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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.

Critical minerals: Global and Canadian portraits

Updated May 1, 2023, Pure lithium

Global developments in a nutshell

For the rest of this century, most of the world’s needs for critical minerals can be accommodated from mined resources in democratic countries and 95% recycling of battery content.  China and the European Union have policies in place to optimize electric vehicle (EV) battery recycling.

Australia towers above the rest as a source of half of global lithium resources.

Canada and the U.S. provide financial support for advancing critical minerals activities.

Howbeit, China’s critical mineral importation practices are admittingly problematic.  The antidotes are critical mineral deposits and policies of democratic counties plus EV manufacturers being sensitive to such concerns as integral parts of their public DNA image.

Too, South American lithium extraction practices pose large-scale unresolved environmental perils.

China: Largest emitter to green gamechanger, but…

China climate emergency global influence

China is several years ahead of other developed countries on the migration to a green economy, in clean technology production capacity, massive market penetration and green investments. China already has an extraordinary global green export potential. China leads in renewables, electric vehicles and battery production, incrementally regulating plastic solutions, high-speed rail, private clean tech investment, government environmental support and green bonds.  China’s concurrent climate actions are gamechangers destined to have huge global competition impacts on energy, economic, transportation, industrial and other paradigms, perhaps more so than the climate crisis.  But there are simultaneous contradictions. China is the world’s largest liquified natural gas importer, once again ramping up coal production and certainly not a leader on human rights.

Putin losing energy war: European climate emergency

Nord Stream 2 gas pipeline padlocked

Putin’s war has created an electroshock for Europe because it depends on fossil fuel imports for 60% of its energy, one-third of which comes from Russia.  Organically evolving European Union (EU) plans target 2027 for a massive and rapid transition to a green economy and energy independence.  Renewables, electric vehicles, clean technologies and energy efficiency will all play major roles in the creation of fast-forward paradigms for global emulation.  For the immediate, by the end of 2022, EU plans entail cutting Russia gas imports by two-thirds, substitution fuel sources plus ramping up renewables and energy efficiency.  These EU plans will be devastating for the Russian economy.  Russia needs European oil and gas revenues more than Europe needs these fuels.

Renewables, not gas, for Southeast Asia: Vietnam

Rooftop solar surge

The global natural gas industry, including that of Canada, has high hopes for weaning Southeast Asia from coal dependency.  Concurrently, low-cost renewables are swiftly changing the electrical power landscape in this part of the world.  Vietnam, caught in the squeeze between the two competing types of power sources, is favouring a clean energy metamorphosis.  The country now has the greatest installed solar energy capacity in Southeast Asia.  Government policies are both supportive and handicaps.  Grid infrastructure is woefully insufficient.  International support is critical to solidify the transition to clean energy.

Shipping sustainability: Oxymoron but paradigm to change

Container ship powered by dirty oil, updated April 27, 2023

Cargo and cruise ships represent 2.6 percent of global emissions and could reach 17 percent by 2050.  Nearly all these ships use cheap dirty heavy oil with high sulphur content.   International regulations aren’t helpful as they are lax and difficult to enforce.  Fortunately, Maersk, the largest container shipping company in the world, has created the conditions for an industry-wide sectoral revolution by setting 2040 as a target to achieve net-zero emissions, requiring all new vessel acquisitions be carbon-neutral and has already ordered 12 green methanol powered ships.  Concurrently, many new technological solutions are under development including ones associated with electric, wind and biofuel energy sources.  Stringent territorial waters and docking standards, Maersk technological catalysts, financing of emerging remedies, could advance clean technologies quickly.  Finally, open-loop scrubbers are widely used as a band-aid to remove sulphur from the exhausts to transfer the pollutants into the sea.

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.

Canada’s Green Economy needs public investment

Both the Intergovernmental Panel and Climate Change and the International Energy Agency have concluded that public policies, rather than the availability of resources, are among the key determinants for a shift from fossil fuels to clean technology development and deployment.  Public banks are critical agents for change along these lines.

Public financial institutions and the green economy around the world

Starting with some of the largest public banks, in July 2013, both the World Bank and the European Investment Bank announced that they will limit to the bare minimum investments in fossil fuel projects, while shifting the lion’s share of their respective energy investments to renewables.