New report highlights links between universities and fossil fuel industry

The Fossil Free Universities campaign has been revitalised with a focus on "exposing the ties"

Protest at UNSW on 19 September. Image:

Fossil Free Universities, which is run by environmental organisation and university divestment groups, has today released a report highlighting ties between Australian universities and the fossil fuel industry as part of its revitalised campaign.

It is the first report released as part of the #ExposeTheTies campaign — new messaging that focuses on links forged between universities and the fossil fuel industry through research funding, and the relationship between members on university boards and companies with significant business in fossil fuels.

According to the report, “These ties could create a serious conflict of interest or bias when it comes to decisions around fossil fuel divestment.”

The report released today includes information about the University of Queensland, the University of Newcastle, UNSW, the University of Wollongong, and Monash University.

It has collected its data from the Australian Coal Association Research Program (ACARP) and the Australian Research Council (ARC). ACARP is the Australian coal industry’s research program, which is entirely funded by Australian black coal producers through a five-cents-per-tonne levy paid on saleable coal.

According to today’s report, ACARP has funded $31,463,666 worth of research at the University of Queensland since 2013. It has provided $13,675,522 for research funding at the University of Newcastle in the same time period.

The report also highlights the industry backgrounds of key university directors. For example, the Chancellor of the University of Newcastle, Paul Jeans, has had a 40 year career at BHP and was a director of the Newcastle Port Corporation, which is one of Australia’s largest coal-exporting ports.

Most universities in the report are shown to have council members with employment backgrounds or non-executive positions in different coal, mining and resource companies.

The University of Sydney is not included in this first report, but figures with ties to energy and resource companies also sit on the University of Sydney’s Senate, which is its governing body.

Chancellor Belinda Hutchinson is a non-executive board director of AGL Energy, while Deputy Chancellor Alec Brennan is a director, and was previously the chair, of Emeco group, which provides equipment to the global mining industry.

Pro-Chancellor David Mortimer is a director of Petsec Energy Ltd, and Pro-Chancellor Kevin McCann is chairman of  Origin Energy; both oil and gas companies.

Amy Russell from the Fossil Free USyd campaign told Honi, “The #ExposeTheTies report goes to show how entrenched the fossil fuel industry is in our education institutions. We think this might explain USyd’s lack of transparency around their 20 per cent commitment and refusal to divest from any fossil fuel companies … We need students to call the Uni out on their vested interests in fossil fuels and build pressure on the uni to prioritise its students’ futures over short-term profits.”

The Fossil Free Universities campaign has been active since 2013 across 18 Australian university campuses, and has pushed for universities to divest from fossil fuels. Divestment involves removing University stocks and assets from companies involved in extracting fossil fuels, and is an attempt to address climate change at its source.

The global trend to divest began on American university campuses in 2011. It is estimated that $5trillion in assets had been divested from fossil fuels worldwide as of December 2016.

2014 saw a sustained divestment campaign across Australian universities, with the University of Sydney holding a referendum on whether it should divest from fossil fuels during the SRC elections in which 80 per cent of students voted ‘yes’. As of September 2013, USyd’s funds had included shares in Woodside Petroleum, Oil Search Limited, BHP Billiton, Rio Tinto, Santos Limited and AGL Energy Limited.

However, rather than divesting, in 2015 the University said it would instead “substantially reduce” its carbon footprint over the next three years, and set a reduction target of 20 per cent. While the University promised to “measure and report progress against this goal annually,” its 2015 progress was not reported on until 2016, and the official report it releases is not extensive.

The new #ExposeTheTies campaign comes as a response to many Australian universities’ resistance towards divesting from fossil fuels completely.

“This has led us to question the kinds of ties that exist between our universities and the fossil fuels industry,” the report reads.

“Openly addressing potential conflicts of interest will be critical to ensuring universities are not part of Australia’s failure to adequately address climate change and take urgent steps to speed up the transition from polluting coal, oil and gas to the clean energy solutions needed right now.”

The report was launched today with a webinar, and a peaceful protest at UNSW during which students blockaded the Chancellery building.

The campaign is currently asking students to write to their vice chancellors to demand greater transparency.