Cambridge University’s Institute for Energy and Environmental Flows highlights the danger of Big Oil funded research.

Co-authored by Zak Coleman, Peach Rose & Tom Howarth

In recent months, students, academics, and leading environmental campaigners have been sounding the alarm over Big Oil’s sponsorship of top universities’ climate research. Their argument is simple: for as long as the fossil fuel industry continues to pour billions into fossil fuel expansion and anti-climate lobbying, accepting their funding for climate research is like accepting tobacco industry sponsorship for a public health study.

From Princeton University — which recently ruled out research collaboration with more than 90 fossil fuel companies — to the journal Nature — which published a comprehensive study that found fossil fuel-sponsored climate and energy research at universities consistently reaches conclusions favourable to the industry’s interests — to Stanford’s new flagship Doerr School of Sustainability — which has faced intense controversy over its decision to accept fossil fuel industry donations — universities’ Big Oil partnerships are increasingly coming under the microscope.

At the centre of this debate in the UK lie institutions like Cambridge University’s Institute for Energy and Environmental flows (IEEF), formerly known as the BP Institute.

Established in 2000 with a £22 million founding donation from the oil and gas giant, the Institute has long been a target of student, academic and community campaigners. Just a few months ago, more than 50 people occupied the building in protest, demanding the university stop accepting fossil fuel industry research funding. In response, the university renamed the facility to “better reflect the scope of the Institute’s research” but have continued to accept money from BP.

“Again and again we found research that had clear applications to the fossil fuel industry.”

The university has defended the Institute, claiming that it “no longer conducts research on fossil fuel recovery”. But with BP planning to spend more than $30 million a day exploiting new oil and gas over the next 8 years, and comparatively little on renewables, we decided to assess this claim ourselves. Why, if its name was no longer being prominently greenwashed, and if the institute’s research bore no relation to the company’s core business interests, was BP interested in funding this work?

So, we dove into the institute’s published output over the last 2 years, the period during which this alleged pivot away from fossil fuel research took place.

As we scoured the Institute’s website and research output, we noticed a worrying trend. The presentation of research did indeed increasingly avoid obvious references to fossil fuel extraction, instead adopting language related to the energy transition. Yet on closer inspection, again and again we found research that had clear applications to the fossil fuel industry.

The institute’s research itself falls into 5 main categories: energy efficiency, carbon storage, surface science, natural hazards and the natural environment. At a glance you could be forgiven for thinking that these research domains fall outside of the interests of fossil fuel companies, or that they may even be considered ‘green’. Upon closer inspection, however, the influence of fossil fuel giants steering this research in particular directions is pervasive, and worrying.

Carbon capture and storage (CCS), for example, is often touted as an integral part of a ‘net zero’ future by governments and industry alike. The ability to capture carbon emissions at source and safely store them out of harm’s way would, of course, be a game changer in the climate fight. But the technology also has a darker side — one which oil extractors are already exploiting.

Via a process known as geo-sequestration, high-pressure, or ‘super-critical’, CO2 can be injected into sedimentary rock formations where, due to its liquid-like state, it can be stored, in theory for an indefinite period. To do this, the CO2 must displace the fluids already filling the porous rocks, making this process an ideal candidate for enhanced oil recovery (EOR), a term for the set of techniques used to increase the yield of declining oil fields.

This knowledge is nothing new. In fact, CO2 injection has been used to increase oil production since the 1970s, the only difference being that back then no one gave much thought to whether the gas remained in the ground or not. Nowadays, fossil fuel companies are using this same technique, under the guise of CCS, to continue to increase the profitability of their oil fields. Worse still, they claim this technique will enable them to continue burning fossil fuels decades into the future.

It’s no surprise, then, that geo-sequestration of CO2 is the primary focus of the CCS research at the BP Institute. Given that out of 27 commercially operational CCS projects worldwide, 21 inject CO2 into oil reservoirs to force out petroleum, it seems unlikely that the research would stand to benefit anything but the extraction of more oil from the ground, which, according to the British Geological Survey, would “offset much or all of the reduction in CO2 emissions” resulting from storage.

But CCS is not the only research area with potential applications to the extraction of fossil fuels – so too is the surface science work being done at the Institute. In particular, the Institute has a focus on colloidosomes, solid microcapsules composed of colloidal particles at the interface of emulsion droplets. Oil and water do not mix, but these microparticles have the power to reduce the tension between the two types of liquid, which helps increase the amount of oil that can be extracted from wells when they are flooded with water or other substances. You guessed it, that’s more EOR.

“Is it too much to ask that we keep critical climate research free of this influence?”

In total, our investigation found 29 research papers published since 2020 by the IEEF were either funded by fossil fuel companies or had applications to the fossil fuel industry. Of these, some overtly advertised their aims of increasing the productivity of oil wells, while the vast majority hid the true applications under vague descriptions such as “industry”.

It would be wrong to assert that all research undertaken by academics at the IEEF is for the direct benefit of the oil and gas sector, or that none of the research could be used in a way that’s beneficial for the energy transition. However, it is clear that where money from these companies is present it will inevitably tilt research towards their core, climate-wrecking business model. Is it too much to ask that we keep critical climate research free of this influence?

On the 17th of October 2022, academics at Cambridge University — which took a total of £14m in grants from fossil fuel companies between 2017 and 2021 — were scheduled to vote on just that. This would have been an opportunity for the university to take true climate leadership, becoming the first major educational institution in the world to fully outlaw fossil-funded research. Instead, the vote was blocked by the university council while a report is due to be undertaken — a wasted opportunity to say the least.

This decision shows how little we have learned from the past. The BBC’s recent documentary Big Oil vs the World charted the long history of industry-sponsored research at leading universities. In one chilling example, a major piece of research that revealed the devastating environmental consequences of fracking and gas extraction was immediately contradicted by an industry-sponsored study at MIT. This study helped to shore up the industry-promoted consensus around gas as a ‘transition fuel’. The paper’s lead author, who abruptly ended the BBC interview when asked whether industry funding influenced his conclusions, went on to become Obama’s Energy Secretary during the US fracking boom.

For decades, tobacco industry funding for public health research has been outlawed. Now, as we face an unprecedented climate emergency driven by the fossil fuel industry, we must again stand against the insanity of involving the architects of a global crisis in developing the solutions needed to address it.