In April 2020, the University of Oxford announced that it had asked its endowment office – Oxford University Endowment Management (OUem) ­– to formally divest from the fossil fuel industry. OUem was also instructed to liaise with managers overseeing the University’s Oxford Endowment Fund (OEF) – which manages over £3 billion in investments – to develop Net-Zero business plans across management portfolios. This was not an insignificant decision. The University had already been touting its low levels of OEF investments into the fossil fuel industry, claiming that as of 2020 just 0.6% of endowment funding is tied to fossil fuel extractors. This was a public declaration by the University that it was joining an increasing movement by higher education institutes towards fully divesting from fossil fuels, a decision which divestment campaigners such as the Oxford Climate Justice Campaign (OCJC) welcomed as one of “historic importance.”

Yet despite this ban on investing in fossil fuel linked companies, the University continues to accept millions of pounds worth of funding from the industry. In a report compiled by the OCJC in February 2022, the University of Oxford received at least £1.6 million from the fossil fuel industry in the 2020-2021 financial year. Much of this came from specific company-linked investments in which money was tied through mechanisms like scholarships to fossil-fuel organisations, such as £769,500 from Eni to the Saïd Business School Eni Scholarships and an unconfirmed donation by BP to the BP STEM Undergraduate Scholarships. Furthermore, in 2021, Ineos – the British multinational chemical giant which is heavily involved in natural gas and crude oil extraction and refining for its petrochemicals – announced a £100 million donation to open the Ineos Oxford Institute (IOI).

For critics, this welcoming of money from the fossil fuel industry, at a time when the international community have (in-principal) agreed through the Paris Agreement that greenhouse gas emissions need to be reduced to ‘as close to zero as possible’ by 2050, undercuts the University’s divestment pledge. In doing so, the University risks facilitation of efforts by an industry which is behind three-quarters of all global greenhouse gas emissions  to improve its image by embedding within one of the most globally recognised universities.

Reputation Washing and Oxford

Reputation laundering is the process by which unethical companies or those with reputaitonal damage seek to improve their public image by investing in well-respected institutions. The University of Oxford is no stranger to allegations of reputation laundering by a plethora of actors ranging from arms dealers to internet giants. Sometimes this involves ties via scholarships, or the naming of buildings, institutes, and even colleges after donors. The University has recently sought donations for two colleges: the soon-to-be inaugurated Parks College (now Rueben College following a £80 million donation from the Reuben Brothers) and Linacre College (to be renamed Thao College after a £155 million donation from the head of the SOVICO group). While there are no suggestions of financial wrongdoing by either Thao or the Reuben Brothers, there are strong concerns over the ability for businesses and tycoons to rename colleges and institutes through financial clout, and the active solicitation of this by the University.

All donations to the University are overseen by the Committee to Review Donations and Research Funding, a body which sits within the Development Office. For donations to be accepted by the University, they must come from sources which are either known and acceptable to the Pro-Vice Chancellor, or ‘confirm that no ethical questions, of the type set out in the guidelines made under regulation 18.3 (1), arise in relation to the donor’.[1] Yet the process of what determines ‘unethical activity’ remains ambiguous. The guidelines, active since 2002, did not prevent the Saïd Business School from partnering with Russia’s Alfa-Bank (now on the sanction-list), the largest private bank in Russia and founded by two oligarchs (also now on the sanction-list), to create the annual “Award for Excellence in Foreign Investment in Russia”. Nor did it prevent a £10 million donation from Nagiz Pashayeva, the sister-in-law of Azerbaijan’s autocratic President (since 2003), to the Oxford Nizami Ganjavi Centre of Azerbaijan studies. Shortly after the donation, Pashayeva was given a seat on the Centre’s board. And despite clear links being found between the Sackler family’s aggressive marketing of the opiate-containing painkiller Oxycontin, and the subsequent widespread abuse of the drug, the University continues to receive donations from the family to the Sackler Library, which is administered by the Bodleian Libraries.


The definition of what the University regards as ‘unethical’ also raises questions about donations and linkages to the University by companies within the fossil fuel industry, particularly in regard to facilitation and funding of research into the continued extraction of fossil fuels by departments within the University, and how this industry may be using the University to improve its own reputation, something known as Greenwashing.

There is already evidence that the fossil-fuel industry is engaged in this practice. Research by Mei Li and Jusen Asuka (Tohoku University, Japan) and Gregory Trencher (Kyoto University, Japan), found that despite discourse emphasising the clean energy claims of BP, Chevron, ExxonMobil and Shell, these companies are heavily involved in pursuing investments that negate these claims. A number of the investments by fossil fuel companies that the University has accepted appear to fit within this practice, with emphasis being paid to how companies are engaging in research to either transition away from fossil fuels, or to reduce the environmental impact of extractive practices.

This obfuscation of blame by the fossil-fuel industry is not new. The industry has been behind a longstanding cover-up of the environmental impact of their business practices. Research undertaken by Benjamin Franta, a PhD candidate at Stanford University (United States), discovered archival material which found that the industry was aware of Global Warming by the late 1950s. An investigative report by Inside Climate in 2015 found that a number of large petroleum companies, including Exxon, Texaco, and Shell, created the ‘CO2 and Climate Task Force’ (subsequently renamed the ‘Climate and Energy Task Force’) in 1979, to monitor climate science. Yet a report from the Union of Concerned Scientists noted that petroleum companies such as ExxonMobil were utilising tactics to obfuscate and sow-doubt about the very existence of man-made global warming well into the early 2000s. In 2021, the US House of Representatives launched a committee hearing into the petroleum industry’s long-running disinformation campaign on climate change, noting that the industry is continuing to block reforms and ‘outsource lobbying to trade groups, obscuring their own roles in disinformation efforts’.

Greenwashing and Oxford

As more focus has been poured onto the climate denial and lobbying efforts of the fossil fuel industry, increasing attention has been paid into uncovering the links between the industry and institutions, including the university sector. A 2019 report by OpenDemocracy found that in a four-year period between 2017- 2021, the UK’s university sector accepted close to £90 million from oil companies, with Imperial College London, Cambridge, and Oxford accepting the majority of these donations.

While there are concerns over the University accepting funds from an industry which is seeking to improve its reputation while still engaging in harmful business practices, the links between research conducted at the University and these companies also raises issues over a potential conflict of interest. The University continues to welcome funds from the industry through partnerships, scholarships, and donations. Research from the OCJC shows that this includes a BP Professor of Information Engineering within the Oxford Robotics Institute, and co-authored papers across a number of departments within the Mathematical, Physical, and Life Sciences Division (MPLS) at the University. Oxford is also a core academic partner of the UK Research and Innovation Centre for Doctoral Training in Oil and Gas, which has four key research themes: ‘exploitation in challenging environments’, the ‘effective production of unconventional hydro-carbons’, ‘extending the life of mature basins’ and ‘environmental impact and regulation’ with the later aiming to ‘directly influence UK oil and gas regulations’. Its website lists fossil fuel companies including BP, ExxonMobil, Shell, Total and Verus Petroleum as ‘core industry sponsors.’

In a standout example of the fossil fuel industry’s links with the University, in 2012 Oxford partnered with the petroleum producer, Shell – the Shell-Oxford Earth Sciences project, now defunct. The partnership saw Shell agreeing to support research to the tune of £5.9 million into the ‘deposition, diagenesis, deformation and geochemistry of mudrocks’, something hailed by the University as offering ‘novel ways  for quantifying and unravelling …processes that give rise to the accumulation of earth resources such as hydrocarbons, water and mineral deposits, and are critical for the safe disposal of waste fluids or CO2.’ While operational, the Shell Library of Geosciences also received financial donations from other petroleum companies including BP, Chevron, and Total, and was overseen by its own Shell Professor of Earth Sciences.

The Centre for Corporate Reputation and Eni

In 2008, the Centre for Corporate Reputation (CCR) launched at the University. Although the CCR purports to be an ‘independent research centre’, it is located within the Saïd Business School, has a platform on their website, and teaches a course on the School’s Management and Business Administration (MBA) programme. CCRs stated purpose is to ‘understand how the reputations of organisations are created, sustained, enhanced, destroyed and rehabilitated.’ A Freedom of Information Request by OCJC, found that between 2016-2019, Shell donated £60,000 to the CCR, raising questions over the links between a centre designed to assist in the ‘enhancement’ of reputations and the fossil fuel industry. OpenDemocracy’s 2021 report noted that oil and gas companies made ‘large donations to Oxford’s Said Business School Centre for Corporate Reputation.’

The most visible links by a fossil fuel company and the CCR are between the centre and Eni, one of the world’s largest oil and gas companies. Though Eni makes a point of publicly toting the need to move to an increasingly decarbonised world and energy transition, the company is still heavily involved in the global extraction of fossil fuels, particularly in Africa.  

Eni’s links to the CCR are multiple. As well as being listed on the CCR website as a major donor to the CCR – Eni donated £571,125 in 2020-21, and gave a gift between £1.5 and £2 million to renew the partnership between the company and the centre – the CCR also employs Claudio Descalzi (Eni’s CEO and a member of the National Petroleum Council) and Erika Mandraffino (Eni’s Director of External Communication) as Visiting Fellows. An ‘Eni Research Fellow’ is also a member of the in-house staff. In 2018, the centre produced a booklet marking its 10-year anniversary. Alongside a run-down on the different events and achievements of the CCR, it also had a half-page spread comprised of two articles on Eni. The first piece, titled ‘Eni vs Report’ praised Eni for its role in launching a social media ‘counter offensive’ on the Italian investigative news organisation, Report, noting that by refusing to engage with Report for a programme critical of its operations, the energy giant had won the “battle for the second screen” and created a strategy ‘copied by a number of corporations in Italy, notably Coca-Cola.’ The programme that Eni refused to engage with concerned Eni’s purchase of the concession to mine Nigeria’s largest offshore oil field site. The second article praised Eni’s ‘strong international culture’ and the ‘reputational opportunities’ for oil and gas companies in exploring Africa for oil and gas.

While not explicitly fossil fuel linked, the booklet also provides the case study of how Rio Tinto, the Anglo-Australian mining conglomerate, used environmental and conservation teams employed by the company to demonstrate to ‘sceptical outside observers’ that their plans to open a mine in Madagascar would ‘contribute economic benefits while causing no lasting environmental and social harm.’ A year after the publication of this piece, elevated levels of uranium and lead were discovered in water downstream of the mine.

Eni’s links to the University go beyond personal and financial ties to the CCR. In 2019, the OCJC noted that Eni jumped Shell to become the largest donor from Carbon Underground Companies to the University. In 2020, the company announced the creation of the Eni-Oxford Africa Scholarship, a generous grant which includes flights and course fees for nationals of 14 African nations where Eni operates (Algeria, Angola, Egypt, Gabon, Ghana, Ivory Coast, Kenya, Libya, Morocco, Mozambique, Nigeria, Republic of Congo, South Africa, and Tunisia), for those looking to study an MBA at the Saïd Business School. On one level, this is an example of corporate responsibility: a company which is extracting natural resources from the African continent giving back to the countries in which it has a presence. Yet for others it could be seen as a PR move which would not look out of place in the next edition of the CCR’s case-study book. 

The Future of Oxford’s Relationship with the Fossil Fuel Industry

While the University’s transition in its investments towards Net-Zero should be welcomed, the continued acceptance of donations from the very industry it is professing to move-away from raises valid questions over the genuineness of such a pledge at a time in which the need to increase efforts to mitigate the worst impacts of climate change is of ever-more importance. At the time of writing, the impacts of the climate crisis can be acutely felt in the United Kingdom, which has experienced record temperatures this summer linked to climate change, including temperatures over 40oC in England, and drought conditions declared in English regions. In other nations, the impact will be even more acutely felt.

The university has rightly recognised the importance of averting a climate catastrophe. It should ensure that this is followed up by genuine, achievable action, such as the reassessment of existing links between the fossil-fuel industry and a memorandum on new donations by these companies. Short of an outright ban, it could provide concrete definitions of what the University considers to be ‘unethical business practices’, and go a further step of codifying this to include negative impacts to the planet. It is the planet, and not institutional profit which should be prioritised if the University wishes to improve its reputation and prevent co-option by an industry actively looking to improve their image through words rather than action.

When writing this article, The Oxford Blue reached out to the Office of the Vice-Chancellor, the Development Office, and the Centre for Corporate Reputation for comment. At the time of publication, no statement has been received from any of these bodies.

[1] Part 18: Committee to Review Donations and Research Funding, section 5.