‘Get out of your comfort zone’

Will Marjan van Loon steer Shell towards a more sustainable course? Three students and Delta met the president-director of Shell Netherlands in The Hague for a critical interview.

Koen, Marjan, Juri and Efrain (Photos: Sam Rentmeester)
Koen, Marjan, Juri and Efrain (Photos: Sam Rentmeester)

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Koen van Vlijmen (21), Aerospace Engineering (LR):

Judging from a film, Shell was aware of the consequences of climate change for over twenty years. Why did it take so long to take the steps towards sustainability?

"Our position on climate change is well known: recognising the climate challenge and the role energy has in enabling a decent quality of life. We believe that we are in the middle of an energy transition that is unstoppable and we want to be involved. But navigating the necessary transitions will require extraordinary and unprecedented coordination, collaboration and leadership across all sectors of society.

We explored various options in the past like participating in windparks – we co-developed the first Dutch offshore windfarm. In my hometown Helmond Shell participated in a solar panel factory. A number of businesses have proven successful, like the production of bio-ethanol in Brazil. And we are again developing a large offshore windfarm in the Netherlands. Business models should not only float on subsidies, because at some point in time when political flavours changes or subsidies stop, your business model is killed.

As a company you can only make a transition if society really values your product. Now some of that is done by consumers who want to have a cleaner product. And although we think that we as citizens act that way, in reality we often do not. Consumers mostly choose green products if these are cheaper or far more comfortable. There is only a small group of people who are willing to spend more money on a product just because it's better for the climate. Perhaps that's sobering, but that is how it works. So you need to find business models for your products that are more comfortable, that are cheaper or that are valued by society in a different way. This means that you need the right policies at a national level.

We would like an effective policy to support lower carbon business and consumer choices such as government lead carbon pricing/trading schemes. Europe has taken a lead as a group of relatively rich countries to set up a CO2 pricing system, called the ETS system. But the prices are now at about 5 euros per tonne and it has to be much higher to stimulate the development of more sustainable technologies and solutions. We said, referring to the Paris climate agreement, we want national governments to make policies that support the development of new low carbon business models.

Once governments put policies in place, then companies can develop healthy business models. And that is the bottom-line as a company, you need to make money to exist, also in the longer term."

So you're looking to what the market wants instead of taking the initiative?

"We take many initiatives. We develop a lot of innovations. We spend around a million euros per day on R&D in Amsterdam, that is not all on renewables. But a part of that is spent on low-carbon technologies. We also work on open innovations with start-ups and scale-ups. We take equity in them to help them grow faster and find out where we can do business together. So we're continuously looking and screening for opportunities and viable business models.""

Do you think there will be a time when Shell's core business is no longer oil and gas?

"Oh certainly, Shell has long track record of transition. Today we are already more a gas company than an oil company. And over the longer term we plan to develop a profitable low carbon new energies business. The question is: when will that be? By the end of the century Shell will likely still be an energy company but oil and gas will likely make up only a small part of the business. With the Paris agreement we have said that by 2050 we want to have 80-95% less carbon emissions. That will mean much less fossil energy use for certain users but industry may still need fossil fuels or fossil feedstock for their products and do CCS (carbon capture and storage, ed.). We need to go on the journey that has started already and together with other companies, united in the Transition Coalitionwe believe that the Netherlands can benefit from an accelerated energy transition."

Efrain Soza Cisneros (28), Management of Technology (TBM):

The European Union says we need to reduce CO2 emissions and at the same time switch over to gas. What is the state of affair in Shell concerning carbon capture and storage?

"I think we will need carbon capture and storage. Emotionally, it may not feel as the best option to put CO2 back into the ground where the oil and gas came from. But when you're serious about the 2 degrees, you will need CCS, especially for the industry. Holland is a very industrialised country. We have multinationals that are big in paint, chemicals, steel, food etcetera. The industry will go on the journey towards a lower carbon footprint. But to make a 95% reduction by 2050 possible, we will need CCS."

Regarding the transition ahead, what is your advice for future engineers?

"I always stimulate people to be very curious, to explore and to get out of your comfort zone. If you find things that appeal to you, then get out of your comfort zone and go there. It will mean personal development, it's also what society needs to generate ideas to solve climate change. We're the first generation that is aware of the problem, and we're the last generation that can solve it. I keep saying that energy systems and climate change is not only about renewables. I think a lot of the challenge worldwide will be in the access to energy and how to make fossil fuels cleaner, more efficient and reduce the CO2 footprint in a way that meets our goals but still provides access to energy. So it's about both access to energy and reducing the carbon footprint. We need good people and talent in all these aspects."

Juri Krasnoumov (29), Mechanical Engineering (3mE):

On a more personal level, what did you have to sacrifice for your successful career?

"I don't feel I had to sacrifice anything. I have many hobbies, I like my free time, I like my family, so that's a given. And work has to fit in with that. And it does very well. At the start of my career I wasn't sure how everything would play out.. I knew I wanted to see the world, I was curious. I didn't dare saying I was ambitious when I started, but now I know that being ambitious is the same as being curious. I have not been motivated by the status or the salary of a job, but driven by my willingness to work on interesting problems. I think what made the difference is that I just grasped the opportunities that were initially out of my comfort zone. For example I didn't think I could work as a supervisor with operators on a plant. I saw myself more in the role of a technology expert with paper and nice teamwork. But once you work as in operations you discover you like the job and you learn a lot. I've managed to combine my private life and my job really well. Something that played out different: I did not expect I would work fulltime as a mother Only part of my career I have been working part-time. When we went to Australia I had to either choose to work fulltime or not at all. I thought I'd stop and do an MBA or something. But my husband, who also works with Shell, said: I have the same worries for the kids. I'm also a parent. Why don't we try this together and if it doesn't work one of us can stop working. We are in this together. In the end we tried it and in Australia it was very well organised to combine jobs with small kids. We were blessed with kids that didn't have special needs. And it worked out very well."

What does your working day look like?

"It's very divers because my work is on the interface between Shell and society . I meet all kind of groups, universities, students, mayors, companies, local neighbours, start-ups, politicians. I spend half of my time outside of the office meeting with people on all kinds of subjects. The other half of it is inside the office with people visiting me or also communicating internally of course. There is a multitude of topics every day.

Three days a week I start the day running in the morning with my friends and I arrive at the office between eight and nine in the morning. Three nights a week I have engagements somewhere in the country for dialogues. So during the week I'm quite busy, but in the weekend there is hardly anything with regards to work. Sometimes a party that I'm invited to."

With special thanks to Eva Schouten, Commissaris Onderwijs at Technologisch Gezelschap, who took the initiative for the interview and did a large share of the production work.

Five student associations invited the president-director of Shell Netherlands, Marjan van Loon, for the Pentagon lecture on March 28.

CV

Marjan van Loon is president-director of Shell Netherlands since January 2016. She was born in 1965 in Helmond and studied Chemical Engineering at TU Eindhoven. Directly after that, she went into service with Shell in 1989. In the period 1997-2007 she worked in Australia and Malaysia on a gas plant and in Shell's regional head office as the manager for LNG and gas processing. Prior to becoming president-director she was vice-president of integrated gas and liquid natural gas (LNG) in Shell's Projects and Technology division. Van Loon is married to a Shell man. Together they have a daughter who studies mechanical engineering in Delft and a 17-year old son who still lives with his parents. Under Van Loon's governance, Shell has decided to participate in a large offshore windpark. The investment is seen as a change of course in Shell's energy strategy.