“Painting the Town Orange”: Just Stop Oil, UCL and Fossil Fuel Investment

Paige Johnson, Yash Zodgekar, Ary Ris-Luamhain and Rebekah Wright

This October, Just Stop Oil (JSO) marked another destination on its Irn-Bru coloured tour of the UK: the UCL Portico. Though the paint has now been washed away, the infamous image of JSO activist Arthur Clifton posed defiantly between orange-stained pillars remains imprinted on our minds.

Though police vans circled the streets of Bloomsbury that day, Clifton couldn’t be stopped. Despite the best attempts of UCL security, the damage was already done. UCL had long decided its fate; the orange stain on the University was ultimately the consequence of its own actions – or, more accurately, inaction.

As one may expect, JSO’s demonstration provoked strong reactions across the student body. Some supported the transformation of the Portico into a canvas for environmental advocacy. Others saw the actions as nothing more than a poorly executed, semi-permanent spray tan. Undoubtedly though, JSO’s protest called into question the legitimacy of UCL’s climate policies.

Prior to the demonstration, JSO sent an open letter to universities seeking an endorsement for their cause and explaining that they would hold demonstrations at institutions that refused to show support. Whilst we can’t be sure if UCL directly rejected JSO’s requests, we can be certain that they, at the very least, ignored them.

Ideally, UCL would make a statement that condemned the government’s continued involvement in the fossil fuel industry, one JSO activist told The Cheese Grater. As one may have expected, no such condemnation was announced by the University.

Since JSO’s actions on campus, UCL has continued to distance itself from the climate action group, opting not to initiate contact after the event and ignoring requests for comment.

The Cheese Grater is disappointed that the Provost’s office has refused to speak on the matter. However, this is not the opinion of all students, one of whom argued that the University’s reluctance is “understandable” given JSO’s controversial reputation.

JSO’s key policy demand focuses on the government’s granting of oil and gas licences. As such, the organisation actually holds a broadly supportive stance towards UCL’s academic community, which has been instrumental in producing supporting research on their main topic of concern: oil and climate change.

JSO’s issue is with the senior management of UCL, whom they believe should be applying more pressure on the government to introduce greener climate policies. Speaking to The Cheese Grater, Clifton branded the silence of UCL management as “licensing massacres”.

Clifton argued that by not speaking out, UCL legitimises government policies that are detrimental to the environment and public well-being. These policies include Rishi Sunak’s licensing of “over 100 new oil fields, including Rosebank”. Clifton informed The Cheese Grater that “these will produce emissions roughly similar to the 28 lowest income countries in the world [but] university institutions stay silent”.

Across campus, students hold mixed opinions on the actions of JSO. One student interviewed by The Cheese Grater noted that, while the organisation’s movement spreads an important message, their tactics risk “alienating many would-be supporters”. When we mentioned this to Clifton, he disputed it. He argued that JSO demonstrations tend to have a “net positive” impact, with 100 new members having signed up to the organisation following the protest.

Clifton also pointed to the “radical flank effect”. Essentially, if you’re the group everyone loves to hate, you and your cause are what everyone’s talking about.

Evidently, as far as JSO is concerned, there’s no such thing as bad publicity. “We’ve done three decades of petitioning, of non-disruptive protesting, and nobody’s listened”, Clifton commented, “we’re [now] forced into a position where we may have to do things disruptively”.

The protest also put the spotlight on UCL’s continued engagement with fossil fuel companies. UCL have heavily promoted their ethical investment portfolio since they officially divested from fossil fuels in December 2019.

However, UCL’s public statements continue to omit the very fossil fuel companies that are still funnelling money into the university. The Cheese Grater suspects that in using exclusively the term “investment”, UCL built a loophole into their sustainability campaign. 

UCL’s 2019 statement makes no mention of their partnerships, grants, research funding, donations, and gifts and it is under these terms that they continue their relationships within the fossil fuel industry. For instance, Shell is listed as a funder of UCL’s Mechanical Engineering department.

Also, according to the most recent portfolio statement of UCL’s endowment fund, UCL has funds invested in JP Morgan and Bank of America: the highest and fourth highest fossil fuel financiers in the world respectively. Marsh McLennan is also listed, a company facing a formal complaint for violating international guidelines for responsible business.

This discrepancy between public-facing climate statements and actual cash-flow is also evident in several FOI requests sent by Jenna Corderoy. In response to one request for the data of donations and research funding from oil/gas companies, UCL named funding from Shell International (2019), Shell Exploration & Production B.V. (2019), BP Exploration Operating (2020), and BP International Ltd (2020).

Strikingly, UCL confirmed that no offers of donations, gifts, grants or research funding from the listed funders were rejected between 2017 and 2021 (the parameter dates of the request). By employing ethical investment doublespeak, UCL has avoided severing ties from partners that are lucrative, but whose methods are incredibly detrimental to our climate.

One JSO activist informed The Cheese Grater that despite UCL’s “Active Bystander” policy, the University’s inaction in the face of environmental challenges speaks to a passive stance. Despite UCL’s public campaigns, the decisions which go on behind-the-scenes are far from climate conscious.

JSO’s tactics have been met with their own repercussions. Clifton revealed to us that he has been formally arrested and charged with criminal damage: he has pleaded not guilty and his case is set to appear before a magistrates’ course. Regardless of the heavily divided opinions on JSO, it is clear that UCL has been navigating a blurry line between its public and private relationships with the fossil fuel industry. 

JSO’s methods may generate controversy, but they’ve shown that UCL, despite their eco-friendly rhetoric, has plenty of opportunities to better heed the philosophy of “Just Stop Oil”.

Additional Reporting by Mads Brown