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A first dive into Shell’s “decarbonisation” research collaborations

Shell Nederland has published a list of 137 current collaborations with academia, alongside a statement by Frans Everts claiming that Shell supports the goals of the Paris agreement and defending their continued collaboration with academia. It classifies 99 collaborations as “decarbonisation”, 36 as “generic”, and only 2 as “fossil”.

What do Shell’s “decarbonisation” projects look like?

In the “decarbonisation” category we find:

  • 23 entries for hydrogen (of which 3 specify green hydrogen);
  • 17 for capture, utilisation or storage of carbon dioxide,
  • 10 on electric vehicles and their infrastructure
  • 9 for wind, and
  • 2 for solar.

Other hot topics are energy storage and biomass chemistry.

The “decarbonisation” category also includes blue hydrogen, which is made from fossil gas. Blue hydrogen comes with significant emissions during extraction, transport and the carbon capture and storage part of its production, even if the carbon dioxide released as part of the process is sequestered. Its advantage over fossil gas has been brought into question in academic research. The Hydrogen Science Coalition gives a nuanced view of the uses (and misuses) of hydrogen in decarbonisation.

Global Witness recently found that Shell in the US has classified investments including fossil gas as “Renewables and Energy Solutions”, and Follow the Money found that when the EU standards are used, only 3% of Shell’s investments in 2021 could be called “green”, whereas Shell claimed 12.5% was green (see figure). This creative use of the term “decarbonisation” is therefore not entirely unexpected.

Figure from Follow the Money. On the left in red are the €2.2bn (12.5%) of 2021 investments that Shell classifies as “green”, whereas only €0.55bn (3%), shown on the right, would qualify as “green” under the EU taxonomy.

Other entries e.g. “methane technology”, “hydrocarbon filtration” or “Fischer-Tropsch synthesis” were classed as “generic”. Without knowing more about the project, it’s impossible to tell which use case these projects are based on: fossil or renewable. For example, Fischer-Tropsch Synthesis is used to make liquid/gaseous hydrocarbons from carbon monoxide, which in turn is typically derived from coal or fossil gas – though it may also be derived from biomass.

We could not classify 21 entries, because we did not know enough about the project (Shell only gives a short description of each project, and some projects neither appear in the data we have until now, nor could we find information about them online).

What research comes from sponsoring professors?

Particularly interesting are the sponsored professors (8, in 3 universities) and assistant professors (3). Six of them – including 2 which Shell has classified as “decarbonisation” – have published papers since 2018 on technology for fossil fuel production, transport or processing:

There are also 6 entries related to funding or collaborating on a course of study or internship.

How does “decarbonisation” research square with Shell’s business plans?

Recent public statements about Shell’s path away from renewables and back towards oil and gas seem to contradict the claim that collaboration with Shell is “essential for cleaner energy”. The question remains – even if Shell collaborates on “decarbonisation” research, will these technologies actually become reality? And, given that new oil and gas projects are incompatible with the goals of the Paris agreement, to what extent do these “decarbonisation” research projects greenwash Shell’s image?

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