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UK professor condemns own university over collaboration with oil giant

May 14, 2024

A senior professor has accused his own university of betraying its values by working with ExxonMobil on a project that has been condemned as greenwash.

Ian Williams, professor in applied environmental science at the University of Southampton, made the allegations after openDemocracy revealed that Exxon had made misleading claims about capturing carbon at the UK’s biggest oil refinery at Fawley in Hampshire.

We reported last month that Paul Greenwood, Exxon’s UK lead, had admitted that the oil giant would need a “magic wand” to deliver the project, which has no funding and no licence to store carbon.

Exxon refers prominently to its collaboration with the University of Southampton in publications about the scheme.

Williams suggested the university had been “fooled” into joining forces with the oil giant to launch the ‘Solent Cluster’, an industrial decarbonisation scheme focused on CCS.

Lindsay-Marie Armstrong, the academic cluster lead at the University of Southampton, has joined senior Exxon executives at several events to promote the scheme, including a reception at the House of Commons in February.

Williams hit out at the partnership during a lecture entitled “Working with the enemy: Why universities should not work with ‘Big Oil’” on 24 April, as part of the University of Southampton’s annual Green Week.

He said Exxon had a long history of undermining climate science and funding groups that promoted climate scepticism, asking: “Why does the University of Southampton work with companies that operate against our values and deny our research data?”

Williams pointed out the university’s collaboration with Exxon is at odds with two of its stated core values: its commitment to “embed environmental sustainability in everything we do” and its pledge to work with partners to “improve the environment”.

He added that his decision to speak out means he is “not very popular in some quarters of the university” and might be branded a “rogue academic”.

But Southampton University’s decision to partner with Exxon has also been criticised by many who study there. Heidi Wheatley, a second-year environmental science student, told openDemocracy that “the university’s relationship with the fossil fuel industry undermines my whole reasoning for studying this subject at this institution”.

Wheatley added: “Students are already calling for the university to re-evaluate its relationship with the industry through its research activities and are petitioning the university to withdraw its multimillion-pound investments in fossil fuel companies. I implore the university to listen to its students and live up to its own strategic commitments to sustainability.”

Williams quoted from openDemocracy’s investigation during his Green Week lecture, including our revelation that Exxon had so far refused to commit its own money to build the CCS plant and had instead focused investment on increasing diesel production at the refinery, spending £800m to produce an extra six million litres a day.

He also quoted Doug Parr, chief scientist for Greenpeace UK, who told openDemocracy that Exxon’s CCS scheme “stands out as greenwashing”.

openDemocracy revealed in November that fossil companies had ploughed more than £147m into British universities in seven years.

Williams said: “Universities must be robust and healthy enough to resist commercial lobbying and greenwash. We must not be fooled again.”

Urging Southampton University to extend its ban on working with tobacco companies to fossil fuel firms, he added: “Universities should say no to collaboration with fossil fuel companies, no to funding from or with fossil fuel companies, no to green washing, no to climate washing.”

He also recommended the university commit to “not work[ing] on any form of greenwash project”, including “CCS” and “blue hydrogen” – a product made from natural gas, where most of the carbon dioxide from the gas is captured and stored. Blue hydrogen has come under fire from scientists, who have branded it a distraction from proven low-carbon alternatives to fossil fuels based on renewable energy.

Williams also called on Southampton University to sign up to the People and Planet Fossil Free Campaign, which demands universities stop investing in and accepting funds from fossil fuel companies.

A University of Southampton spokesperson did not respond to any of Williams’ recommendations when contacted by openDemocracy.

Instead, they said: “Decarbonisation necessitates engagement with the sector that produces carbon and universities have a vital role to play in applying knowledge and expertise to address real areas of environmental concern.

“This is what the Solent Cluster was set up and receives government funding for, with our role here to work alongside 120 organisations and businesses, including nine local governments and three other universities.

“We uphold our value to embed environmental sustainability in everything that we do and require that all outputs from research undertaken with energy companies – and industry more widely – can be published, following our stated policies for responsible and open research.”

An Exxon spokesperson said the company would give further detail on the CCS project “in due course”.

Another recent openDemocracy investigation found that more than £281m of anonymous donations had poured into so-called Russell Group universities, including Southampton, since 2017. This prompted more than 120 academics, politicians and campaigners to sign an open letter calling for transparency over university funding in the UK.

The universities’ secrecy over donations means any potential conflicts of interest and commercial influences, including those related to fossil fuel production, remain hidden.

Some universities routinely invite fossil fuel companies to attend private meetings after donating millions of pounds.

Ben Webster

Ben Webster works on investigations for openDemocracy into climate, environment and biodiversity issues. Ben spent 24 years at The Times, 11 of them as environment editor.