Oxford’s controversial donors revealed

Oxford's donors include a firm accused of climate change denial, and a bank fined £235million by a US regulator

Demonstrators protesting the University's investment in oil and gas. Photo: Jon Stocks

Two of Oxford University’s top donors have been accused of facilitating climate change denial in public debate and enabling money laundering, Cherwell can reveal.

Multinational fossil fuel corporation ExxonMobil and Italian banking group Intesa Sanpaolo both donated between £1 million and £4.99 million to the University in 2016-17, a Freedom of Information request shows.

Their donations were directed to the Nuffield Department of Clinical Medicine and the Saïd Business School respectively.

The University classifies its donations in three bands: “£10 million and above”, “£5 million to £9.9 million”, and “£1 million to £4.9 million”.

ExxonMobil, the world’s largest publically traded oil and gas company with assets over $348.7 billion and 69,000 employees, helps to fund scholarships linked to the Global Health department.

Funding is available for candidates domiciled in developing countries who study the MSc International Health and Tropical Medicine, which focuses on the archetypal health impact of climate change.

The company has been involved in an ongoing climate change controversy dating as early as the 1970s. ExxonMobil is alleged to have engaged in research and lobbying with the purpose of delaying widespread acceptance and action on global warming.

From the 1980s to the mid 2000s, the company, which was headed by former US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson between 2006 and 2017, was a leader in climate change denial. It consistently opposed regulations to curtail global warming.

In February 2017, a lawsuit was filed by former ExxonMobil employees, claiming that the company deceived them by making misleading and false statements regarding the financial risks of climate change.

In July 2017, three communities in California sued 37 oil, coal, and gas companies, including ExxonMobil, for contributing to sea level rises while engaging in a “coordinated, multi-front effort to conceal and deny their own knowledge of those threats”.

In August 2017, a report was published by researchers at Harvard University claiming that ExxonMobil had mislead the public on the effects of climate change.

They found that between 1977 and 2014, 80% of ExxonMobil’s statements to the public expressed doubt about climate change, despite 80% of the company’s research acknowledging the validity of climate change and its cause in human activity.

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“Our findings are clear: ExxonMobil misled the public about the state of climate science and its implications. Available documents show a systematic, quantifiable discrepancy between what ExxonMobil’s scientists and executives discussed about climate change in private and in academic circles, and what it presented to the general public,” Geoffrey Supran and Naomi Oreskes, Harvard academics and authors of the study, wrote in The New York Times.

Supran told Cherwell: “By accepting millions of pounds from ExxonMobil, Oxford is helping legitimise a company that has worked for decades to confuse the public, undermine policy, slander scientists (including me), and sabotage science.”

Just last month, ExxonMobil were accused of continuing in their pursuit of an oil deal with Liberia despite concerns of corruption.

Under the leadership of Tillerson, who was fired via Twitter by Donald Trump in March of this year, ExxonMobil signed a $120 million deal with Broadway Consolidated/Peppercoast (BCP), despite an allegation of corruption by the transparency organisation Global Witness. BCP engages in oil and gas exploration and production in the West Africa region.

The investigation by Global Witness showed that Exxon executives were aware that the purchased oil was partly owned by former politicians who had taken ownership of the block through illegal means.

An ExxonMobil spokesperson told Cherwell: “ExxonMobil’s funding to Oxford is for a range of programmes that deliver benefits in the areas of health, women’s empowerment and energy studies. The programme you have referenced is for scholarships that foster the next generation of leaders to tackle malaria and other diseases around the world.

“Since 2011, the ExxonMobil Global Health Scholars programme has provided 38 outstanding young doctors, researchers and health professionals from Cameroon, China, India, Liberia, Mexico, Nigeria, Papua New Guinea, Russia, South Africa and Tanzania the opportunity to learn about the global burden of disease, epidemiological principles and how to apply classroom lessons to the real world.

“Students have pursued global health-focused Master’s degrees at Oxford University, and then taken the skills and knowledge they have learned back to their home countries to continue to fight health issues.”

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Meanwhile, Intensa Sanpaolo, Italy’s largest bank, were fined $235 million by New York’s financial regulators for violating anti-money laundering and bank secrecy laws, as reported by the Financial Times in December 2016.

The report also said that between 2002 and 2006, Intensa Sanpaolo has conducted over 2,700 clearing transactions, which amounted to more than $11 billion on behalf of clients subject to US economic sanctions.

Intensa Sanpaolo have total assets amounting to over €725 billion and has over 96,000 employees.

In March of this year, Carlo Messina, CEO of Intensa Sanpaolo, and Vice-Chancellor Louise Richardson formally recognised their “strategic partnership”.

This partnership includes the funding of the first Intensa Sanpaolo Research Fellow, Dr Rita Mora, based at the Said Business School.

A University spokesperson said the ExxonMobil donation “enables students from low and middle income countries to study an MSc at Oxford’s Centre for Tropical Medicine & Global Health.”

The spokeperson added: “The ExxonMobil Foundation also supports the Worldwide Antimalarial Resistance Network (WWARN)”.

The spokesperson said: “The University is grateful to both donors for supporting these substantial academic projects which all address challenging issues of global concern.

“Oxford University has a robust and rigorous donor scrutiny process. All major prospective donors are carefully considered by the Committee to Review Donations under the University’s guidelines for acceptance.  High profile companies and organisations may well have been the subject of individual controversies over the years.

“The Committee will consider such controversies in the wider context of the respective institutions’ overall reputation and standards of good governance. Donors to the University have no influence over the content of academic programmes, how academics carry out their research or the conclusions they reach.”