Climate Change

University of Melbourne fossil fuel ties run deep

6 May 2020

After years of campaigns calling for a transition away from the fossil fuel industry, the University of Melbourne continues to foster ties with the world’s largest carbon emitters, including Saudi Aramco and ExxonMobil.

This revelation comes despite the University’s claim in its 2030 Strategy Discussion Paper that “The University of Melbourne will be known by the company it keeps as much as by what it accomplishes.”

Last year, the Climate Accountability Institute, a leading authority on the fossil fuel industry’s contributions to climate change, published their list of the top 20 carbon and methane emitting coal, oil and gas companies.

The Saudi Arabian Oil Company (Saudi Aramco) came in at number one, producing over 59 billion tonnes of CO2 equivalent between 1965 and 2017. ExxonMobil ranked number four, accounting for nearly 42 billion tonnes of emissions in the same period. Between them, Saudi Aramco and ExxonMobil are responsible for nearly 7.5 per cent of global greenhouse gas emissions since 1965.

Until recently, Saudi Aramco was privately owned by the Saudi Arabian government, which was accused in 2015 of obstructing the Paris Climate Summit to protect the value of its oil assets. Saudi Arabia also has a history of human rights abuses, including the alleged murder of author Jamal Khashoggi in 2018, and the arrest and alleged torture of women’s rights activists in the same year.

In December last year, Saudi Aramco became a publicly owned company with an initial valuation of nearly $2 trillion, making it the most valuable listed company in history.

According to a University of Melbourne staff member, who wished to remain anonymous, Saudi Aramco approached the University last year and requested that the Master of Data Science course be taught to its employees.

A University spokesperson confirmed this, telling Farrago, “Last year, [the] Faculty of Science and Melbourne School of Engineering were presented with an opportunity to teach the Masters of Data Science course to Saudi Aramco employees and declined the opportunity.”

Although the Faculty of Science and School of Engineering declined the offer from Saudi Aramco, documents obtained by Farrago suggest that the University engaged with the company to determine the details of the proposed arrangement.

At a School of Mathematics and Statistics meeting in June 2019, a member of the University’s Research, Innovation and Commercialisation (RIC) wing presented details of the arrangement.

According to the meeting minutes, the proposal entailed “a duplicate of the Masters of Data Science program delivered as a 2 year program.”

The presenter said, “RIC are investigating the possibilities and ascertaining interest in going to Saudi to deliver face-to-face units.”

In an email to staff, Head of School of Mathematics and Statistics Jan de Gier gave members of the School further details of the proposal: “Other than online delivery this would also involve lecturing in Saudi Arabia for two blocks of four days over weekends (Fri-Mon).”

Farrago understands that some members of the School raised concerns with the proposal at the School of Mathematics and Statistics meeting.

In the email, de Gier conceded, “The University very much acknowledges that there are several non-trivial issues associated to this proposal that need to be mitigated.”

The University did not respond to Farrago’s request for comment on whether it deemed it appropriate to engage with Saudi Aramco—which was owned by the Saudi Arabian government at the time of the proposal—given Saudi Arabia’s environmental record and history of human rights abuses.

Concerns about the University’s ties to the fossil fuel industry extend beyond those held about Saudi Aramco.

In 2018, Kimberley Reid, a current PhD candidate at the University, stumbled across some posters at the School of Earth Sciences. The posters advertised ExxonMobil graduate positions, and Reid learnt that the School allowed ExxonMobil to conduct interviews of graduates on campus.

Reid sent an email to the School in March 2018 expressing her concerns about “endorsing and providing a platform for the fossil fuel industry, especially companies with known links to climate denial campaigns.”

After receiving support from several students and staff in the School who shared her concerns, Reid sent another email to the School with a link to an anonymous poll, asking, “Should the School host fossil fuel companies?”

A senior lecturer from the School replied to Reid’s email, writing, “For your stats, please count me as one who was unhappy with your communications and your sentiments regarding recent recruitment visits in the school.”

The lecturer called Reid’s suggestion of a poll “nothing but divisive and unhelpful.”

In a reply to Reid’s email, Head of School of Earth Sciences David Phillips also defended the hosting of ExxonMobil. He wrote, “As a School of learning, research and engagement within the University, we value academic freedom, respectful debate and freedom of choice.”

In 2019, the same posters went up around the School. This time, Reid put her own posters up next to the ExxonMobil advertisements, including excerpts from ExxonMobil’s 2019 Energy Outlook, in which the company outlines its plan to continue mining oil and natural gas as far into the future as 2040.

Reid believes that the School of Earth Sciences will continue to support ExxonMobil’s recruitment drives.

“ExxonMobil will visit again to recruit, while down the hallway, climate scientists will be working on studies to understand how flooding and fires are getting worse under climate change, and how limiting warming to 1.5 degrees, and avoiding more dangerous climate change is impossible if we keep burning coal and other non-renewables,” she said.

Phillips still believes in hosting ExxonMobil at the School of Earth Sciences. He told Farrago, “We don’t have a lot of opportunities to engage with ExxonMobil. If we said ‘OK, you can’t come on campus’, you know they would simply conduct interviews at their offices and we would lose the opportunity.”

“It’s not that we condone anything that ExxonMobil does, or many other companies for that matter, it’s keeping the communication lines open.”

Phillips said that the University is also taking a careful approach to divesting from fossil fuel assets. “Across the University, there’s no doubting that [climate change] is a crisis, but the debate is about ‘OK, how do we deal with it, what’s the best approach.’”

The University’s current approach rules out a strict divestment strategy. According to its 2017–2020 Sustainability Plan, “investing in climate solutions will have a greater and more positive impact on future generations than simply exiting fossil fuel holdings”.

The current target is to “have divested from, or be in the process of divesting from within a reasonable period” any investments that do not comply with the University’s Sustainable Investment Framework (SIF) by 2021.

In the SIF, the University doubles down on an anti-divestment approach, saying it “does not believe that a strict exclusion (or divestment) approach is the most effective way for it to meet its fiduciary duty in regard to climate change risk, nor to drive progress on climate change mitigation”.

According to the Plan, the University invests part of its $2 billion portfolio into Carbon Underground 200 (CU200) companies, which are the 200 biggest emitters of coal, oil and gas that are publicly listed. In 2017, companies on the CU200 list included ExxonMobil, Adani Enterprises, BP, Chevron and Shell. In the years leading up to 2017, between three and five per cent of the University’s investment portfolio was allocated to the CU200.

The University assured students last year that the targets set by the Sustainability Plan were “on track”, citing consulting firm Mercer’s assessment of a “strong alignment” between the University’s fund manager and the SIF. The University did not respond to Farrago’s request for updated details on its holdings in CU200 companies.

A long-running campaign calling for the University to enact a more decisive and transparent divestment strategy has been ultimately unsuccessful. Student-run Fossil Free Melbourne University (FFMU) began campaigning in 2013 and is responsible for protests such as Drop Your Ass-ets and the blockade of the Raymond Priestley building.

However, the group has been inactive since April 2018, around the time that the SIF was released. At the time, the FFMU stated, “The lack of consultation and commitment to future divestment is a betrayal of trust with the staff, students, and members of the community.”

Former FFMU member Zeb Peake attributes the decline of the group partly to the release of the SIF.

“We didn’t really know how to approach pushing the Uni further on it,” Peake said. “They do mention climate change as a problem, but a lot of the language they use around investments is about climate change risk to investments.”

“It’s very financial-speak and it’s avoiding the moral issue of whether we should invest in these companies,” she said.

The University is set to release its 2019 Sustainability Report in the coming months, which will include an update on the progress of the SIF.


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