DAG investigates: How green is our university? (part 2)
It seems that the University of Groningen, in its involvement with the Energy Academy Europe (EAE), is exclusively collaborating with businesses from the fossil fuel industry. An industry which, as shown by this article, does not only limit its involvement with the university to the EAE. In this article: our reasons for using an Information Request in order to make the university disclose its correspondence with companies from the fossil fuel industry.
by the Sustainability working group
Once we look beyond the EAE we find more examples of a very intimate relationship. From conversations and external articles it becomes clear that the RUG is cooperating with RWE, GasTerra, Shell, and other companies that obviously have a pro-fossil fuel agenda. This is not a secret, although it remains unclear what the exact nature of this relationship entails. How does the RUG guarantee independence in research, and education when it is acting amid these fossil giants?
The appearance of a conflict of interest
Late 2014, the Groene Amsterdammer published an article (NL) on the many side occupations of university professors, and the potential conflicts of interest that follow. The article opens with RUG’s very own Catrinus Jepma who is associated with the faculty of Economics and Business Management, and who may introduce herself with the very impressive title ‘honorary professor in Energy and Sustainability’. This title, not to be confused with one of an actual professor, is of much use to Jepma in his effort to ‘give the Dutch fossil fuel industry a better place in this world’.
This becomes obvious when, during the fortieth birthday of the Netherlands Oil and Gas Exploration and Production Association, Jepma takes the stage. Using a ‘scientific perspective on the issue of gas extraction’, Jepma criticises subsidies for wind- and solar power while speaking positively of gas extraction. It is astonishing how open Jepma is about serving the needs of the fossil fuel industry. For Jepma, his appointment to honorary professor is an exceptional asset for this mission. Because, as Jepma himself says, ‘this always does well during appearances such as these — it has an association with absolute quality and independence’.
When we look at Rien Herber, who is actually a professor, a similar conflict of interest becomes apparent. Herber, aside from being a professor in Geo-Energy, is a board member for TKI gas, a member of the Mining Council, and has a spot on the advisory council of both the KNMI, and the Geological Service of The Netherlands. Before his appointment as professor at the RUG Herber spent thirty years in a variety of functions at the Nam, and Shell.
This was already apparent in 2015 when, in response to a lecture by Herber in café Wolthoorn, Sikkom published an article (NL) questioning Herber’s integrity. In this lecture, Herber stated that it would be completely unrealistic to expect casualties during earthquakes in Groningen. This assertion completely contradicts earlier research by the State Supervision of the Mines as well as research by Herber’s former employers, Shell, and the NAM.
Worries about conflicts of interest sadly do not stop at the academic staff. From documents we have received it has become apparent that the RUG has research contracts with RWE, a German energy company. These documents contain promises by the university to do research on the economic, and judicial aspects of building infrastructure for Carbon Capture, and Storage (CCS). This infrastructure would be used for burying CO2 in the ground, and thereby also burying the consequences of the climate pollution that comes with the use of fossil fuels. This research would, of course, be funded by the RWE.
An excerpt from a contract with RWE, where an amount of maximally half a million euros is promised
Just as we have already determined in our last article, it seems as if the parties that are able to pull their weight financially are also the ones determining the research agenda. As a result it will remain impossible to break the status quo in the energy market. It is precisely this status quo which is the biggest threat to the climate, and the main cause of the earthquake threat in our own province. Besides, it is just downright nonsensical to educate students in and industry that we aim to replace with a more sustainable alternative.
Sadly, it does not stop there. The fossil fuel industry also exerts it’s influences in university education. This time it is GasTerra who is to blame. In the study year of 2015/2016, third-year students of Communication and Information Sciences (CIW), were tasked with doing a case study written by GasTerra. The purpose of this case study? ‘To create a plan for improving popular support for gas extraction’
An extract from the so-called ‘communication case’, CIW 2015/2016
The course description states that, during the course, students must develop a communications strategy, with the end goal of making a concrete recommendation to GasTerra. ‘Think about the concrete measures that are necessary in order to reverse the breach of trust from the Groningers, and to reverse, as to what they perceive is, a lack of legitimacy of gas exploitation in the province. It is very important to consider why it is a party such as this that is allowed to create a case study for a compulsory course. Would the research goals of this course not have been very different if it were written from the perspective of the inhabitants of Groningen? The way in which the course has been designed has made it incredibly difficult to interpret the case in a neutral fashion.
It is safe to say that businesses such as Shell, NAM, and GasTerra have a lot of influence on the policy of the RUG. It is not just the conflicting interests of (honorary) professors Herber, and Jepma, but also the contracts and deals between the RUG and the fossil fuel industry that are having an influence on both the education, and research agenda of the RUG.
Who sits at the table?
Every time that we have looked at examples of outside influence the same questions arise. Research on making fossil fuels, and gas extraction more sustainable are not bad per se, but why is it the RUG concerned with these subjects? What would happen if it was not Big Energy determining the research agenda, but rather progressive initiatives or citizen collectives? The current policies of the RUG are only strengthening the status quo, with the sad result that gifted researchers are being trained in an industry that has no place in our future.
DAG wants more transparency in the relationship between the RUG and companies such as Shell, GasTerra, and RWE. In order to achieve this transparency, DAG has been filing Information Requests with the goal of getting access to the correspondence of the RUG with the aforementioned companies. In the coming period we will be keeping you up to date about these requests, and other developments.