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The black centre (that students want to shut down)

Climate struggle — There are only a few places on campus where the climate struggle can be more clearly visualised than at the Danish Hydrocarbon Research and Technology Centre. Green student organisations want it closed down.  The universities defend themselves with reference to the freedom of research. We visited the centre.

A female PhD student draws a staircase with a red marker on a whiteboard. Then she takes the pen up to the top step and writes two words: »Closing DHRTC«.

»We all agree that this is our goal,« she says in English to the flock that has gathered around her in the bright yellow room. Several of them nod their heads.

DHRTC is short for Danish Hydrocarbon Research and Technology Centre, but in Danish people call it something a bit more colloquial: The Centre for Oil and Gas. As darkness falls, it is this centre that students, led by a group from the Green Student Movement, want to talk about at the Technical University of Denmark’s (DTU) student workshop, Skylab. Or actually: They have turned up to discuss how they can close it down.

Every step is a step towards the goal, and now the student asks participants to come up with their ideas on how they will succeed. A show of hands.

One suggests that they can get hold of the movement Extinction Rebellion, and ask them to block the entrance to the centre. They talk a bit about this.

About 20 people have turned up in the yellow room. But they are not the only ones who are cheesed off with the Danish Hydrocarbon Research and Technology Centre. It is funded by the Danish Underground Consortium venture (which includes the oil giant Total and the Danish government’s oil and gas company Nordsøfonden) and is hosted by the Technical University of Denmark (DTU) in collaboration with four other research institutions including the University of Copenhagen (UCPH).

Earlier this year, seven student organisations collected 1,733 signatures and handed over five climate demands to the UCPH prorector Bente Stallknecht. Most of the demands were what you might expect: A deadline on becoming CO₂-neutral, a travel policy, and more green teaching.

But then there was the fifth point, the same thing that adorns the last step on the staircase graphic: »Closure of the Danish Hydrocarbon Research and Technology Centre«. In this way, the students not only incited a dispute about a research centre, they opened up a major debate on the freedom of research and ethics. The question is whether the universities should shut down research that counters the climate struggle, or whether this would constitute a full-front attack on academic freedom.

And on the same note: Should the universities accept major donations from an industry whose fundamental purpose is contrary to a green transition that, according to science, is more urgent than ever before?

The oil industry is paying

At the DTU Skylab they all agree.

In the corner of the room is a young man with curly, dark hair that has taken the train and the bus from Copenhagen to get to the meeting, even though exams are now taking up most of his spare time.

He used to study at DTU, but Niclas Spangegaard chose to switch from the Environmental Technology programme here to the master’s programme in Climate Change at UCPH, partly because the programme here did not include enough about the climate struggle.

For two years now, on the side, he has been involved in fighting the Danish Hydrocarbon Research and Technology Centre as part of the Green Student Movement, and he spends many hours a week on it.

»The huge problem with this centre is that it is funded by the oil industry,« he says. »That they have such a tangible influence on what is being researched at a Danish university is absurd!«

Niclas Spangegaard did not know anything about the centre before he heard about it at a meeting of the Green Student Movement. That night, the activists in attendance were able to choose to join ten different working groups, and Spangegaard did not hesitate to choose the one that was about the Danish Hydrocarbon Research and Technology Centre.

»What is important to me is to work with something where we can quickly and effectively save CO₂. I want to work with something that can change the world in 30 years, and I do this by fighting the activities that take place at the centre. This could have a huge influence.«

He crumples a sheet of A4 paper that he has just printed out. It is a printout of the centre’s strategy, which he reads up from now and again to support his points, if not with a hint of indignation, then certainly with a bit of amazement in his voice.

Let’s not take as our point of departure that we should extract more oil from the ground

Mike Gudbergsen, Student Council chairman

The strategy – or the academic framework conditions, as they are called – shows that the centre has an ambition to increase oil and gas production »significantly«. And the contract between DTU and the Danish Underground Consortium before the centre was granted DKK 1 billion in funding is to make sure that this happens in practice:

»A working group is to be set up to check that all projects have clearly formulated strategies for the transfer of technology or knowledge, and a clear line of sight to increased oil and gas extraction or production,« the contract states.

When the centre came into being in 2014, it actually stated a goal of contributing to the extraction of 100 million new barrels of oil. Since then, the target has been amended, but this has not assuaged the students, especially at the University of Copenhagen.

»This runs counter to the dream we have of Denmark becoming a green pioneer and the first CO ₂-neutral country,« says Mike Gudbergsen, chairman of the Student Council at UCPH. It may seem surprising that a student organisation with deep roots in the capital city, should be fighting a centre located in the suburbs at the technical university in Lyngby, but there is a reason:

The University of Copenhagen is one of the research institutions cooperating with DTU on the centre, and university researchers have received major grants from the centre. According to the UCPH list of grant-funded research, the university has received funding from the centre totalling nearly DKK 37 million for ongoing projects.

Mike Gudbergsen does not harbour any illusions that Danish society will be independent of oil in the coming years, but: »Let us not start off by getting more oil out of the ground,« he says.

More oil, more gas

At the University of Copenhagen, students are fighting against the centre, just like students at DTU, and they have, at least, the support of 1,733 people who signed the climate demands. If they got they wanted, what exactly would disappear? If you imagined a black centre with smoking chimneys, you would be disappointed when you stand in front of the Danish Hydrocarbon Research and Technology Centre on the outer edge of the DTU campus, one stone’s throw away from the Skylab building. The centre is on a long, straight grey road which resembles everything else at the university with yellow bricks, black windows and a flat roof.

The Danish Hydrocarbon Research and Technology doesn’t even have the whole building, they just have the first two corridors with their blue-yellow floors extending on two sides when you enter the hallway.

Morten Willaing Jeppesen, a man with smiling eyes and a splash of grey in his black hair, comes out of one of the corridors, beeps us into the other one and goes past a whole series of laboratories to end up in a meeting room on the opposite side of the corridor.

He is the director of the Danish Hydrocarbon Research and Technology Centre, and heads the 250 employees, permanent and temporary, who partly work at the centre, partly at the five collaborating research institutions. During the last few months, they have all had to listen to the fact that what they get up to every morning is so injurious that their workplace should close down.

»I find that it has been quite overwhelming to read,« says the head of the centre. He has printed out a piece of paper for the occasion, which he puts on the middle of the table. It is a schema with three columns, and it describes, according to Jeppesen, what the centre actually works with. In short: The centre is to explore the possibility of increasing oil and gas production, to do research into making it more cost-effective, and examining how to improve the safety and environmental impact. This is what the director of the centre explains as he points to the three columns.

He says that the first column, the one about getting more oil and gas up from the underground, was dominant when the centre opened in 2014. This was when the ambition of 100 million new barrels of oil was stated in the vision paper.

Today, there are still projects at the centre, which are exclusively concerned with extracting more oil, but only from already known oil fields. One of the methods is called enhanced oil recovery, where researchers develop ways of pumping water into the underground, so that the percentage of oil that is pushed back up from the layers of limestone is increased.

»This is what is actually taking place in the laboratories we just walked past,« says Morten Willaing Jeppesen and points to the other side of the corridor, where the ventilation ducts snake themselves around strange looking machines.

“We are trying to extract more oil. It is not because we say we are certain that this can be done. We are building up a kind of basic knowledge, and then industry will assess whether or not they should invest in it.«

A new direction – but no CO₂ research

It is this contested field between application and research that the centre will navigate, but the mission is not always to extract more oil from underground. In fact, at the end of the year, the centre changed its focus from only increasing oil and gas production to focussing on the next two columns in the schema, cost-effectiveness, environment, and safety.

The vision has also changed, so the centre does not aim for a specific number of oil barrels, but »seeks to increase the cost efficiency of oil and gas production and to reduce the impact on the environment«.

This has already had practical consequences in the laboratories, according to Morten Willaing Jeppesen. Researchers, for example, are studying how to prevent oil pipes from corroding, so that you can avoid leaks or energy-heavy repairs.

At the same time, the centre has just advertised a professorship in which the selected candidate should help improve the quality of wastewater.

»Our tasks have expanded quite considerably. So we may still be looking at how to produce more oil and gas. But it is to be done in a more cost-efficient and environment-friendly way. We have three optics on everything that we do,« says Morten Willaing Jeppesen.

I find that it has been quite overwhelming to read.

Centre director Morten Willaing Jeppesen on the students’ fierce criticism of his Danish Hydrocarbon Research and Technology Centre

 

Could you have a research project that sought to improve the environmental impact, knowing that it would cost the oil companies a lot of money?

»Our starting point would probably not be that it would cost money. But this could easily be an effect of it. It is hard to know beforehand. It is research and science that we do, so you cannot scroll the film forward to the consequences at an early stage.«

If you reduce the costs for oil companies, then you also contribute to the fact that some of the companies with the greatest emissions survive for longer?

»Yes, you could easily see this happening. If the costs are lower, it may be profitable for a longer period of time, depending on the price of the oil. Of course, this is the case. But when you think that we are partly funded by the oil industry, then this is not so strange. They are not in the process of dismantling their own business.«

Morten Willaing Jeppesen reveals that the centre has not yet had a project that directly deals with the CO₂ impact of oil and gas production. He doesn’t dare say whether there will ever be one.

»It may well be that our focus moves even more, so it will also be about emissions. It is not explicit in what we are doing right now, but it is within the framework of what we can do.«

Crucial military research

Niclas Spangegaard is aware that the centre that he is fighting not only aims to pump up more oil. That it also deals with energy optimisation and safety, and perhaps, one day, will be about CO₂ emissions. That is why he says that it would be crazy to just close the centre from one day to the next.

»We need to take all the jewels that are in the centre and use them for a green transition,« he says, mentioning that a large part of the centre’s knowledge can be applied to the wind industry.

He mentions the staircase that the PhD student drew on the blackboard at the DTU Skylab, the plan to dismantle the centre step by step and not in one go, which would hit more than 200 people. The hints of green in the black research do not, however, cause him to change his stance on where the staircase should end up.

»No matter what, it is never green to burn oil or to use oil as a source of energy,« says Niclas Spangegaard.

Mike Gudbergsen from the Student Council agrees that the centre should not have to slam its door shut. It should be phased out so that the researchers and students that it hosts will be as little affected as possible.

The chairman says that the Student Council will initially persuade the University of Copenhagen to withdraw completely from the cooperation.

»The centre is also working on producing a greener processing of oil, and I think that this is actually a very strong argument. But as long as it is called the Danish Hydrocarbon Research and Technology Centre, it is deeply mired in oil and gas extraction. This should not be the starting point,« says Mike Gudbergsen, »You need to draw up a balance between freedom of research and the moral and ethical circumstances. In this case, the latter should have more weight. It is an extreme situation, but this has a precedent. Both in Denmark and at the University of Copenhagen, we already have an understanding of the fact that there are some things which we do not conduct research into.«

In this way, Gudbergsen touches on the central question behind the fight over the centre. Should the ethical boundaries on research be moved in the light of climate change?

This is a question that has become increasingly pertinent, and has gradually polarised the world of research. There are those who defend the freedom of research, and those who believe that the university should take the lead in the climate struggle.

It is not always obvious who will be on which side of the debate. Niclas Spangegaard was among the audience, when Associate Dean of the Faculty of Social Sciences and professor of agroecology Andreas de Neergaard took a position on the centre during a climate strike. At the time, he said it was not a good idea to close the centre, because it is difficult to say what consequences the research would lead to. The same argument is used by Katherine Richardson, Professor of Biological Oceanography and member of the Danish Council on Climate Change.

»I don’t think you should ban this kind of research. This is partly due to the fact that I find it to be a slippery slope when we let politicians or university administrators decide what we should or should not do research in. It may well be that in this case it looks obvious that you should ban it, but then where is the limit,« she writes in an email to the University Post.

She mentions that research into space weapons helped uncover the discovery that human activities were breaking down the ozone layer.

»I might find it ethically wrong to conduct research into space weapons, but thank goodness the research was carried out so we could do something to alleviate the degradation of the ozone layer before it was too late!«

Lars Gårn Hansen, professor in environmental economics and a member of the Environmental Economic Council, says, like Richardson, that political agendas should not govern what the university does research on.

»If we, at some point, are in a world where all oil extraction stops, and everything shuts down, then it might be academically justified to slow down all research into how to find oil. But this is a different issue. This business of not carrying out research because of political priorities, this is simply not what research is all about. Research is about knowledge.«

What about when the research is financed by, say, the oil company Total. Isn’t this a problem in principle?

»It depends on the extent to which they define the framework for the research, and this is a very important discussion. This will often be a compromise, and it is the universities’ responsibility to ensure the freedom of research. I don’t know the Danish Hydrocarbon Research and Technology Centre well enough to say whether the frameworks are proper. But it is not in itself a problem that the money comes from Total.«

Tobacco and weapons

Jens Friis Lund, who, like Lars Gårn Hansen, is a professor at the Department of Food and Resource Economics, disagrees with his colleagues that the demand for the closure of the Danish Hydrocarbon Research and Technology Centre is down a slippery slope towards less research freedom. This is because, he says, the centre is industry-funded, including from Total, which according to an InfluenceMap report from 2019 finances campaigns and lobbying against the green transition.

He acknowledges that it is impossible to predict what research will lead to, but the centre’s purpose seems to be in conflict with the climate science that the universities themselves produce.

»The students raise a valuable question on whether this centre helps legitimise an industry and an economic practice which is obviously not sustainable, and which helps delay the green transition,« says Jens Friis Lund.

»There are some industries that large parts of society will not be associated with – like. the tobacco industry and some parts of the armaments industry – and the question is whether the fossil fuels industry is developing into something that is so obviously wrong that we should no longer support it as a society?« He replies himself:

»Personally, I do not think that we need to give the fossil fuel industry this stamp of legitimacy by hosting a centre funded by the industry and with such narrow a clause stating its purpose.«

Mike Gudbergsen says that the Danish Hydrocarbon Research and Technology Centre is not the first place he looks for, when he is looking for good examples of freedom of research:

»We are already aware of the huge negative consequences of extracting more oil and gas, and so we have to assess whether the positive effects can outweigh this. If you believe this, then you seem to be quite optimistic in my opinion. I can’t see any world where this would happen,« he says.

Prorector: Take it easy

Prorector at DTU Rasmus Larsen says, however, that it would encroach on the freedom of research and the independence of the universities if political pressure closed down the centre.

It is actually not even a question of freedom of research and ethics, he says. In light of the fact that Danish society is still dependent on oil and gas over the next thirty years, and that politicians have not chosen to cease production in the North Sea, it is »a rational decision« to support production and make sure that it is done in the best possible way, according to the prorector.

Climate science says that at least 80 per cent of known fossil fuel reserves must remain in the ground if we are to live up to the Paris agreement. Is this a rational decision?

»I find this to be a rational decision, in recognition that society in the green transition will continue to need oil and gas. The Centre’s research is to support this happening in the least troublesome, effective and safe manner. There is no contradiction, I think. It is a task that needs to be done during this period, and the centre needs to contribute to this.«
Is it not utopian to imagine green research coming out of something that has been paid for by a black industry?

»You can never foresee all aspects of what research can lead to. Within the framework of freedom of research and the independence of universities, it is useful and possible to work with the rest of society, both with companies and authorities.«

According to the prorector, it is neither problematic that the research has a clear goal of increasing oil and gas production, or that a working group consisting of representatives from oil companies should contribute to ensure it.

»It is an ambitious contract, where they have the objective that research should be translated into innovation, even in the shorter term. If this research is to be relevant, results need to be generated within a 30-year time horizon.«

The argument is that it will hurt the freedom of research if you close down the centre. Is it more like the freedom to collaborate with business?

»Yes, you can say that, and we don’t want there to be restrictions on which companies our researchers work with. This goes for an agreement like running a centre. But if an individual researcher believes that his or her research can be strengthened by cooperating with a company, then they should be able to pursue it.«

Deputy director for communication at the University of Copenhagen Jasper Steen Winkel has rejected the idea that UCPH should comply with students’ demands to close down the centre.

»There is freedom of research in Denmark. This means that politicians, stakeholders, or management do not decide what is being researched, as long as the research is legal and lives up to the ethical standards that have been adopted,« he said, and pointed out that UCPH researchers have also developed Carbon Capture Storage technology with DTU engineers.

»The research and development that is taking place is currently one of the key solutions to some of the world’s climate challenges.«

Losing contact with the university

In the meeting room at the Danish Hydrocarbon Research and Technology Centre, Morten Willaing Jeppesen says that the centre will not only benefit from the billion kroner from the Danish Underground Consortium, but also from the »huge« amount of data that the oil industry shares with the researchers.

He insists that what motivates the employees is improving the way in which oil and gas is produced, not just in the interests of the industry, but in the interest of the country. He has reached the last two rows of the table, the ones that point to the future. They are about how oil companies should leave the North Sea platforms, most likely in three decades from now. According to Morten Willaing Jeppesen, this is an example of how the centre’s knowledge can be crucial for leaving the platforms, not just in a cost-efficient manner, but also in an environmentally responsible manner.

»The point is that the research that we do is important,« he says. The question is whether the centre will survive with the same strategy at that time, or even after 2024, which is when the current funding runs out.

If it is up to Niclas Spangegaard, this should not be the case. Certainly with the funding from the oil industry and a name that is difficult to spell out in green.

According to Spangegaard, the centre will be less and less justified every day. This is partly because students like himself have stopped taking an education in oil and gas – energy sources that have a death sentence hanging over them.

Admissions to the DTU master’s in petroleum engineering have plummeted from 46 students in 2014 to three in 2019. The university should therefore take action while there is still time, says Niclas Spangegaard.

»Otherwise, at some point, there will be no students involved, and then how does it look,« he asks. »Then it’s just a centre that gets money to do research for the oil industry. It will have completely lost its function as part of the university.«

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