At the Oil and Money conference in London last year, Shell’s CEO Ben van Beurden was worried that his audience might think that Shell had “gone soft” on oil and gas. He was keen to reassure them that, “Shell’s core business is, and will be for the foreseeable future, very much in oil and gas.”
Van Beurden pointed out that while Shell spends US$1-2 billion each year on “renewables, new fuels and supplying electricity”, that figure is dwarfed by how much the company spends on digging out fossil fuels. Shell’s total annual capital spending amounts to US$25 billion.
Shell is the ninth biggest producer of greenhouse gas emissions in the world.
Shell, of course, knows all about climate change. A confidential report titled “The Greenhouse Effect”, written by Shell in 1986, reveals that Shell was fully aware of both climate science and the oil industry’s role in driving greenhouse gas emissions:
Mainly due to fossil fuel burning and deforestation, the atmospheric CO2 concentration has increased some 15% in the present century to a level of about 340 ppm.
Predictably though, Shell was not interested in even considering the option of leaving fossil fuels in the ground:
While, theoretically, it is possible to legislate for a reduction in fossil fuel use, it must be the case that any global reduction is most unlikely.
“A market-based approach”
In 1992, Lodewijk van Wachem, then-chairman of Shell’s Supervisory Board, outlined the company’s preferred approach to avoiding meaningful action on climate change: “a market-based approach to legislation”:
I believe one responsibility of government is to establish level playing fields, not through restrictions that hamper industry’s innovation or discourage voluntary commitment, but through a market-based approach to legislation that makes the best use of industry’s strengths and enterprise.
At the 2018 UN climate meeting in Katowice, Poland, a Shell executive boasted how Shell helped get carbon trading into the 2015 Paris Agreement. David Hone is Shell’s Chief Climate Change Advisor. Kate Aronoff reports on The Intercept that at an International Emissions Trading Association (IETA) side event in Katowice, Hone said,
“We have had a process running for four years for the need of carbon unit trading to be part of the Paris agreement. We can take some credit for the fact that Article 6 is even there at all.
“We put together a straw proposal. Many of the elements of that straw proposal appear in the Paris agreement. We put together another straw proposal for the rulebook, and we saw some of that appear in the text.”
Article 6 allows climate polluters to avoid reducing emissions, as long as they buy carbon credits. As Aronoff notes, “Such systems have been racked with controversy and do basically nothing to reduce the local impacts of extraction.”
Shell’s CEO Van Beurden, speaking at last year’s Oil and Money conference, showed that the company’s approach to climate change hasn’t changed:
“You can get to 1.5C, but not by just by pulling the same levers a little bit harder, because they are being pulled roughly as fast and as hard as we are currently imagining. What we think can be done is massive reforestation. Think of another Brazil in terms of rainforest: you can get to 1.5C.”
Brazil has somewhere around 3.3 million square kilometres of forest. But Van Beurden is not proposing that Shell should plant 3.3 million square kilometres of plantations.
He might as well talk about an enormous herd of CO2 absorbing unicorns.
Van Beurden talks about “massive reforestation” purely to distract his audience from the urgent need to leave fossil fuels in the ground. It’s a way of appearing to care about addressing climate change, while continuing to profit from extracting fossil fuels – the very thing that’s driving climate change. As Shell has known since the mid-1980s.
Shell’s plantation history
Further evidence that Van Beurden’s isn’t really serious about Shell getting involved in “reforestation” on this scale is Shell’s history of involvement in industrial forestry projects.
In the late 1970s, Shell became interested in the industrial tree plantation sector. It was after the 1973 oil crisis, and the aim was to produce energy from biomass.
In their 1996 book “Pulping the South”, Ricardo Carrere and Larry Lohmann report that Shell’s plantation operations started in 1980 in Brazil. By 2001, the company was involved in plantation projects in the Argentina (10,000 hectares), Chile (36,000 hectares), Republic of Congo (42,000 hectares), New Zealand (23,000 hectares), Paraguay (8,000 hectares) and Uruguay (28,000 hectares).
In 1987, Shell started a US$70 million eucalyptus plantation project in Thailand. The plantation was to be in the Khun Song forest reserve in Chanthaburi province. Shell chose the site because it was close to the Laem Chabang deep-sea port – Shell planned to export wood chips from the plantation to Taiwan, Korea, and Japan.
The other reason for choosing that particular site was that the 800 families who lived on the land had no formal land-use rights. Thailand’s Royal Forest Department called them “squatters”.
RFD officials warned villagers of forcible eviction. Houses were burned down, and villagers were arrested for encroaching on the forest. This resulted in large local demonstrations and villagers burned down eucalyptus trees in Shell’s experimental plots.
In 1990, Shell dropped its plantation proposals in Thailand.
In 1993, WWF collaborated with Shell International to produce a “Tree Plantation Review”. No surprises, given that industry-friendly WWF was involved, this wasn’t a neutral review. One of the aims of the 11 volume study was to “highlight the need for tree plantations”.
WWF came up with a set of guidelines – not aimed at stopping the spread of industrial tree plantations and the social and environmental impacts of these plantations, but as a “A contribution to the debate on environmentally and socially responsible planning and management practices for tree plantations”. The “need for plantations” was included as part of the guidelines.
Between 2000 and 2004, Shell sold off all of its forestry operations and companies. In July 2004, Jeroen van den Berg at Shell International Renewables, told me that “Shell’s divestment from forestry was a business strategic decision.” It didn’t make money, in other words.
Over the two decade period that Shell Forestry had existed, it had covered an area of less than 150,000 hectares in six countries. Yet in his speech at Oil and Money last year, Van Beuren talked about 330 million hectares “reforestation”, as if it can be completed by the day after tomorrow.