Office for Students Chair Condemned for Role With Oilfield Firm

Conservative peer Lord Wharton advises a supplier of fossil fuel services, and until recently worked for a lobbying firm with ties to the Koch oil and gas empire.
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Conservative peer Lord Wharton. Credit: 10 Downing Street, CC BY-NC 2.0

The chair of the Office for Students (OfS), Conservative peer Lord Wharton, has been urged to “immediately” cut ties with a major oilfield inspection company.

Lord Wharton is a consultant for OES Oilfield Services, which describes itself as “one of the world’s leading oilfield inspection companies”. He was also formerly an adviser to Consumer Choice Center – a US-based pressure group with links to the Koch fossil fuel empire that has come under fire for advocating against green reforms in the EU without being registered as a lobbying firm. 

Former MP Lord Wharton was appointed by Boris Johnson’s government as the chair of the OfS in April 2021. He has been an adviser to OES Oilfield for several years, while his register of interests shows that he was a strategic adviser to Consumer Choice Center from January 2022 to February 2023.

OES Oilfield provides inspection and maintenance services on oil rigs, helping fossil fuel firms to “maintain your assets and keep your staff safe using innovative and cutting edge technology solutions.” 

In March 2016, OES Oilfield’s executive chairman Richard Upshall wrote that: “Having recently met with James Wharton MP, the Minister for the Northern Powerhouse and some other members of Parliament, including Boris Johnson, who have declared themselves as part of the ‘out’ camp, I can see the opportunities ‘Brexit’ can bring.”

Upshall has previously advocated for the creation of a government backed think tank to come up with ideas to “maintain the viability of the UK North Sea”.

This week, Prime Minister Rishi Sunak has committed to awarding hundreds more licences for North Sea oil and gas exploration, with Energy and Net Zero Secretary Grant Shapps saying that he wants to “max out” the UK’s North Sea reserves. 

The International Energy Agency has stated that new oil and gas exploration is incompatible with the effort to limit global warming to 1.5C – the legally-binding limit set by the 2015 Paris Agreement. 

The OfS is the higher education regulator in England, which works to protect the interests of students. 

Lord Wharton has been criticised for holding a position of authority in higher education – representing a group of people that see climate change as a defining political issue – while holding a paid role with a company that supports the fossil fuel industry.

“Climate change will disproportionately affect young people. How are we going to make any progress on tackling climate breakdown if someone supporting fossil fuel extraction has sway over our education system?” Emma de Saram, President of the University of Exeter Students’ Union, told DeSmog. 

A major poll in 2021 found that 35 percent of UK students ranked climate change as the biggest issue facing their generation, higher than any other issue. 

Green Party MP Caroline Lucas said that, “If Lord Wharton wants to remain in this publicly-funded position of status and influence, he should cut all existing fossil fuel ties immediately.”

The OfS declined to comment on the basis that Lord Wharton’s private sector roles are not related to his work as chair. Lord Wharton and OES Oilfield Services did not respond to our requests for comment. 

Consumer Choice Center

Lord Wharton has previously been accused of lacking independence in his role at the OfS. 

He holds the Conservative whip and ran Boris Johnson’s successful campaign to replace Theresa May as Conservative Party leader and prime minister in 2019.

Gavin Williamson, who was serving as education secretary at the time of Lord Wharton’s appointment as chair of the OfS, also played a key role in Johnson’s campaign. 

Lord Wharton lost his Stockton South House of Commons seat at the 2017 general election, but in 2020 regained his status as a parliamentarian when he was appointed by Johnson to the House of Lords. 

Less than a year after taking up his position at the helm of the OfS, Lord Wharton became a strategic adviser to Consumer Choice Center, saying that the group’s “work in free trade, lifestyle, innovation, and agriculture is outstanding and timely”. 

Consumer Choice Center has been criticised in recent weeks after DeSmog revealed that it has been lobbying against flagship green reforms in Europe without declaring its activities.

DeSmog understands that Consumer Choice Center was removed from the EU’s lobbying register in May 2022 following a quality check by the secretariat aimed at detecting potential inaccuracies, errors or omissions in the register. 

The group’s removal from the register also followed the introduction of new lobbying rules requiring more transparency over the funding sources of registered groups, which were introduced last March.

Consumer Choice Center does not publish its current funding sources but says on its website that it has previously been funded by the energy, chemical, and airlines industries.

Consumer Choice Center has written dozens of articles on EU policy issues since being removed from the lobbying register, many of which have opposed green policies. It has also hosted a “cross-party and cross-committee” group in European Parliament attended by more than 30 members of European Parliament (MEPs). Consumer Choice Center and its analysts have claimed that EU plans to become carbon neutral by 2050 would have disastrous economic consequences.

Its analysts have analysts have also suggested that Europe should “shelve all their climate ambitions [and] refine more oil” in light of the war in Ukraine.

MEP for the Greens, Daniel Freund, alleged that Consumer Choice Center’s unregistered lobbying was a “clear” breach of EU rules, and a complaint has been filed by transparency watchdog Corporate Europe Observatory to the president of the European Parliament.

Consumer Choice Center has not responded to DeSmog’s multiple requests for comment. 

The lobby group has links to Koch Industries, one of the largest privately-owned companies in America, which trades heavily in oil and gas. Organisations connected to Koch Industries have directed at least $100 million to climate science denial groups since 1997.

Consumer Choice Center was founded in 2017 by the libertarian advocacy group Students for Liberty. Students for Liberty has received over $1 million in funding since 2009 from the philanthropic organisations of Charles Koch, who co-owns Koch Industries.

Over half of the staff members listed on the Consumer Choice Center website have been involved in Students for Liberty, while a number have professional links to programmes run by Koch-funded groups.

It’s not known if, prior to joining Consumer Choice Center, Lord Wharton knew of its links to Students for Liberty and other Koch-connected groups.

Lord Wharton’s register of interests shows that he also consults for a green fuel company, and a company that helps its clients “to reduce carbon emissions and water consumption”. Until April 2023 he was a non-executive director at Net Zero Infrastructure plc, a green investment firm.

Author-pic-light
Sam is DeSmog’s UK Deputy Editor. He was previously the Investigations Editor of Byline Times and an investigative journalist at the BBC. He is the author of two books: Fortress London, and Bullingdon Club Britain.
Clare Carlile headshot cropped
Clare is a Researcher at DeSmog, focusing on the agribusiness sector. Prior to joining the organisation in July 2022, she was Co-Editor and Researcher at Ethical Consumer Magazine, where she specialised in migrant workers’ rights in the food industry. Her work has been published in The Guardian and New Internationalist.

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