14. 04. 2015

Getting to Grips with Ben van Beurden

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Sorry if it’s beginning to look as if I’m engaged in something of a vendetta against Mr Ben van Beurden, the Chief Executive of Shell. But for all sorts of reasons he seems to have placed himself at the epicentre of the debate about what some have called ‘the Great Transition’: that inevitable, world-shaking shift from a global economy based on stored solar energy (in the form of coal, oil and gas) to one based on real-time solar energy. The shift is already under way – indisputably! – but there’s still a big debate about how long it will take.

Please like me are saying no more than 20/25 years. People like B van B (and his counterparts at BP and the rest of the oil majors) are saying many decades. What marks B van B out from the rest of them is the fact that he’s chosen to portray this as a moral choice – as in the world’s poor needing access to fossil fuels for the foreseeable future, even if that eventually cooks the planet.

Readers of this blog will already know how deeply offensive I find this posturing. Which means I can’t stop myself getting just a bit angry! But I recently read two essays from much wiser, more measured commentators, covering more or less the same territory, that I really want to bring to your attention.

The first is in the form of a speech delivered to the Conseil Français de l'Énergie back in March by someone called John Ashton. John used to be the UK’s Diplomatic Envoy on Climate Change, based in the Foreign Office, and well understands the ins and outs of this part of the climate debate. His speech was presented as a letter to our old friend B van B, and should B van B ever read it, I find it hard to imagine just how ashamed he would be.

And that’s basically because John Ashton suggests some deep duplicity at work between the ‘mask’ that B van B presents to the world (full of care for the third world, energy access, jobs, wealth and so on, always ‘balanced’ and ‘informed’, in stark contrast to those ‘unrealistic’, ‘impractical’, ‘naïve’ and ‘short-sighted’ campaigners concerned about climate change), and the face that lies beneath it – which is essentially the face of a whole industry suddenly waking up to the possibility that the same kind of divestment shocks might start impacting them as they have the coal industry. He construes his position as:

“A manifesto for the oil and gas status quo, justified by the unsupported claim that the economic and moral cost of departing from this position would exceed the benefit in climate change avoided. You are not detached, and in reality, your authority is compromised by your obvious desire to cling to what you know, whatever the cost to society.”

He goes further – to hint at a phenomenon that we will need to understand much better over the next few years:

“The psychopath displays inflated self-appraisal, lack of empathy, and a tendency to squash those who block the way. All these traits can be found in your text. There is a touch of psychopathy in the story of your face. I’m sure you are not yourself narcissistic, paranoid or psychopathic. But yours is part of a collective voice, and those attributes colour that voice.”

John has become an extraordinarily insightful commentator on the Great Transition. He’s always keen to dig down into cultural, historical and psychological factors, providing a quite different narrative in the process.

Tom Burke is an old colleague of mine – and an old colleague of John Ashton’s as well. Tom and I keep rolling out the anti-nuclear argument (not least because the mainstream NGOs seem so reluctant to do it!), and he too knows the oil sector, having also worked with senior managers in Shell over many years.

His analysis of B van B’s current position is equally withering – based as that position almost entirely is on the ‘realistic’ (but still utterly cynical) view that Governments around the world will never deliver on their obligations to gear policy to a 2 degrees Centigrade world. (Not least because Big Coal, and Big Oil and Gas, spend so much money ensuring that they don’t!)

That sort of position has served them well over the last 15 years. But how much longer will that last?

“The primary purpose of the van Beurden speech is to create a persuasive narrative to keep investors aboard during a turbulent year. ‘Don’t worry, we have thought this through’ is the reassuring message to investors. ‘Your money is safe with us.’ This may not work. The combination of market, political and climate forces buffeting the oil industry warrants a more penetrating look at the road ahead.

And one feature of a carbon neutral global energy system is already certain. It will not contain several billion internal combustion engines. Our vehicles will be moved by electrons, not molecules. But if molecules are not driving our cars, what are the oil companies selling? Whatever it is, it will not be petrol, the top and most valuable end of the oil barrel. Take away the top of the barrel, and the rest of it is worth a lot less. So its price will fall.”

Tom’s essay deals primarily with the dynamics of energy prices, investor confidence and the ‘politics of oil’, and provides a lot of really useful insights.

A lot of people are now watching B van B very carefully indeed. And with good cause.
 

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