by Dr Andrew Hopkins, Honorary Research Associate, Department of Science and Technology Studies, University College London
In May 2021 the International Energy Agency (IEA) announced that transitioning to net zero carbon by 2050 would mean no new oil or gas fields could be developed. Not only did this put the oil industry’s future firmly in the spotlight, the warning also posed searching questions for many geology and engineering departments at UK universities.
As oil and gas exploration and production ramped up in the North Sea in the late 20th century, academic geology gained in importance, as universities created postgraduate courses to train the technical specialists required by the expanding hydrocarbon industry. Prominent geology and engineering departments found that major oil companies were keen to sponsor professorial chairs and other academic positions, as well as to fund research in subjects such as sedimentology and structural geology. Initially, this was undoubtedly a win-win situation. Universities gained valuable funding for research and could boast to students that they had a close association with prospective employers. They could also demonstrate that they were contributing to the UK’s economic development. Concomitantly, oil companies were guaranteed a supply of well-trained graduates, backed by sound technical knowledge and research expertise, and they enjoyed the prestige of being associated with esteemed academic institutions.
For scientifically engaged graduates, the oil industry posed some stimulating geological problems and it had high quality data with which to address them. In the middle of my career, I returned to academia to study for a PhD in marine geology and geophysics at one of the UK’s industry-oriented geology departments. My data and the software I used to interpret it were made available by the oil industry, and I received some funding from the American Association of Petroleum Geologists.
The oil industry had a somewhat less than virtuous image when I began my career as a graduate petroleum geoscientist in 1980. For example, it was widely seen both as overly-powerful and as a source of pollution. However, for much of my time in the industry, the potentially catastrophic effects of the combustion of fossil fuels on the global climate were either imperfectly understood or were easy to dismiss on the basis of the inherent scientific uncertainties. Now however, as the IEA’s current position testifies, we have reached a point where the fact of anthropogenic climate change is beyond dispute. As a result, the association of academia with the oil industry has become something of a poisoned chalice.
One indication of this is that the number of students studying geology at UK universities declined by 43% between 2014 and 2019. The causes behind this trend are probably complex, but it is widely agreed that potential students are deterred by the association of academic geology with an industry which is seen as causing environmental harm, and which we now know to have covered up its own damning research on climate change.
Students from disciplines outside geology have also become less tolerant of the presence of the oil industry on their campuses. For example, in 2013, Oxford University students staged a well-publicised demonstration against a £5.9 million research grant that had been awarded by Shell to the University’s Earth Science Department. Protests have also been conducted at many universities calling for divestment from fossil fuels and for oil companies to be excluded from careers fairs.
I left the oil industry in 2014, more out of a desire to seek new challenges than for environmental motives (though it is difficult not to feel some sense of misplaced virtue at my departure). I still have connections with geological academia and I am concerned by the position in which many geology departments now find themselves. Their challenge now is to be able to present themselves as part of the solution to climate change and to environmental concerns generally, rather than to be seen as part of the problem.
 E.g. Conway and Oreskes 2012 Merchants of Doubt. Bloomsbury.