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Shell’s CEO Thinks We’re Dumb

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Essential climate activist Ben van Beurden, who also happens to be the Chief Executive Officer of the second most carbon-polluting company ever.
Essential climate activist Ben van Beurden, who also happens to be the Chief Executive Officer of the second most carbon-polluting company ever.
Photo: Ben Stansall (Getty Images)

Big Oil executives want us to know we need them.

In an interview with Axios on HBO on Sunday, Shell CEO Ben van Beurden said that corporations like his must be an integral part of the transition away from the polluting energy they’ve made billions off of.

“What quite often I think is insufficiently understood is that companies like us are absolutely needed for the solutions that the world needs,” he said.


Indeed, without their expertise at ruining the climate, how could we ever actually save the climate? Shell has spent more than 100 years producing dirty energy. Among investor-owned oil companies, Shell is responsible for the second-largest share of carbon pollution emitted since 1885. It knows a thing or two about the mess we’re in. And look, van Beurden said Shell is already working on cleaning it up.

“I think what people need to take away ultimately is that we mean what we say and we are actually making progress” on climate change, he said.


Sure, Shell knew of the deadly effects of its products decades ago. But let’s focus on the present, people. Just last year, the company announced it had a plan to “net zero emissions energy business” by 2050.

That plan includes continued expansion of natural gas, which isn’t just a source of carbon dioxide but also methane, a greenhouse gas that’s 80 times more planet-warming than carbon in the short term. It also relies on unproven carbon capture and storage technologies and problematic tree planting plans. A report that investigated oil giants’ climate plans found that out of 10 metrics, Shell’s plan was “grossly insufficient.” (It was merely “insufficient” for the other two metrics).

OK, but forget about the present. It’s actually all about the future, and it just takes time to transition from being one of the biggest polluters in history to ... whatever is next for Shell.

“They will see us do the right thing,” van Beurden told Axios.

The right thing, some might argue, is ending fossil fuel extraction. Is that the right thing we can expect to see Shell do? Well, not exactly.


When asked by Axios, van Beurden confirmed that the company won’t make commitments to reduce its fossil fuel production—instead, it will “focus on the demand side.” Shell’s plan is to simply keep producing dirty fuel, but put the onus on consumers (something it’s already doing). Oh, and it will put a little money into renewable energy, but still just be a small fraction of the company’s total investments. The most important thing isn’t promoting survival, it’s providing a little consumer choice, right?

This is all going to start making a difference pretty soon. (Probably.) Within the next decade, van Beurden told Axios, more than half the energy the company produces will be clean. Of course, we don’t really get any say in what counts as clean. Does it include gas? Who knows! But it sure seems like a possibility based on the company’s recent actions.


At a recent shareholder meeting, Shell said it aimed at reducing the emissions intensity of the fuel it produces by 20% before the decade’s end, urging shareholders to approve of the approach. But carbon intensity—a measure of pollution produced per unit of energy—can decrease while still allowing overall emissions to increase.

That’s normal, though. Van Beurden told Axios that fossil fuels will need to be around “for a long time to come,” if not forever. Climate scientists seem to think that’s a pretty bad idea that could usher in ecological catastrophe, and they’ve modeled how to avoid that (hint: it involves ending fossil fuel production). But then, they don’t run a multinational corporation that’s almost completely dependent on selling oil and gas and has a history of acting in bad faith.