Royal Dutch Shell abandons greenwashing campaign

In recent years Royal Dutch Shell, the second-largest oil company in the world, has pursued a fairly tepid greenwashing campaign of trivial side-investments in wind and solar energy. That much is normal for big energy companies seeking to camouflage themselves as environmentally relevant, and in some cases (i.e. BP) the companies in question appear to be at least partially serious…. though Exxon Mobil makes a point of not even trying. Shell has announced it will end its investments in the two most useful and practical forms of renewable energy, wind and solar, in favor of spending more time with biofuels.

Shell’s move is unsurprising, and at least to my way of thinking not particularly unwelcome. The big carbon companies have been dedicated totally to their respective products (e.g. coal, oil, gas, and pollution) for decades, and rightly so… that’s where all their accumulated expertise resides. Fossil carbon remains, at least for now, the predominant fuel source driving human civilization, and the companies most experienced with providing such fuels should probably keep focused on their tasks. Wind and solar will replace fossil carbon, to be sure, but for my money I’d rather have the next generation of high-efficiency, high-tech wind turbines and solar photovoltaics developed by companies who actually take such technologies seriously. The most creative and innovative solutions to renewable energy demand are most likely to come from small companies with fresh ideas, independent researchers pursuing cutting-edge science, and venture capitalists backing high-risk, high-reward business models… not from moribund corporate leviathans.

The big oil companies find oil… that’s what they’ve always done, and it’s what they’re best at. In recent years a number of oil giants have tried to dabble in renewables, usually by tossing some petty cash in the general direction of glossy brochures showing vaguely environmentalish logos, children playing in green grass beneath a wind turbine built by someone else, and smiling minorities in green hardhats. All of which is nice, but I’d prefer they just look for oil and leave envirotech research to the grownups. Carbon companies have no real incentive to conduct renewables research, so why bother trying to fool anyone in the first place? Having an oil company talk about how wonderful wind power can be is a little like having cattle ranchers host a vegetarian cooking show: interesting, but not convincing.


~ by Planetologist on March 19, 2009.

2 Responses to “Royal Dutch Shell abandons greenwashing campaign”

  1. While I agree with some of your points, there are two problems with this:

    1) the oil companies have ALL the money. So much money that their petty cash is 1000 times higher than all the venture capital a startup windfarming concern could ever hope to get. These are problem that require money to solve.

    2) These oil companies are giants. They will not just go away and die without a fight. Either they adapt (mutate or die) to the new energy technologies, or they spend the next 100 years vacuuming every drop of fossil fuels out of our world to sustain themselves.

    Yes, they are a wounded dinosaur. But they can still wreck a lot of shit with their lengthy death spasms.

    • I agree completely. It seems fairly clear that the major oil companies are dead set on resisting adaptation to the newly emerging market conditions of a trans-carbon energy base. They’ve made their call: they’ve chosen to ultraspecialize. In nature species evolve to become super-specialists all the time… saber-toothed cats, velociraptors, T-rex, koalas, balene whales, endemic disease vectors… all highly specialized. By specializing, species become the best of the best in doing one thing, but at the cost of adapting when conditions suddenly change.

      Right now the big oil firms have lots of money, and they’re likely to remain just as profitable for the foreseeable future. Oil will still be needed for petrochemicals long after we’re all driving hydrogen fuel-cell cars… so it might be useful if the oil companies wanted to devote some R&D money to renewables, because as you say, their pockets are certainly deep enough. They could do a lot of good, potentially, if they could get over their urge to superspecialize. But they apparently don’t want to do that. That’s fine, as long as they don’t actively try and prevent the rest of the world economy from modernizing around them. That’s the only thing about Big Oil that really chills my respect for their otherwise amazing technical accomplishments… their sense of entitlement. When Big Oil pays for climate-change denial propaganda, lobbies against carbon cap/trade regulation, and tries to suppress renewables research, they become bad guys.

      The oil giants will continue to lumber about for as long as they’re needed, and not one day beyond. When oil is no longer a tier one resource, the oil companies will quietly begin divesting and downsizing, and will either go bankrupt or mutate into supply/service businesses that sell petrochemicals to Union Carbide and CO2 sequestration technology to coal plants… while we still have coal plants. But I agree, we’d all be a lot better off without their attitude of “If we can’t have the world, then no one else can, either.”

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