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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.

Electric vehicles and equipment for mining decarbonization

MacLean Engineering Transmixer electric vehicle

As with most environmental solutions, electric mining equipment (EME) offers opportunities for reducing capital and operating expenditures, while providing a host of solutions to address risks. These lower risks include decarbonization; curtailment of colossal ventilation expenses to evacuate fumes, particulate matter and heat from diesel engines; and improved employee health and working conditions.  Higher profits, diminished risks and enhanced social acceptability associated with EME, are hard to beat.

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.

Investing responsibly, in the Canadian green economy, not easy: Policy solutions

Canada compares poorly in buttressing clean tech firms.

Reliable standards for environmentally sound investments do not exist and very few Canadian clean tech firms are listed on a stock exchange.  Too often, Canadian clean tech firms must go outside Canada for financial support and/or to enter the stock market.  This article presents solutions for investors and clean tech companies alike, but these solutions require government action. 

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.

Fossil fuel sector contrasts: Green transition engaged, but not enough

Not all fossil fuel companies the same

Not all Big Oil firms are alike. Some are engaged in a rapid green migration, many are sitting on the fence and others are still in climate denial. Meanwhile, the value of fossil fuel assets are declining but the industry is camouflaging this by selling assets and debt financing to keep shareholders happy.

Global clean tech opportunities abound, just not in Canada

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Global developments suggest a Canadian migration to a green economy is critical to competitiveness. However, if one tries to find Canadian clean tech manufacturing/innovation companies listed on a stock market, one will likely come up with nearly zero, while the number of Canadian-based oil and gas firms offering stocks is seemingly infinite.

Canada has got its priorities wrong.

In the era of fossil fuel’s global decline, why is Canada hanging onto LNG?

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Liquified natural gas (LNG) is being promoted as a green transition option to replace dirtier fuels. But when renewables are coming in cheaper than new gas- and coal-fired plants for two-thirds of the world, why is this the case?

LNG’s economic prospects are waning because renewables price declines are having a bigger impact than anticipated, and there is an LNG global market glut. The shale gas industry is also experiencing more costs than revenues, and greenhouse gases (GHGs) in the LNG supply chain may be as bad as coal.

But, as with the case with oilsands, Canada chooses to ignore the signs of a global evolution to a green economy at its own peril while heading toward stranded assets.

Yet the Government of Quebec is now promoting an LNG facility north of Quebec City and a pipeline to bring in Alberta shale gas using the same clean energy transition export messages as those used for the LNG Canada facility in Kitimat, B.C. and the Coastal Gaslink shale gas pipeline.

Newfoundland offshore drilling: a case of bending environmental impact rules

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Covid-19 has fixated world attention. And what attention is focused on fossil fuels is mostly tuned to Trans Mountain and Keystone XL oil sands pipelines that have made it back into headlines. But there is another Big Oil story in Canada that has fallen through the cracks. This other story is about a shocking bending of all the rules regarding an environmental assessment for fossil fuel offshore exploration on the Newfoundland coast.

On March 4, 2020, Minister of Environment and Climate Change Jonathan Wilkinson authorized a derogation of the Impact Assessment Act (IAA) to allow exploratory, offshore oil-and-gas drilling on the Grand Banks of Newfoundland, pending an online consultation process. Originally, this was to be a 30-day consultation process terminating April 3, 2020, but has been extended due to the Covid-19 pandemic.

It has been estimated that the area to be explored has a potential to produce 650,000 barrels per day.

Yet public information about the online consultation, in particular the derogation of the IAA, has been well-hidden from the radar screen of those likely to be concerned about the Grand Banks project. The only portrait I found on the political machinations is in a Le Devoir article from March 23.

Oil was doomed before the pandemic

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Oil’s brief dip into negative values this month was the result of fear that storage space would run out and buyers would have nowhere to put their oil amid the current pandemic. While widely reported, this sudden plunge is a distraction. Prices are now back above zero, but futures contracts (the price of oil delivery in the coming months) are expected to linger at unprecedented levels.

What’s important to take away from this sensational plunge in value is that the COVID-19 crisis has placed the fossil fuel sector in such a precarious state that it may accelerate the arrival of peak demand for all fossil fuels. This provides an opportunity to plan a Canadian transition to a green economy within upcoming recovery initiatives.

The plight of coal has shown us that once demand drops, clean tech alternatives fill the vacuum.

Canada should invest in electric vehicle transition post COVID-19

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Following the COVID-19 pandemic, governments around the globe will be massively investing in, and defining policies for, economic recovery. With all fossil fuel sectors in decline, what better time to make the transition to a green economy?

And what better time for the federal government to develop an electric vehicle (EV) national strategy?

Canada does have a significant electric vehicle sector, primarily lin Quebec, and the beginnings of an EV segment in the Ontario auto industry. The current Canadian EV sector covers the entire ecosystem, such as EV school buses, trucks, urban transit buses, powertrains, batteries and raw materials, and charging infrastructure. This is backed up by world-class research capabilities.

But the piecemeal, one project at-a-time approach doesn’t make any sense when we are up against 400 electric vehicle technology manufacturers in China. In Quebec, there are 147 EV firms, which collectively employ 6,000 people.

Wet’suwet’en: The canary in the Canadian fossil fuel cage

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Ad nauseum, mainstream media have focused on the economic consequences of the blockades in support of the Wet’suwet’en Nation. Equal media attention has been dedicated to the complexities of Indigenous ancestral rights in unceded territories and who has the right to speak for the Wet’suwet’en. Rare are those who characterize the impasse as a clash of two economies, the resource-based economy and the green economy.

Jason Kenney got it half right in saying that the standoff is a “dress rehearsal” for future major fossil fuel projects.

Canada falling short in fossil fuel divestment

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Environmental liabilities are the most prominent global investment risks, according to a World Economic Forum (WEF) 2020 report.

This report’s short-term risks classified four of the top five hazards as being environmental — extreme heat waves, destruction of ecosystems, pollution’s impact on health and uncontrolled fires.

The five most significant long-term perils are also environmental, the WEF reports, with the latter list comprising extreme weather, biodiversity loss, climate-action failure, natural disasters and human-made environmental disasters.

The global investment community is increasingly internalizing these concerns such that in 2019 investors representing US$11 trillion in the assets from 1,100 financial institutions have committed to divest from fossil fuels.

As electric vehicles proliferate globally, the U.S. Big 3 are idle

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Electric vehicles have been around for some time, but global automakers have been reluctant to migrate because doing so represents the biggest technological revolution since the Ford Model T.

This revolution entails scrapping a century of incremental investments in the internal combustion engine and replacing it with a 100 per cent different set of propulsion technologies, along with all the requirements to design their vehicles differently. This means it would take many years for automakers to recover their investments in electric vehicles (EVs), all while there are big profits to be made on conventional pick-ups and SUVs.

While North America’s automakers have been sluggish to respond, manufacturers elsewhere are prepared to comply with Chinese and European Union requirements for a migration to zero- and low-emission vehicles.

Batteries not included: Canada unprepared for demise of fossil fuel era

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The federal election results suggest that the first priority of the NDP must be electoral reform to bring to an end the politics of fear and the strategic vote, which favours the Liberals and Conservatives alike.

The second priority must be to engage Canada, for the first time, in an urgent migration to a green economy. The Liberal record on shifting to clean technologies is nothing short of insignificant, one of the worst records among developed countries. Meanwhile, China, and to a lesser extent, the European Union and California, are changing global economic, energy, and transportation paradigms.

Canada lags far behind China and the EU in energy and transportation transition

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The next federal government mandate will determine whether Canada complies with the Paris Agreement and makes the transition to a green economy. We must move quickly. As a former federal government “green” employee, I know government staff can deliver an effective climate change action plan within three months.

A green economy is one in which economic and sustainable development are fused together. A plethora of measures are required by way of annual budgets, legislative initiatives, policies and other agendas. The Liberals and Conservatives want us to believe that a price on carbon is a ballot question, but a carbon price is not a climate change action plan any more than buying a child winter clothing is a strategy for raising the child.

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.

Stalled: why North America lags as China and Europe lead the way on electric vehicles

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There’s not much urgency about tackling climate change and driving the switch to electric vehicles in Canada’s new federal budget. There are some incentives and voluntary targets for EVs but, on balance, the budget is an example of the mediocre policies holding North America back from catalysing the migration to electric vehicles (EVs). We now have proof from around the world that strong policies are what drives change.

China has disruptive legislation accompanied by a plethora of complementary measures. Canadian/North American initiatives are mild while the European Union is somewhere in between. The results are that China already offers a wide selection of EVs and sales are already booming, the European migration to EVs is imminent while North American governments and automakers are lagging behind, with modest exceptions in some progressive U.S. states and Québec and B.C..

These differences are important because the transportation sector accounts for approximately 60 per cent of oil consumption. Three studies confirm that even a moderate penetration of EVs will have devasting impacts on the petroleum sector. Even Shell believes peak oil is imminent and is engaged in major strides to migrate to clean tech and become the world’s largest power company.

The North American lack of urgency makes it harder for us to stop runaway climate change and even threatens the future of the North American auto industry.