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Oxford University in oil donor controversy

Cherwell has learned that in 2013, the Earth Sciences Department accepted a donation worth up to £10m from the subsidiary of a company subsequently convicted for violating trade sanctions.

Schlumberger Oilfield UK, a wholly-owned subsidiary of Schlumberger Ltd, the largest oilfield services company in the world, donated software licenses worth up to £10m to the University of Oxford’s Earth Sciences Department. These licences, which constituted the third-largest donation to Oxford University in the financial year 2013/14 according to Freedom of Information requests submitted by Cherwell, are currently used in the Shell Geoscience Laboratory.

In March 2015, Schlumberger Oilfield Holdings Ltd. (SOHL), another of Schlumberger’s subsidiaries, was handed the biggest criminal fine for sanctions violations in US history.

SOHL pleaded guilty to allegations of violating sanctions by trading with Iran and Sudan, and attempting to conceal their activities from the US government. The company paid out $155m in criminal fines, forfeited $77.5m in earnings and has begun a period of three years of corporate probation.


According to a University spokesperson, the University’s Committee to Review Donations “undertook a thorough assessment to determine whether it was appropriate to receive software from this donor,” although this was before Schlumberger’s subsidiary pleaded guilty to sanctions violations.

In April 2012, Professor Nick Rawlins, the University’s Pro-Vice Chancellor for Development & External Affairs, said in an interview with Spear’s magazine, “If you asked what would happen if somebody from whom we’ve accepted a donation committed some grave criminal act, what we would do? What we would do is take the matter of donation back to the committee that reviews donations and in the light of the evidence we now have, [we’d ask] what should we do?”

However, after SOHL’s criminal fine, Cherwell understands that no formal review took place. Professor Nick Rawlins could not be reached for comment on the matter.

The Earth Sciences department has previously come under environmental scrutiny, most notably when the Shell Geoscience Laboratory itself was founded in 2013. The research partnership with Royal Dutch Shell provoked anger among climate change activists, sparking protests outside the Radcliffe Camera and open letters to The Guardian. Within the department, the Shell Geoscience Laboratory is involved with a wide variety of different research projects, with a particular focus on unconventional hydrocarbons and carbon sequestration.


Unconventional hydrocarbons are sources of oil and gas which require unconventional methods of extraction, like shale gas, or tar sands. Typically, some sort of stimulation or injection is required before the resources can be extracted.

Research into these areas has provoked the ire of climate change activists in the past, but in a statement to Cherwell, the University insisted, “All donations to the University, whether from oil companies or anyone else, do not affect the independence of our teaching and research programmes.

“Those donating money to the University have no influence over how academics carry out their research or what conclusions they reach.

“Where the results of research are not favourable to industry, the researcher will still seek to publish the results in the usual way. The University of Oxford is one of the world’s leading universities, with the top ranking in the UK’s 2014 Research Excellence Framework (REF). This would not be achievable if our research was not rigorous, independent and objective.”

Rivka Micklethwaite, who has been involved in OUSU’s campaign to persuade the University to divest from fossil fuels, told Cherwell, “People have calculated how much more [CO2] we can put into the atmosphere, and there’s about five times that much carbon locked away in the known reserves of all the fossil fuel corporations. Their industry needs to stop functioning.” Asked about the University’s research into unconventional hydrocarbons, Micklethwaite commented, “The long and the short of it is that they’re looking for more fossil fuels; they’re looking for more ways that they can get to different kinds of fossil fuels.”

As an oilfield services company, rather than an oil and gas company like Shell or BP, Schlumberger neither owns any oilfields nor extracts any fossil fuels itself. The company does, however, play a vital facilitating role in the operations of oil and gas companies around the world. In particular, it is responsible for engineering the equipment used in arctic exploration and in extraction at deep-sea drilling sites.


While the University cited carbon sequestration as an example of environmental research being done in the laboratory, Micklethwaite was critical of this approach. Carbon sequestration involves pulling carbon dioxide out of the atmosphere and storing it deep underground.

But Micklethwaite suggested that research in these areas was progressing far too slowly for it to be a viable option. She went on to say that it was “a really irresponsible way for politicians and fossil fuel companies to be treating the climate change problem”, insisting that more funding should be diverted to renewable energy sources.

This news comes just as an investigation by Greenpeace has revealed the true scale of donations made by the fossil fuel industry to UK universities. The environmental organisation placed Oxford fourth on their list of universities who had taken the most money from oil, gas, and coal companies in the last five years, with well over £21m accepted in the last five years. Their investigation was also critical of Oxford for taking money for branded professorships, citing the Shell Professor of Earth Sciences as an example.


However, Professor Joe Cartwright, the Shell Professor of Earth Sciences and head of the Shell Geoscience Laboratory, was keen to emphasise the varied nature of the work done in the lab. He explained that in addition to hydrocarbon exploration, “one of our major themes is to understand how natural fractures form.”

He continued, “We are also actively trying to explain how giant submarine landslides and mud volcanoes form (these are major hazards for society,) and trying to understand how chemical reactions affect the physical properties of sediments (how mud turns into rock.)”

Schlumberger did not respond to Cherwell’s request for comment.

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