Behind Shell’s strategy to get into green energy.

Ben van Beurden, the chief executive of Royal Dutch Shell, has been talking about the need to cut emissions since 2017. In the view of some, though, Shell has dragged its feet.

The company’s clean energy investments since 2016 add up to $3.2 billion, Stanley Reed reports for The New York Times, while it has spent about $84 billion on oil and gas exploration and development, according to estimates by Bernstein, a research firm.

“You cannot claim to be in transition when you only invest” such a small percentage of capital in new businesses, said Mark van Baal, founder of Follow This, a Dutch investor activist group.

All of the big oil companies, especially in Europe, share a similar dilemma. Their leaders see that demand for petroleum products is likely to eventually fade and that their industry faces growing disapproval, especially in Europe, because of its role in climate change. Shell is responsible for an estimated 3 percent of global emissions, mostly from the gasoline and other products burned by its customers.

Yet Shell and other companies still make nearly all their profits from fossil fuels, and they are naturally wary of shedding the bulk of their vast oil and gas and petrochemical assets, especially when the consumption of petroleum is forecast to continue for years.

Shell appears to be playing a longer, more cautious game than some rivals, like BP, that are pouring money into renewable energy projects. Shell executives seem to be skeptical about the profit potential of just constructing and operating renewable generation assets, like wind farms.

Shell executives say they want to put their chips on technologies and businesses that may evolve into key cogs in the cleaner energy system that is emerging. They want to not only produce clean energy but make money from supplying it to businesses like Amazon and retail customers through large, tailored contracts, or electric vehicle plug-in points or utilities that Shell owns. The investment numbers will increase, they say, to up to $3 billion a year of a total of about $20 billion annual capital expenditure.

“We are thinking ahead; where is the future going?” said Elisabeth Brinton, Shell’s executive vice president for renewables and energy solutions.

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