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Shell, two CEOs, two cultural shifts: Green transition to business-as-usual

Updated, October 27, 2023

New vison, clean tech acquisitions and fossil fuel divestments

Under the leadership of Shell CEO, Ben van Beurden, 2014 to 2022, it really seemed that Shell was taking climate change seriously.  In 2017, Ben van Beurden purported that the “biggest challenge” for the company was to acquire public acceptance.  He asserted “If we are not careful, broader public support for the sector will wane.”

Perhaps, the most astonishing component of the new orientation was the Ben van Beurden plan to divest of US$30 billion of assets.  Amazingly, Shell had decided to sell its US$8.5 billion in assets in Canada’s oil sands.

Likewise encouraging, Shell assured it would comply with the Paris Agreement; concluded peak oil would occur in the next few years; set a goal to cut its carbon emissions by 20% by 2035, 50% by 2050, issued a joint statement with lead investors for Climate Action 100+  representing US$32 trillion in assets, to deliver on the Paris Agreement; withdrew from the far right climate denial organization, the American Legislative Exchange Council; and advised the Canadian Association of Petroleum Producers (CAPP) that the CAPP climate and energy-transition-related policy positions constitute a “misalignment.”

The flip side to the disavowal of traditional paths was the awesome pro-active Shell clean tech firms investment spree, entailing clean tech acquisitions, mergers and partnerships.  Many on the lengthy list of new clean tech can be found in my 2019 article.

In 2018, Martin Westelaar, then head of Shell’s gas and new energy division, described Shell’s green transition as one of modestly beginning with a budget of US$1-2 billion year up to 2020, to prepare the case for shareholders to get on side for a doubling of such investments to US$4 billion annually after 2020.

In 2019, Westelaar gave reason to believe that the Shell acquisition of First Utility, the largest electricity supplier in the UK, was a steppingstone for entry into a global solar market, presuming solar would become the biggest source of low carbon energy.

Westelaar had exclaimed “electrification is the biggest trend in energy … it’s easier to grow in growing markets”.  And Shell wants to play a lead role in the new energy landscape to become “largest electricity power company in the world in the early 2030s.”

In April 2019, Brian Davis, formerly Global Vice President, Energy Solutions from 2016 to 2020, vaunted the Shell vision of a global transition to electrification, including electric vehicles, batteries, microgrids.   

February 11, 2021 press release officializes green transition

Boasting Shell’s new vision as an oil and gas industry energy transition leader, in a Shell February 11, 2021 media release, Ben van Beurden, is quoted as saying “Our accelerated strategy will drive down carbon emissions and will deliver value for our shareholders, our customers and wider society.”

This announcement indicated Shell that Shell’s corporate-wide carbon emissions peaked in 2018, its oil production peaked in 2019 and the firm would pursue divestments averaging US$4 billion a year.  Doing so, he portrayed Shell becoming less vulnerable to oil and gas prices.

Ben van Beurden, depicted the Shell makeover crystal clear in the dispatch: “We must give our customers the products and services they want and need – products that have the lowest environmental impact.  At the same time, we will use our established strengths to build on our competitive portfolio as we make the transition to be a net-zero emissions business in step with society.”

Accordingly, the communiqué implies the integration of environmental and social ambitions.

This integration proposal comprises linking 10% of the bonuses of directors to lowering carbon emissions; US$2-3 billion annually for Renewables and Energy Solutions to become a world leader in clean power as a service; and 500,000 charging stations by 2025.

New CEO, “ruthless” transition to oil and gas prioritization and clean tech fire sale

All changed when Wael Sawan became the CEO of Shell in January 2023.

Beginning June 2023, Wael Sawan implemented corporate reorganizational changes to put the emphasis on the “ruthless” approach to maximising value, specifically “absolutely committed to our upstream business.”  This new approach entailed a shift priorities in favour of oil and gas production and scaling back renewables.  Sawan prescribed a ‘fundamental cultural shift” critical to re-establish investor confidence.

That meant that only green power projects with high returns or in sync with the value chain of Shell would get corporate support.  Sawan even had the audacity to declare that these changes would benefit schoolchildren in countries like Pakistan!

To greenwash  the environmental consequences of the makeover, Shell announced it had not abandoned its goal to becoming a net-zero company by 2050.

But the bluffing in that message became obvious in September 2023 when news broke out that Shell aimed to divest its majority or all shares in Sonnen, a major competitor with Tesla in the energy storage sector.

Just prior to the revelations on Sonnen, Shell sold Octopus Energy, a German and UK retail energy business, meaning 1,800 employees were no longer with Shell. 

Flurry of resignations

In June 2023, Thomas Brostrom, who had been the Shell, VP for renewable generation, and head of offshore wind, quit after his position was downgraded to a new regional role.  Brostrom had been Ørsetd North America wind chief until joining Shell in 2021.  The Danish Ørsetd is the world leader in offshore wind development.

Also in June 2023, Shell’s power trader, Steffen Krutzinna resigned over what for him was “heart-breaking,” to the effect that Shell was putting short-term profits over social and environmental responsibilities.  He posted on LinkedIn “I perceive that as a pivotal shift in corporate values.” “I don’t want to be part of that, so I’m out.”

Not long after in July 2023, Melissa Reid, who had been Shell’s UK offshore wind manager chief, left too.  She had led Shell’s successful bid for the ScotWind seabed license.

A year earlier, Caroline Dennett, a consultant for an independent agency Cloutt, terminated her working relationship with Shell with an open letter to Shell executives and its 14,000 employees regarding Shell’s “double-talk on climate.”  Expressing her disgust, “…they are not winding down on oil and gas but planning to explore and extract much more.”

Aside from the aforementioned resignations, anxieties of Shell staff still with the company were reflected in posts by employees.

Virtual “A Conversation with Wael”: Staff pacification

Responding to internal anxiety over Shell’s recentering Shell’s goals, Wael Sawan planned a virtual meeting with staff,  “A Conversation with Wael” for October 17, 2023.  The advance promotion advised the meeting would “deepen our conversation on the opportunities and dilemmas we face as we position Shell to win in the energy transition.”

The Wael Sawan October 17, 2023 message confirmed Shell believes in “urgent climate action” notwithstanding the about-face.

Sawan assured Shell staff that Shell is simply modifying the strategy delivery.

He explained this second cultural shift as the challenge of the affordability of clean tech.

These are lies.

Major job cuts in low carbon unit, not strategy tweaking

The Wael “conversation” sequel on tweaking the strategy, came quickly, on October 25, 2023, when Shell announced that it will cut 200 jobs in its low carbon solutions unit, originally known as Shell New Energies.  Some of these jobs will be transferred to other corporate divisions, and an additional 130 position roles are “under review” in 2024.  Ergo, anxieties among employees will go up many notches.

Ideological shift, not clean tech affordability or potential, nor belief in urgent climate action

Renewables are now the least expensive sources of power and 90% of the sources of global annual newly installed electrical generation capacity has been renewables since 2022.

Sawan conveniently ignored the growth curve of electric vehicle (EV) sales to-date, EVs having reached an inflection point.  EV sales in China and EU may reach 50% of the market in 2025.  In North America, there is an ongoing tsunami of investments in EV and battery production facilities because EV demand exceeds supply.

Most automakers are committed to a full transition of their respective lineups to electrification.

This is the backdrop for the year 2022 being an historic year.  For the first time ever, investments in the green transition, US$1.7 trillion, exceeded those unabated fossil fuel supply and power at US$1 trillion.

Since 2021, the growth of investments in clean tech have outpaced those of fossil fuels three-to-one

The greenwashing is self-evident.

The takeaway

1) It is possible for a fossil fuel company to become a diversified energy company committed to the Paris Agreement.

2) The old guard fundamentalists remain in denial and, guided by the rearview mirror, believe the future must be like the past.

3) Powerful shareholders having the characteristics described in item #2, plus addiction to quarterly reports, are among the biggest hurdles to a fossil fuel firm migration to clean tech.

Ukraine green reconstruction: Global model opportunity

Updated July 20, 2023

Many stakeholders from Ukraine, the European Union and around the globe, including just-in-time working groups, international financing institutions and the private sector, are currently engaged in “Made in Ukraine” green reconstruction agenda.  The challenges are colossal.

Half of Ukraine’s power generation infrastructure has been destroyed or badly damaged.  It makes little sense to reconstruct a tangled web of centralized energy distribution networks.  Rather the emerging consensus among key players is for decentralized area-specific clean energy solutions that can be built quickly, secure energy independence and offer less vulnerability to attacks by aggressors.

Equally important, energy inefficient buildings have been destroyed beyond repair in many entire cities and/or districts.  Interdisciplinary international groups are in place to plan the rebuilding of communities respecting circular economy and energy efficient criteria and Ukrainian architectural history.  These strategies call for using up to 90% of the rubble to minimize emissions during the construction process and the manufacturing of building materials.

Regarding farming equipment and practices, drones conceived, manufactured and precision operated in Ukraine, along with imports, positions Ukraine to be a world leader in applying drones for agricultural tasks without the need for heavy equipment and airplane dust spraying.

As well, green steelmaking, critical minerals and many other possibilities will be integrated into the transition.

No guarantees, but all pertinent players are readying in sync for the humongous tasks ahead.

Canada’s new plastics strategy falls far short of expectations

On a global scale, less than 10 percent of plastics are recycled.  Plastics are ubiquitous, meaning regulating its use is especially complex.  While Canada has only banned a half dozen of single-use plastics, the European Union and China are engaged in a holistic multi-year incremental approach to manage plastic production, distribution, consumption, recycling, disposal and substitution. Accordingly, the actions of these latter jurisdictions will influence global innovation and standards. By comparison, Canada’s plastic initiatives are symbolic greenwashing.

Green economy: Financial sector zigzags

Green financing improves but has a long way to go

BlackRock, the world’s largest investment firm, has indicated that those that don’t tackle climate change will lose money in 5 years. Some financial institutions have made multi-trillion commitments from now to 2030 to invest in the green economy while still focusing the majority of investments in fossil fuels. Canadian banks are among the global top fossil fuel investors.

Want to invest in Canada’s clean economy? Good luck

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As of last year, close to one thousand institutions with three per cent of global savings under management have engaged in some form of divestment from fossil fuels.

In June 2019, Norway’s parliament unanimously voted in favour of directing its $1.06 trillion Government Pension Global Fund (GPGF), the Norges Bank, to divest more than $13 billion from fossil fuels while dedicating more investments to clean technologies.

The caveat is that this will apply only to companies that are exclusively in the business of upstream oil and gas production and some coal sector investments. The GPGF is Norway’s sovereign fund derived from oil industry revenues to assure Norway has a steady source of revenues in the post-oil world.

Shell has expressed concern that the growing fossil fuel divestment movement could impact on the company’s performance.

Shell aims to lead Big Oil in pivot to clean energy

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A short list of just 25 fossil fuel producers are responsible for half of all carbon emissions since 1988, according to the The Carbon Majors Report. The report indicates that if fossil fuel extraction continues the same trend over the next 28 years, global average temperatures would rise approximately 4°C by the end of the century.

Diversification may be a matter of survival for fossil fuel companies in the event there is a global acceleration towards complying with the Paris Agreement. That would mean leaving 60 to 80 per cent of reserves in the ground. What are presently assets could turn into liabilities to the tune of $674 billion (USD) now and $6 trillion by 2028.

While getting Big Oil to pivot to clean energy may seem far-fetched, some fossil fuel giants are starting to get serious about reducing their carbon footprint and diversifying towards clean technologies. Shell is one example of the widening fault lines among Big Oil, and a very notable one.