Big Oil Bids to Burnish Credentials in War on Climate Change

(Bloomberg) -- The world’s biggest oil companies, for long typecast as villains of climate change, are seeking to reinvent themselves as environmental pioneers.

“We’re not going to be sitting back and say let’s see what society does and we’ll follow that,” said Ben van Beurden, chief executive officer of Royal Dutch Shell Plc. “We’re more than prepared to be assertive and lean forward and say: ‘This is what it takes.”’

Irked by a shareholder resolution that would force Europe’s largest oil company to create specific emissions targets, the CEO took the unusual step of engaging with five reporters on Monday about Shell’s vision for a decarbonized world. Not only is Shell implementing its own, much stronger, measures to manage the energy transition, according to Van Beurden, but it can also drag the rest of the world along with it.

Proving to activists and shareholders that they care about the climate is becoming an essential preoccupation for oil majors. Hours after Van Beurden reached out, BP Plc hosted dozens of analysts, journalists, politicians and technocrats at its office to explain what it was doing about emissions.

BP wheeled out its entire executive team, with five giving speeches about what specifically they were doing about climate change. In the audience sat former CEO John Browne, who pioneered the company’s ill-fated “Beyond Petroleum” rebranding campaign.

Goals Commended

In search of wider affirmation, BP brought a climate scientist, Princeton University’s Stephen Pacala. He commended BP’s emissions goals and said fossil fuel companies would be an important part of the future. Environmentalist and CEO of The Nature Conservancy, Mark Tercek, added his praise via Skype.

Not everyone was convinced. Hours before the BP event, a former adviser to the company and head of an environmental think-tank told The Guardian that its targets were “lightweight PR” and “greenwashing.”

Still, the presentations show an oil industry that is far from a cabal of climate-change deniers.

A key test of the effectiveness of Big Oil’s new resolve will focus on its fight for a carbon price. When asked last year by a senior policymaker why Shell didn’t advocate for stronger carbon pricing, Van Beurden was surprised. His company had been doing so for decades.

“The real, honest, naked assessment is we have not been very successful” in getting the message out about carbon, he told reporters on Monday. “Apparently the message hasn’t reached them.”

To contact the reporter on this story: Kelly Gilblom in London at To contact the editors responsible for this story: James Herron at Dylan Griffiths, Jonathan Tirone.


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