A man of Ben van Beurden’s power and reputation for blunt speaking is capable of silencing a ballroom packed with his boisterous peers. When the chief executive of Shell rose to address an industry gathering in a London hotel, a respectful hush descended.
Van Beurden, 57, rose from a modest background in the Netherlands to the top of a cut-throat, politically fraught sector that rarely finds itself out of the public firing line. The annual black-tie dinner at International Petroleum Week in February, a typical nexus of senior executives and high-ranking government officials, was expecting a frank assessment of its response to its biggest challenge: global warming. Van Beurden did not disappoint.
Warning the room that the industry had a credibility problem, that it was “aloof” when it came to issues like climate change, he said: “You cannot talk credibly about lowering emissions globally if, for example, you are slow to acknowledge climate change, if you undermine calls for an effective carbon price, and if you always descend into the ‘jobs versus environment’ argument in the public debate.”
That speech was a far cry from the usual backslapping fare at the annual event and it put some noses out of joint. But it was welcomed by those who knew that Van Beurden was no fluffy liberal. “Follow the money,” was his mantra during a stint at Shell’s chemicals division, according to one colleague. Now, his message to the industry was: Follow the overwhelming evidence on greenhouse gas emissions and join the debate on climate change, or risk the fossil fuel industry being sidelined.
But Shell’s own business model, and in particular a career-defining takeover executed by Van Beurden within two months of that industry broadside, points to a different corporate philosophy. The powerful ranks of oil and gas industry executives had not witnessed a Damascene moment. Shell, under Van Beurden, is pursuing a strategy that seems to leave the €130 billion ($147 billion) Anglo-Dutch group firmly among the unconverted when it comes to stopping runaway climate change.
An investigation into the Shell business shows that under its forecasts, the Earth’s temperature will rise nearly twice as much as the 2 degrees C threshold for dangerous climate change, and that the firm’s own greenhouse gas emissions are still rising and will rocket further after the £47 billion (about $74 billion) acquisition of rival BG Group.
Further, Shell’s Canadian tar sands, Brazilian, Nigerian and U.S. Gulf deep-water projects are the most likely to be rendered worthless by a global clampdown on high carbon-emitting exploration projects, analyses find. In addition, the company’s growth is becoming reliant on drilling wells (some deeper than the one that caused BP’s Gulf blowout) and it is a member of the American Legislative Exchange Council, a political organization that has opposed policies to address climate change.
A stark counterpoint to Van Beurden’s speech comes from a 2013 Shell New Lens Scenario planning document which suggests industry talk of lowering global carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions is just that. Referring to the internationally agreed limit on a global temperature rise of 2 degrees C, the document states: “Both our scenarios and the IEA (International Energy Agency) New Policies scenario (and our base case energy demand and outlook) do not limit emissions to be consistent with the back-calculated 450 parts per million (CO2 in the atmosphere) 2C. We also do not see governments taking the steps now that are consistent with the 2C scenario.”
According to one estimate, that Shell statement is tantamount to acknowledging that the world will disastrously vault over the 2C limit.
Charlie Kronick, climate campaigner at Greenpeace, estimates that the IEA middle New Policies scenario cited by Shell leaves the Earth facing a temperature increase of 3.7 degrees C as fossil fuels continue to be burned.
Work by international scientists has warned that a 4 degrees C rise in the planet’s temperature would bring severe droughts globally and millions of migrants seeking refuge as food supplies collapse. Desertification of parts of the globe would force agriculture on to untouched areas of the planet, while populations would have to adapt to rising sea levels, extreme weather, and increasing levels of agricultural pests and diseases, according to a collection of papers published by the Royal Society in 2010.
Meanwhile, a recent seismic corporate event put even greater distance between Van Beurden’s words and reality. On April 8, Shell’s chief executive shocked the industry by announcing the acquisition of BG Group, the former exploration arm of British Gas, now one of the world’s biggest gas producers. Having warned industry colleagues about the discredited trade-off between jobs and the environment, Van Beurden put growth first in emphatic fashion. The BG deal is the biggest takeover in the company’s history and it clearly propels Shell deeper into fossil fuel extraction.
Putting the two businesses together makes a growing carbon footprint even bigger. Shell’s direct greenhouse gas emissions from facilities were 76 million tonnes on a CO2-equivalent basis in 2014, up 4 percent from 73 million tonnes 12 months earlier. Operations directly under BG’s control in 2014 emitted 7.6 million tonnes of greenhouse gases, an increase of about 600,000 tonnes, or 9 percent, on 2013. If regulators let the new partnership proceed, Shell will be increasing its oil and gas reserves by 25 percent, raising production by 20 percent and employing almost 100,000 staff. This would be a big boost given that Shell, which in its early incarnation nearly a century ago boasted of producing 11 percent of the world’s oil, has struggled to find its own oil and gas reserves through the drill bit. Fadel Gheit, the highly respected industry analyst, described the transaction as “one of the best deals the industry has ever seen.”
But Pascal Menges, manager of the Lombard Odier Global Energy Fund, which invests in the energy sector, sees failure as the driving motive behind the deal. “This shows that big oil’s growth strategy over the last 10 years is bust,” he argued. “Having bet enormous sums on eye-wateringly expensive oil production from oil sands, ultra-deep water and Arctic fields, the super majors are now ill-placed to cope with a low oil price,” he said, although oil had recently recovered from a perilous low of less than $50 per barrel this year — a price which makes profitable oil and gas exploration very difficult — to around $65.
Menges also highlighted a trend pushing Shell into exploring difficult parts of the world — such as the Canadian tar sands, Nigeria, and deep water off Brazil and the U.S. Gulf (underlined by the U.S. government’s controversial decision on 11 May to allow Shell to restart drilling in the Arctic, off the coast of Alaska).
Shell has either taken most accessible oil and gas fields or had its path blocked by states engaged in resource nationalism — governments giving licences to state-owned companies at the expense of foreign multinationals.
Shell is upfront that its takeover of BG is about profit and capability.
A spokeswoman said: “By combining BG’s portfolio and skills set with Shell’s capabilities, we can deliver a step change in the growth priorities for both of our companies. This means more deep water and more LNG [liquefied natural gas] plays where we have strong profitability and capabilities.”
This retreat to some of the most inaccessible and technically challenging oil and gas fields in the world poses, however, a further threat to Shell: the possibility of these projects being forcibly mothballed if there is global action to head off a rise of more than 2C.
Research from Carbon Tracker, a climate change thinktank, highlights all these areas — the Canadian tar sands, the U.S. Gulf and Alaska — as being at the highest risk from enforced mothballing and becoming “stranded assets” tying up billions of pounds worth of shareholder funds.
This analysis was given further weight by a study for the Norwegian government by the industry consultancy Rystad Energy. It concluded that even if the world managed to remain within the 2C limit the “largest stranded areas are offshore North and South America, west Africa, and in the Arctic”.
The BG Group deal gives Shell a significant stake in one of the most technically challenging — not to mention potentially stranded — deep water projects in the world. In the previous decade, Brazil made a mammoth oil discovery off its Atlantic coast and Shell inherited BG’s investments in those fields. The fields off Brazil are at depths of 2,100 metres (7,000 feet) compared with the 1,500 metres (4,921 feet) that BP was operating in when its Deepwater Horizon rig blew up in the Gulf of Mexico in 2010 during a drilling operation. Deep water is expensive to operate in and, as BP found out, an environment where the consequences of serious accidents are harder to manage.
But Van Beurden rejects the stranded asset argument for Shell. In a speech to Columbia University in New York last September, he said: “In our opinion, the ‘stranded assets’ thesis underestimates the significance of rising energy demand. It underplays the role natural gas will perform in the global energy system, especially in replacing coal power plants. And it ignores the potential of innovations like carbon capture and storage.”
With Shell’s involvement in such controversial areas, there is also scrutiny of its lobbying efforts. The Union of Concerned Scientists in the U.S. has started a campaign against Shell over its continued involvement in the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC), a rightwing nonprofit organization that has been criticized for drafting model legislation that denies any human contribution to climate change.
While companies such as Occidental Petroleum and Google have left ALEC — Google’s executive chairman, Eric Schmidt, alleged last year “they’re just literally lying” about climate change — Shell argues that it supports the organization because it promotes job creation and the free market.
In a statement, it said: “We are members of ALEC and several other similar groups across the political spectrum that foster bipartisan exchanges between elected officials. In terms of ALEC, we specifically support their pro-growth, pro-jobs agenda, and generally find commonality on issues important to the oil and gas industry.
“While there are some issues on which we have different views, we look at the totality of the organization not a single issue. This is the case with other organizations as well.”
Some critics say the “responsible image” of Shell moving into a cleaner gas sector via the BG deal masks a fossil fuel company struggling for survival in a world facing climate change.
“This is not an evil guy leading the world to destruction. He is just leading a company that is trying to find a way of maintaining this [fossil fuels] system,” said Ike Teuling, energy campaigner with Friends of the Earth Netherlands.
Fittingly for a pragmatic Dutchman, there is considerable latitude in Van Beurden’s stance on climate change. He argues that global warming is a significant issue that needs tackling but not in a way that distracts attention away from the reality of growing population, increasing prosperity and growing energy demand.
“Today, 3 billion people still lack access to the modern energy many of us take for granted,” he said. “This isn’t just about having a dustbuster or a TV set. Energy access often makes the difference between poverty and prosperity. At the same time, demand is growing. There will be more people on this planet, more people living in cities and more people rising from poverty. They will all need energy if they are to thrive. The issue is how to balance one moral obligation, energy access for all, against the other: fighting climate change.”
This allows Van Beurden to indicate that fossil fuel critics are largely based in the largely prosperous west and are denying prosperity to those developing countries such as China and India that need oil and gas energy to become more prosperous themselves.
Included in Van Beurden’s industry speech in that hotel ballroom there were excerpts that endorsed the status quo. “Yes, climate change is real. And yes, renewables are an indispensable part of the future energy mix. But no, provoking a sudden death of fossil fuels isn’t a plausible plan,” he suggested.
Nothing in Shell’s current strategy suggests Van Beurden is going to present a plausible alternative.
Editor’s note: This story is part of Keep it in the Ground, a campaign launched by the Guardian in March calling on the Wellcome Trust and Gates Foundation to shift their investments from fossil fuels. To date more than 200,000 people have signed our petition. Both the Wellcome Trust and Gates Foundation say they carefully screen the companies they invest in to ensure they act in line with their goals. This piece, and others to follow this week, are the result of Guardian reporters’ investigations into some of the companies the foundations invest in, revealing how they operate both environmentally and socially – Alan Rusbridger, Guardian editor in chief.