Energy Academy

How green is black?

On Wednesday, the RUG’s Energy Academy Europe (EAE) will officially open its new home. The ‘Academy’ focuses on the future of energy, but the companies behind it, such as Shell, are still stuck on traditional fossil fuels. How can this be reconciled?
By Traci White and Peter Keizer / Illustration and animations by René Lapoutre / Translation by Sarah van Steenderen

One of the founding parties of the Energy Academy, the oil company Shell, owns oil sand mines in Canada that are extremely polluting. A stone’s throw away from that mine, one of Energy Academy’s partners is working on achieving sustainable energy.

In addition to the RUG and Hanze University of Applies Sciences, there are three parties behind the Energy Academy: Shell, ExxonMobil, and the state. These same parties are masters of the Dutch gas market.

According to scientific director André Faaij, the institute partnering with big parties from the oil and gas industry is only logical. After all, they possess the technology and financial means to make big waves.

Faaij gets angry when we ask him if these companies might actually be holding back the energy transition the EAE is trying to accomplish: ‘We are in no way governed by Shell or gas interests.’

How sustainable is Shell? The oil company mainly focuses on gas which, while not sustainable, is cleaner than oil or coal. The company invested in oil and gas for years, and cannot just give that up. Besides, the shareholders want a stable rate of return.

Shell continues to play a large role in both the energy transition and the Energy Academy.

Many researchers at the university have ties with Shell. According to them, it makes sense to have practical experience.

And the university is important to Shell: it has many talented students, and the university can do research the company does not have the time or manpower for.

Reading time: 23 minutes (5,636 words)

Sandwiched between the Athabasca and Clearwater rivers lies one of the most important cities in Canada. It does not look like much: Fort McMurray has fewer than 90,000 inhabitants. In comparison, Groningen has approximately 200,000. But just like Groningen, Fort McMurray is sitting on a ‘gold mine’.

The small city is located in the north eastern part of the Alberta province and is surrounded by national parks, hills, and rivers. It is home to moose, bison, grizzly and black bears, and is a great place to go fishing. But Fort McMurray’s most important resource is underground.

The area is rich in bitumen, or oleaginous sand. The original inhabitants of Canada such as the Cree and Sioux discovered the black, sticky goo at the banks of the Athabasca river and used it to waterproof their canoes. White explorers were already interested in bitumen, but it was not until 1964 that the Great Canadian Oil Sands Company (now Suncor) found a way to extract oil from the tar sand.

More polluting

This discovery led to Fort McMurray, which at that point was no more than a village with 2,600 inhabitants, growing explosively. Since then, the region has been attracting large oil companies, who see dollar signs in Alberta’s soil. One such company is Shell. Just like the oil company is extracting gas from the Groningen soil under the name NAM, it decided to extract oil from the Canadian soil in the ‘90s.

Approximately 75 kilometres north of Fort McMurray, the company cut down a forest and opened up two mines. There, Shell uses enormous trucks and excavators to remove the tar sand from the soil and process it into oil on site. The mines cover an area of approximately 336 square kilometres. This is four times the area of Groningen, and it produces around 250,000 barrels of oil a day. At the current rate, they are worth 12.5 million euros.

It is not exactly environmentally friendly. Extracting the oil from bitumen is even more polluting than regular oil production. The open mines require large amounts of fuel. In 2014, Shell emitted more than 5.4 million tonnes of greenhouse gases on the Alberta oil field – 12 per cent more than with ‘normal’ oil.

Clean energy

A six-hour drive along Hell’s Highway – so called because of the many accidents caused by sleep-deprived mineworkers – takes us to the Clean Energy Technology Centre (CETC) in Drayton Valley. In Canadian terms, this drive is a stone’s throw away from the enormous tar sand mines. CETC is a small academic institute which focuses on clean energy. It is also one of the RUG’s Energy Academy’s collaborators.

Skyping from his office, CETC’s chief operating officer Manny Deol explains that, similar to Groningen, Drayton Valley itself has a history with fossil fuels. ‘Heavy oil is in the Fort McMurray area, but the Pembina oil field, where Drayton Valley is located, is one of the largest conventional oil fields in Alberta.’ The Pembina field was first drilled in 1953, six years before Groningen’s Slochteren field was discovered.

Deol says that when the plans for what would become the CETC were taking shape back in 2015, he and his colleagues were pointed in the direction of Energy Academy Europe by a business development representative from the Dutch government in Edmonton. In addition to offering training for energy professionals, one of CETC’s goals is to recreate EnTranCe, which is Energy Academy’s testing facility. Officially opened by the Dutch King Willem Alexander last year, EnTranCe is five hectares of buildings and sheds housing experimental and promising energy-related technology on the Zernike Campus. In Drayton Valley, Deol says that the CETC has 22 hectares of land to conduct their own tests, helping to develop bio-based fuel for Canadian airline WestJet and hemp-based fibres for all sorts of household products. ‘We are copying your model.’

The location of Shell’s tar sand quarries in Alberta, Canada. Move left to see how the area used to look and right to see how it looks now. (Source: Google Earth)

Behind the green

So what is that model? What is actually happening in the brand-new, zero-emission, BREEAM award-winning building smack dab in the middle of the Zernike campus? Even after months of research and interviews about it, we have to confess that we still struggle to come up with a good description of what Energy Academy is, exactly. We do know that they have received millions of euros in government subsidies – 40 million euros came from government institutions and EAE to pay for construction of their new facilities. And they certainly talk about being involved in a lot of things: In addition to providing learning activities such as workshops, MOOCs and speeches, EAE lists 13 projects on their site, most of which are either based in Groningen or are a part of international associations – including the United Nations – focused on energy. But the academy is mainly a platform where businesses, government agencies, and scientists are trying to find their way toward clean energy.

The wooden planks outside the building, which will be officially opened on 17 May, make it seem as if it is in perpetual motion. Its total floor space is almost 15,000 square meters, making it one of Zernike’s largest buildings. But the building is mostly hollow inside: the large open space is lined with offices and laboratories. The glass-walled rooms can be reached via a series of Escher-esque staircases and ramps. Its construction was delayed by six months in order to make the building earthquake-proof – the Zernike campus is occasionally impacted by earthquakes, caused by the gas extraction in the region.

A stroll along the maze of hallways yields peeks of workshops, meetings, and Hanze employees and RUG PhD candidates staring intently at their computer screens. Although the building is called an academy, there is officially no academic research being done under its own name. That is being conducted by scientists from several RUG faculties and Hanze programmes, who sometimes make use of the EAE facilities.

With its copious use of wood, plants, and space, the Energy Academy’s building breathes an air of sustainability. But a quick look at its annual reports shows that fossil fuels companies are behind all that green. In addition to the RUG and Hanze University of Applied Sciences, the initiators of the Energy Academy are NAM, GasTerra, and Gasunie. They, in turn, are controlled by Shell, ExxonMobil, and the state.

The Academy is in the process of merging with Energy Valley and the Energy Delta Institute. These institutes are controlled by various entities, but once again, the largest parties of interest are Shell, ExxonMobil, and the state – together with a handful of energy companies from the Netherlands, the United Arab Emirates, Russia, Denmark, and Norway.

Money as a motor

The Energy Academy was founded to advance the energy transition. So why do most of its partners come from the Dutch oil and gas industry?

EAE’s scientific director Andre Faaij argues – forcefully – that it is perfectly logical. ‘It seems very reasonable to me to expressly involve the existing businesses and to see them as a motor for change’, he explains. ‘If you are looking for parties that are exclusively working with renewables that can actually finance anything, they don’t exist’, Faaij says. ‘We would love to have Grunneger Power as a strategic partner, but they don’t have any money. But groups like that can join the conversation in terms of setting the agenda and what we do, even if they can’t pay’, Faaij says.

The benefit of the bigger players is that they have the capital and assets to ensure continuity

He says that only permitting renewable energy providers to be involved with the Energy Academy would be too dogmatic and unrealistic. ‘There is this idea called creative destruction: get rid of all the old stuff first, and then start all over again. I understand that notion, but we have so little time to really get all of this going’, he says.

‘So little time’ means by the year 2050. One component of the Paris Climate Change Agreement is for countries to reduce their carbon emissions drastically by 2050: the EU is tasked with bringing their emissions down by 90 per cent. Faaij says that because of the size of the energy infrastructure system (power stations, extraction and refining of resources, transportation, cables, grids, etc.), the big players – namely Shell, RWE and national governments – can achieve far more than even an entire neighbourhood or municipality installing solar panels on every roof. ‘You still need the bigger parties because they have the knowledge necessary to realize big projects, and they can pay for them.’

Steven Volkers, director of Grunneger Power, a sustainable energy cooperative, says that as far as he is concerned, 2050 is not nearly fast enough. ‘I think it’s funny to hear that companies are concerned that this is moving very quickly, but I remember all too well how the fossil fuel companies have been dragging their feet, and how they continue to do that to this day. But now that the fossil fuels are drying up, they’re crying that it’s all moving too fast.’

Volkers agrees that there is a place for the traditional companies in the energy transition. ‘The benefit of the bigger players is that they have the capital and assets to ensure some sense of continuity. But the possible pitfall is that these companies may be more inclined to use that money to ensure a stable position for themselves.’

Larger impact

Each year, Shell spends 30 billion dollars on the exploitation of oil and gas, and less than one percent of that goes to developing and implementing sustainable initiatives. According to Wendel Broere, Shell International’s spokesperson, these numbers should be seen in context: ‘Basically, you’re comparing two things that can’t be compared: making inroads into a new sector, but with an industry that is one hundred years old.’

Be that as it may, Shell is not exactly creating the impression that clean energy is a priority for them. Faaij agrees that Shell is not investing enough in the energy transition. ‘The activist shareholders who are trying to pressure Shell are absolutely in the right. Shell’s investment portfolio doesn’t make sense at all.’

But that does not necessarily mean that Shell’s involvement in initiatives such as the Energy Academy should be questioned, according to Faaij. ‘These companies are involved with us to get oriented. We have absolutely nothing to do with any gas or oil field operations’, he says.

Within the RUG at least – even within Energy Academy itself – anyone who knows anything about how Energy Academy and its business partnerships work refers to Faaij. Both the president of the RUG, Sibrand Poppema (who is also a member of EAE’s governance), and coordinator of the GESP group and former Shell employee, Rien Herber (who is also the chairperson of the UK’s foundation council, ed.), declined to be interviewed for this story and pointed us instead to Faaij as the go-to guy for this particular topic.


Inside his glass box of an office, the interview goes from buzzword-filled descriptions of the academy’s goals to energy jargon. But after a few too many pointed questions about whether traditional energy sources could stand in the way of true innovation, his patience runs out.

EAE abroad

The Energy Academy’s foreign projects – in Mozambique, Drayton Valley in Canada, and Saudi Arabia – all focus on renewable energy sources. The project in the African coastal nation involves PhD candidates researching sustainable energy systems and markets. Drayton Valley functions as a test location for green products and more environmentally friendly processes, such as biomass. In Saudi Arabia, EAE is collaborating with the King Saud University, offering Saudi students and researchers PhD spots and training, to better prepare them for the changing energy landscape.

‘Energy Academy’s portfolio is ab-so-lute-ly not influenced by Shell, or the gas industry, or anything of the sort. They play no role in what research projects and educational programmes we pursue, okay?’ He laughs, crossly. ‘What I hear in every question is, how are you representing the interests of the fossil fuel industry? Stop it. You’ve got it on tape now, it’s obvious how mad I am and how this really irritates me. It’s not a logical question, because in our entire portfolio of activities, there is nothing that we do that is connected to that kind of work.’

As Faaij describes it, the only connection that may exist between Shell and EAE is their common objective to eventually do away with fossil fuels. And yet, three of Energy Academy’s current thirteen projects take place in locations where Shell is either currently extracting oil and gas from the soil, or will be soon: Mozambique, Saudi Arabia, and Canada.

Shell owns several companies in Saudi Arabia, including the Saudi Aramco Shell Refinery Company and the Saudi Petrochemical Company. Recently, the group has undertaken steps to divest from some of these operations. The same goes for the tar sands in Canada.

These steps may seem to be a step toward greener resources, but they are more motivated by the company’s bottom line than the future of the planet: Royal Dutch Shell needs to reduce its 80 billion dollars in debt and is selling up to 30 billion dollars in assets through the end of 2018. That becomes difficult as oil prices continue to decline: in 2014, a barrel of oil was valued at 100 dollars and now, it is worth less than 50.

Sustainability according to Shell

But how logical is it that a ‘green university’ – as the RUG likes to call itself – and the Energy Academy are collaborating with a company that is causing earthquakes in Groningen and razed a forest in Canada? How sustainable is Shell?

That depends on your definition of sustainability. ‘Right now, Shell is saying: considering the amount of CO2 emitted per calorie by coal, oil, or gas, the gas emissions are much lower than those of coal’, says Wilfred Alsem, a technology and operations management instructor at FEB who worked for Shell in that capacity for 30 years.

Shell spokesperson Broere emphasises that the company is increasing its investments in LNG (liquid natural gas) to show that the group is becoming increasingly sustainable. ‘Gas is the cleanest burning fossil fuel’, he says. When we point out that natural gas is predominantly composed of methane, he says, ‘No one is claiming that it’s completely clean.’ According to Anton Buijs, spokesperson for EAE partner GasTerra, it is not sustainable at all. ‘Natural gas is not sustainable, but renewable gases (green gas, syngas, and hydrogen) are’, he says.

Natural gas, which is a mixture of several different gases, is up to 90 per cent methane, a greenhouse gas. Unburned methane is actually more damaging than carbon dioxide. Despite leaving the atmosphere more quickly, it causes more problems in the short term: methane traps up to 86 times more heat in the atmosphere over a 20-year period than carbon dioxide.

If you’re an investor in Shell, then you want that rate of return because it means your pension will be more affordable.

Methane also escapes in some quantity during the extraction and transportation process, and it is difficult to measure exactly how much leakage occurs. An inventory published in the journal Environmental Science & Technology estimated that in the United States, where natural gas production has increased significantly since 2005, natural-gas gathering and processing facilities ‘lose about 100 billion cubic feet of natural gas a year’.


Earlier this year, The Guardian and De Correspondent revealed that Shell has known since at least 1986 that fossil fuels irrefutably contributed to climate change. Classified documents from the company warned of the greenhouse gas effect, citing academic papers from as early as 1975 that indicated that increasing carbon dioxide levels in the atmosphere were cause for concern. The company had a greenhouse gas working group back in 1985.

If Shell has known for decades that this is true and is finally seeming to come to grips with the reality that they have to change, why are they not dedicating all available resources to doing so? According to Broere, financing does not immediately translate into innovation. ‘You’re not going to make a bigger advance simply because you’re throwing more money at it.’

It is true that Shell has undertaken several meaningful steps in developing renewable energy sources. Broere points to Shell’s investments in wind parks: a decade ago, the company built the first off-shore wind park in the North Sea. ‘At the time, it was a hugely innovative project’, he says. But since then, windmills have become much more effective. ‘If we had invested billions in the technology ten years ago, we’d now be stuck with an enormous number of inefficient windmills.’ Now that the technology has improved, Shell is working on two new off-shore wind parks – Borssele 3 and 4 – which will both be much larger than the original North Sea project.

But efficiency does not just mean energy production: it also stands for more profit. Faaij says that Shell’s relatively small investments in sustainable energy are down to just one thing: rate of return. ‘Pumping gas and oil out of the ground has an internal rate of return of thirty percent. If you’re an investor in Shell, then you want that rate of return because it means your pension will be more affordable. And Shell is simply unable to achieve that rate with windmills right now.’

Shell is being held hostage by its shareholders. According to Trouw, the company is even racking up debt to pay out its dividends during hard times when the oil prices are low for extended periods of time. ‘The shareholders own the company. In the end, we are a company, and our mission is to create prosperity’, Shell top man Ben van Beurden said in the Financieel Dagblad.

No goodbye to oil

And that means the group cannot just say goodbye to oil. ‘A company that has always been about oil can’t easily make that transition. Just like cigarette plants will continue operations as long as people are still smoking’, says Alsem.

Moreover, it takes approximately ten years for an oil platform to become operational. ‘In that time, the world has done a complete 180. There is a very large time effect at play’, says Alsem. ‘They want to become a gas company. But then there is the issue of inheritance: they can’t just sell off all their oil fields. So the whole process can take up 40 to 50 year, until a reservoir has been emptied out. Consider the Groningen gas field. The same goes for many of these projects. If you want to retain your cash flow, you can’t just stop.’

De Correspondent calculated that Shell’s research and development budget in 2015 was over one billion dollars. Of that, 160 million dollars went to their ‘environmentally friendly’ division, which includes their ‘sustainable’ projects. The rest, 930 million dollars, went to research concerning fossil fuels.

Gas is good for Europe, and Europe is good at gas

Shell will make some considerable investments this year: up to 25 billion dollars, the NRC reported a week-and-a-half ago. Most of that will go to oil and gas. Green investments, which some of the shareholders have asked for, are not mentioned in the quarterly figures.

On 23 May, the shareholders of the oil company will vote on a resolution that will ask Shell ‘to take the lead in the energy transition’ and to come up with long-term goals that dovetail with the Paris climate agreement to limit global warming to less than 2 degrees Celsius. But Shell is actively advising its shareholders to vote against this resolution, because it would undermine the flexibility of the company.


Not only is Shell holding on to fossil fuels such as oil and gas, the company is also actively fighting new environmental legislation. A 2015 investigation by The Guardian showed that the company managed to block European objectives on renewable energy by thwarting an agreement on the reduction of CO2 emissions.

‘Gas is good for Europe, and Europe is good at gas’, Shell wrote in a five-page letter to the president of the European Committee.

‘Shell is not actually interested in a proper energy transition’, Euro-MP Bas Eickhout (GroenLinks) told De Correspondent. ‘We have to stop relying on oil and gas. Period. And Shell doesn’t want that. Shell’s lobby in favour of natural gas and against sustainable energy objectives makes Shell an obstructive power that is deliberately preventing the energy transition’, he says.

Shell is no stranger to lobbying politicians in the United States, either. The company spends millions of dollars each year through multiple smaller organisations to influence legislation impacting the gas and oil industries. Between 2008 and 2011, Shell’s investments in lobbying increased by 10 million dollars. More lobbying efforts coincided with explosive growth in the shale gas industry in America: between 2005 and 2010, extraction (through fracking and drilling) grew by 45 per cent a year, and shale gas availability increased from 4 per cent in 2005 to 24 per cent in 2012.


It seems that the scale of the global energy infrastructure is dictating that gas and oil giants like Shell will continue to play a considerable role in keeping the lights on. They are in the throes of an identity crisis, and they see natural gas as part of their transition for years to come.

In the meantime, Energy Academy Europe is in the process of merging with Energy Valley and Energy Delta Institute – the leader of the new organisation will be Gertjan Lankhorst, former CEO of GasTerra.

That is coming from our oil field right here, which is clean

‘That means that things will be changing and scaling up’, says Faaij. ‘The fact that the building is here now is an important milestone – it was our goal for a long time to have this space with research and educational capacity from the RUG and the Hanze. But the new organisation – which doesn’t even have a new name yet formally – will bring a wide portfolio of activities together.’ The goal isn’t just about scoring projects: ‘That’s less important than the infrastructure that we are setting up here, and that will require perseverance.’

Manny Deol of the Clean Energy Technology Centre in Drayton Valley is well aware of the need for stick-to-itiveness too. ‘The people in this business know they cannot continue the practices they got away with in the past’, Deol says. In Alberta, at least for now, that does not necessarily mean being weaned off of fossil fuels so much as trying to clean up existing processes. It means better capturing ‘fugitive gases’ from wells. It means automation of gas field operations so that fewer employees have to literally drive around to check on them. It means coal power plants being converted to use different resources – like natural gas. ‘That is coming from our oil field right here, which is clean’, he says – that is, at least a little better than coal. ‘It’s step by step, a little bit here, a little bit there. It’s all incremental, but it’s going toward clean energy.’

What is Shell doing at the RUG?

EAE is not the only place where RUG students and staff come into contact with the oil and gas industry. Among the hundreds of researchers working at the Faculties of Economics and Business (FEB) and Science and Engineering (FSE), at least 24 have either worked at Shell or done an internship there at some point in their lives, have received research financing from the group, or own the patent to technologies or processes that are being used by the company.

According to the website of TKI Gas, there are three research projects at the RUG connected to Gasunie and GasTerra. On Gasunie’s behalf, the RUG conducted research on whether there would still be sufficient support for gas as an energy source in the future. GasTerra commissioned university workshops and ‘educational events’ for politicians and people from the business world to ‘increase their knowledge of the facts about the energy transition, in particular the role of green gas and natural gas.’

RUG legal methods professor Jan Brouwer has some reservations about collaborating with gas companies. ‘If our faculty wants to take a critical look at the gas extraction and one of our colleagues is basically financed through that gas extraction, that makes it quite complicated. The university has to safeguard independent research. That cannot be jeopardised.’

Paying the piper

In 2015, Brouwer criticised the NAM, half of which is owned by Shell, by telling the media that as far as he was concerned, the company was violating human rights by drilling for gas in the province of Groningen. According to him, it is logical that universities are looking to collaborate with businesses now that government funding is drying up. ‘But I do think we have to subject that collaboration to scrutiny. He who pays the piper calls the tune, and that is something to be wary of’, according to the professor, who himself has never been employed by any gas company or Shell.

One of the most well-known RUG employees to have worked for the oil company in the past is Nobel Prize winner Ben Feringa. He worked at Shell departments in Groningen and England for six years (see box). He did not respond to the UK’s requests for comment for this story.

Professor Rien Herber also declined to answer our questions. Herber travelled the world for 30 years as a Shell employee, looking for new oil and gas fields. Furthermore, he served as deputy director of the NAM for six years. Shell and ExxonMobil are shareholders of the NAM. ‘I’m not the right person to talk to’, he says when we ask him about the connections between the oil company and the university. ‘Ever since I started at the RUG eight years ago, I’ve had no connections to Shell.’

Ben Feringa

Nobel Prize winner Ben Feringa is one of the most well-known RUG employees to have a history with Shell. The professor of synthetic organic chemistry worked as a researcher for the oil company between 1978 and 1984. When the UK tried to ask him about his work at Shell, he did not respond. The television programme College Tour did touch upon the subject. ‘You worked for Shell for six years. This is a company that makes its money with fossil fuels. This is currently being scrutinised because of global warming’, said presenter Twan Huys to Feringa in the programme. But in his response, the scientist did not address the underlying question of why he had worked for a polluting oil company. ‘We all know that something is happening to the climate’, said Feringa. ‘We currently have very few alternatives (to fossil fuels, ed.) but we really need to hurry up and come up with some new alternatives. If we were to use solar cells to extract CO2 from the air and convert that to a chemical process, or a fuel, that would be a truly sustainable solution that would allow us to eventually reduce the problem. And that takes enormous investments.’

‘Intelligent people’

Wilfred Alsem, instructor of technology and operations management at FEB, is willing to talk about his background at Shell. He worked at the group for 30 years as an engineering manager, among other functions. He still makes use of the knowledge he learned there.

‘For business experts, the research subject has to be a company. So having some knowledge about how a company is managed is both useful and logical’, he says. ‘I teach asset management, and I myself have worked in every phase of installations’ life cycles, from development to projects to operations and maintenance and decommissioning. So for me, there is a direct relationship between my field and my experience.’

According to Alsem, the fact that some scientists have a history with a large company is only logical. ‘Shell, Philips, companies like that: they hire really intelligent people, if I do say so myself’, he jokes. ‘So, statistically speaking, the chance that one of Shell’s (ex-)employees is personally connected to an academic institute or has ambitions to make an academic contribution is rather large.’

Ton Broekhuis, professor of product technology, worked at the oil company for 23 years. As far as he is concerned, a scientist having experience with a company is a good thing. ‘And not just at Shell: It could be any company that’s working at the frontiers of science.’

‘The university might think that we mainly train our students to do research, but only ten per cent remains actively involved in scientific research. The majority enter the  manufacturing and service industries’, he says. ‘Having some feeling for that environment is certainly useful. Instructors who have industrial experience can get that across.’

Eye for talent

The company also actively focuses on students. One former Shell employee who spoke with the UK under the condition of anonymity says that Shell’s activities at universities make sense from their point of view. He worked as a so-called campus ambassador – returning to the RUG as an alumnus on behalf of the company – to keep an eye out for new talent. ‘I was kind of haunting for new souls, and that meant for me that I would stay in contact with the study associations and I was responsible for renewing the sponsor contracts for the associations.’

Those sponsorships are still in full effect at the RUG: out of the six study associations at the Faculty of Science and Engineering, three (namely Fysisch-Mathematische Faculteitsvereniging (FMF), Gronings Technologen Dispuut Bernoulli (GTDB) and Professor Francken (PF)) list Shell as one of their sponsors on their websites, and one – TBV Lugus – has hosted multiple events featuring guest speakers who work for Shell and has organised visits to their facilities. Board members of FMF, GTDB and PF declined to reveal how much money they receive from their sponsors.

The page on the GTDB site describing the ‘silver’ partnership the group has with Shell is quite straightforward about its goals: getting association members interested in working for the company. ‘Why join Shell?’ the page asks. ‘A win-win partnership: You fulfil your potential; we benefit from your skills.’ It describes routes to starting a career at Shell, potential job disciplines that would be a good fit for the students and the perks of joining the company.

At the Faculty of Economics and Business (FEB), out of the five main student associations, none list Shell as a sponsor on their sites, but two – Risk and EBF – promote Shell events on their pages. Shell was also present at FEB’s Careers Week event this academic year with a gender equality workshop. FEB’s Careers Company (CC) lists Shell as one of their ‘preferred and trusted partner organisations’ and also talks up the company’s business challenge on their website. Slides advertising Shell activities illuminate the screen inside CC’s offices at the Duisenberg building in its endless feed.


Why is the university so important to Shell? ‘In general, I think it’s because companies are hoping to find talented students’, says Wilfred Alsem. ‘They provide students with the opportunity to do research and hope to find some talented candidates in return.’ This is confirmed by Shell spokesperson Broere, who admits that the group is using ambassadors and sponsoring to try and find the researchers of tomorrow.

But there is another factor, according to Alsem: to get universities to do research. ‘Delft, for example, has a chair that is being funded by the oil companies. It is tasked with identifying reservoirs. When an oil company starts drilling, they themselves don’t have time to study how exactly the soil works. And even though they might have a lot of overhead, they still need to stick to a budget. That is why that connection with universities is important to Shell.’

Collaboration is also a way for Shell to improve its reputation, according to Vatan Hüzeir. He is president of the think tank Changerism and involved with the ABP Fossil Free campaign. Hüzeir works at the Faculty of Social Sciences in Rotterdam and studies the connections between Shell and the Rotterdam School of Management.

‘Shell has complete marketing strategies about how to connect to millennials’, says Hüzeir. The contact between the oil company and the universities fits that strategy, he thinks. ‘They’ve been causing quite a stir lately, for example with the Generation Discover Festival in The Hague.’ The municipality of The Hague wanted to sponsor the festival – an event organised by Shell to get young people enthusiastic about science and technology – but leftist parties in the council protested this heavily.

Hüzeir says the university also has reason to collaborate with Shell and other large companies. ‘The Hague is putting some real financial pressure on academic institutes to get more of their revenue from the free market, and to work with certain companies, preferably ones with deep pockets. It’s about knowledge validation, and about the research being useful to the economy.




  1. This whole argument about how Shell and similar oil companies cannot
    stop with their oil plants in 10 or so years due to the investments made
    is solely based on money reasons, which could also be regarded as sunk
    costs. But this has nothing to do with sustainability, rather the
    contrary. According to climate research
    we have to stop emitting greenhouse gases within 10 years completely
    (!), if we want to reach necessary 1.5 degree goal. If we keep on
    depending on Shell for our jobs and welfare, the human race will not
    have much fun the upcoming years and centuries on this planet (see for
    how these things are connected, for example
    Each and every one of us can now take simple steps towards less
    emissions, by choosing to avoid the plane, eating less meat and dairy,
    switching to green energy, choosing parties that care about climate change etc. 10 years is really not a lot, so we
    better get in a hurry. You too.

    • I do wonder how big companies like Shell not being able to shift to green alternatives because of the costs has nothing to do with sustainability. The idea behind Shell and research working together is to find a viable solution that is both beneficial for society (university) as the companies (Shell). This way we can make sure that any solution found is quickly implemented on a large scale. If the university decides to work on this problem alone, we can come up with a lot of solutions, but if the big companies do not use them, they are no use to us either.

      • You do have a valid point there, but in order for this to work, you need independent researchers, so that they really come up with the best solutions and not just the best solutions for the wallet of certain companies. As soon as you get conflicts of interests, for example because a researchers’ position is funded by Shell, the likelihood that the best solutions for society are searched for decreases substantially.

  2. “Although the building is called an academy, there is officially no academic research being done within its walls. ” Oops! I must be working in the wrong building (doing research at the Centre for Isotope Research within the same walls…). Cheers, Bert

    • We had originally written that there was no research or teaching going on in the building based on multiple interviews with employees of the Energy Academy who emphasised that there is no research or teaching going on in the Energy Academy. As you and several other researchers who conduct research in the building have pointed out, that is not the case. As such, yesterday, we revised the text to indicate that while there is research and teaching being done in the building, it is not done in the name of the Energy Academy, but rather in the name of the RUG and Hanze programmes that are connected to EAE.


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