten kilometres. It seems as though funding and research projects generated through the oil and gas industry are somewhat inevitable, and if anything, they’re also desirable.


The impact of these projects on Earth Sciences departments such as Oxford’s has a knock-on effect: initial funding leads to later grants opening up, PhD students such as Victoria Elliot can get the training they need and start careers, and our knowledge of the Earth expands considerably. “We trained up about twenty PhD students who’ve all gone into employment, not many of those have gone into the oil industry, most of them have gone on to academic careers,” says Dr. Joe Cartwright. “So they’ve created a sort of a layer of manpower that populates in many cases our universities around the world, and has enabled their careers to be kickstarted.” Anybody that has considered graduate study has considered its financial implications, and for those in the Earth Sciences, industry funding is often one of the most realistic paths into research.


Even as the Oxford department scales back on their oil and gas funded projects, the impact is still felt by researchers: “The scale of current activity is not as great as it was when we were in receipt of the full funding,” Dr. Joe Cartwright points out.  “[But] we’ve been able to apply for other sources of funding […], because the way you secure additional funding is by building on the work you’ve already done.” Oil and gas funding is often a way for Earth Sciences departments to kickstart their research, and even as investment from them decreases, the shape of the department’s output continues to be determined by those initial seeds of investment.


This dynamic, however, is not consistent across universities. Oxford, as one of the wealthiest institutions in the UK (with endowment assets totalling one-point-two-billion pounds) is protected from the sway of oil and gas investments in a way that not every department might be. An institution such as Oxford can afford to have slightly less investment and is always going to be a frontrunner in generating research interest. Nonetheless, it is still within the top five UK Earth Sciences departments in terms of money received from the sector. An investigation by The Independent suggested that Russell Group universities have received over sixty-million pounds in research and teaching funding over the last five years, with Imperial College receiving thirty-point-one-million pounds in that time for projects including those directly linked to “research into ways to extract oil more efficiently.” Even if oil and gas companies aren’t funding commercial projects in Oxford, they certainly are elsewhere. As Dr. Chris Ballentine told me, oil and gas companies will often push to have as little research published as possible. A department with more money can remain less influenced by external stakeholders, but a department with less money doesn’t have that same flexibility.


Professor Steve Hessellbo contests the idea that it is in the hands of departments themselves or the companies that fund them to determine how this research output is used. “It can be used in ways that are directly good for society, it can be used in ways that are poor for society. And it’s basically the political regulatory framework that determines that.” Earth Sciences research is inevitably linked to the interests of the oil and gas industry, and without it, many oil companies will struggle to find further oil deposits as resources begin to diminish.


The UK government doesn’t seem to want to move away from working with oil and gas any time soon. The 2020 Oil and Gas Authority strategy update states that while they believe the industry should go further in reducing their carbon footprint, they also feel that “maximising economic recovery of oil and gas need not be in conflict with the transition to net zero.” This is a perspective that some researchers agree with. “If we are to go net zero by 2050, […] we will need to deploy carbon capture and storage technology on a phenomenally grand scale. And the only realistic prospect of that happening is if the oil industry […] undertakes that on the benefit of society as a whole.” Divestment in Universities is one thing, but it seems as though untangling the Earth Sciences from oil and gas investment could be a mammoth task.∎


Words by Sasha Mills. Art by Ayna Li Taira