Get oil off our hands

November 17, 2000

Fossil fuel research gets more cash than the green options. Universities could alter that, says Greg Muttitt

This week saw the start of the United Nations climate summit in the Hague. Government ministers will be joining in the discussions next Monday, aiming to agree by the end of the week the rules for globally reducing carbon dioxide emissions. The goal is to cut developed country emissions by an average of 5 per cent from 1990 levels by 2008-12, as agreed in Kyoto three years ago. But this can only be the start - climate scientists estimate we need to make at least 60 per cent cuts by 2050.

Current action - as described, for example, in the UK government's climate change programme - focuses on the consumption of fossil fuels: educating individuals to save energy and taxing business energy use (together with the switch from coal to gas-powered electricity generation). Such measures may succeed in meeting the Kyoto targets. But that is the easy part.

There is only so much consumers of energy can do. As the recent fuel protests have shown, de-incentivising polluting activities without offering an alternative can look more like a piece of arbitrary punitive taxation than an environmental measure.

Crucially, if deeper cuts are to be made to our carbon emissions, alternative energy sources must be developed. In other words, policy must address the supply side of the equation, as well as demand. This is where universities come in as many products and technologies begin their development in the research departments.

The International Petroleum Research Directory lists nearly 1,000 research projects relating to petroleum exploration and production being carried out in UK universities - worth an estimated £67 million a year. About £36 million of this comes from the public purse. While closer-to-market product development tends to be carried out "in-house" by the companies, universities serve as an important part of the intellectual infrastructure of the oil industry, carrying out the more speculative and collaborative, early-stage research.

Almost half of this research (460 projects) is geological: looking for new oil and gas fields and working out how best to exploit them. Meanwhile, other research focuses on developing extraction technologies or on the engineering of oil rigs and platforms. In short, research for the oil and gas sector serves the joint purposes of lowering production costs and of increasing exploitable supply.

Contrast this with the emerging renewable energy technologies. There are a number of proven technologies. But they can only become a serious prospect through further research and development: refining designs, improving reliability, reducing costs; and developing systems for large-scale use and manufacture.

Yet UK universities carry out only about 190 research projects, worth just £11.6 million a year, into renewable energy sources. This is about one sixth of oil/gas exploration and production projects, not even counting "downstream" oil refining, power generation and coal research.

Extra money for renewables recently announced by Tony Blair is welcome, but comes nowhere near redressing the balance with support for fossil fuels. This imbalance is driven by the government's emphasis on university-industry collaboration (which has dominated higher education policy since the Realising Our Potential White Paper in 1993) - naturally favouring the more established, richer industry over the emerging one.

What is more, with public money drying up, universities are forced to approach corporate partners. Thus we see partnerships ranging from the BP Institute at Cambridge to the enterprise oil building at Heriot-Watt University, from the Mobil lecturer in production geoscience at Aberdeen to the Elf senior lecturer in earth resources engineering at Imperial College, London.

The oil industry has also infiltrated government policy making. For example, Sir Robin Nicholson, a non-executive director of BP, is a member of the Council for Science and Technology, which advises ministers, and Sir John Cadogan, BP's former research director, was director general of research councils from 1993 to 1998.

The long-term effect of the research imbalance is to make fossil fuels more competitive as energy sources than renewables. If we are serious about tackling climate change, universities must move away from supporting climate-altering technologies, in favour of their cleaner alternatives.

Greg Muttitt works with Oxford-based independent research group Corporate Watch. Degrees of Involvement , the report on university-oil industry relations, will be published early next year.

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