‘BP and Shell are companies whose senior managers know, as an irrefutable fact, that their current business model threatens both the stability of the global economy and the longer-term prospects of humankind as a whole. Once knowledge of that kind has been internalised, for any individual, however well-meaning and sincere they may be, it must get harder and harder to look oneself in the mirror every morning and feel anything other than moral regret.

It certainly got harder and harder for me to look them in the face, knowing what they knew, and witnessing at first hand the intricate patterns of denial and self-deception that they were forced to adopt.’

Those are my words, written in a Guardian article almost exactly six years ago. I was giving a personal account of why Forum for the Future had decided not to go on working with BP and Shell, having come to the conclusion ‘that it was impossible for today’s oil and gas majors to adapt in a timely and intelligent way to the imperative of radical decarbonisation’.

Six eventful years on, that is no longer the case. However late in the day, both companies are now on an adaptation journey of sorts, each in its own way.

For BP, confirmation of that historic shift came with the announcement in October 2019 that Bernard Looney (then in charge of BP’s upstream business) would be taking over from Bob Dudley as CEO in February 2020. Almost 20 years since its then CEO, John Browne, rebranded BP as ‘Beyond Petroleum’, one of Bernard Looney’s big announcements as CEO was headed ‘From International Oil Company to Integrated Energy Company’. At last!

Looney has had one hell of a year – a ‘brutal year’, in his own words – with a massive $18bn loss, write-downs in the value of its oil and gas assets of at least $17.5bn, with its share price at its lowest level for 25 years, having halved since he took over. 10,000 redundancies have been announced, with the upstream exploration division to be reduced from 700 to fewer than 100 people, given that BP has already committed to stop looking for new reserves in countries where it doesn’t already have a presence.

That’s a small but significant detail. Of all the commitments made by Bernard Looney over the last year, perhaps the most important is that BP will be producing 40% less oil and gas by 2030 than it did in 2019, and that it will be selling off $25bn of oil and gas assets by 2025. That’s what they call ‘shareholder relevant information’, unlike all the fine-sounding tosh about being a Net Zero company by 2050 – what else is any company going to be by 2050?!

It also makes its renewables commitment (to grow from a portfolio of around 3 GW today – mostly from its solar Joint Venture with BrightSource – to 50 GW by 2030) much more credible. It will increase its capital spend on alternatives to around 25% of total capex and is already out there as a big ‘new entrant’ in the market, with a $1bn investment in offshore wind in the US in September last year, and a further £900m in two offshore wind farms (providing 3 GW) in the UK announced in February. It’s clearly ready to pay over the odds for these assets, but ‘new entrant’ is better expressed as ‘late entrant’, and in a sellers’ market (with those selling the leases for offshore projects calling the shots), that’s going to be painful.

Pain becomes a measure of intent – as in #NoGoingBack, which may well become Bernard Looney’s ‘read my lips’ trope over the next couple of years. People like me – who got all excited about the substance behind the ‘Beyond Petroleum’ marketing hype back in 2000 only to see it set at nought after the Deepwater Horizon disaster in 2010 – are going to be more than twice shy. So what else gives me any of that #NoGoingBack reassurance?

Strong support for Boris Johnson’s surprising decision to bring forward to 2030 the date for banning the sale of new petrol and diesel vehicles? Sure. Its high-level partnering with 15 cities around the world to ‘enable an accelerated transition to low-carbon living’? Sure. Its commitment to EV charging infrastructure around the world? Sure. Its decision to get out of any trade association still lobbying for the end of human civilisation (otherwise known as pro-fossil-fuel business-as-usual policies)? Sure. But all this (and a long list of bullet-pointed ad-ons) is just cheap table stakes. What really counts is what really hurts – in the short-term, playing for a much bigger pot in the long-term.

For example: the sale of most of its petrochemicals division to Ineos for a giveaway price of $5bn. Smart move. Jim Ratcliffe, Ineos CEO, has a big enough ego to think he can buck the trend on plastics. This may be hard to believe, but one of the most regularly cited reasons for ‘not giving up on hydrocarbons’ is the projected growth in conventional plastics production over the next 20 years. Good luck with that one, Jim!

But Looney is still up there on his transitional high-wire, still needing to keep disgruntled shareholders on board. In that regard, transitioning demands a certain amount of hedging one’s hydrocarbon bets. So BP is still dead keen on gas as the ‘bridging fuel’, planning massive new investments in Liquefied Natural Gas (LNG), and refusing (as of now) to divest its 19.75% holding in the Russian horror story that is Rosneft. It’s also dead keen on prospects for Carbon Capture Use and Storage (CCUS), planning to capture emissions from gas-fired power stations or hydrogen production facilities to make them notionally ‘carbon neutral’.

These bridging strategies have a lot in common with Boris Johnson’s erstwhile enthusiasm for the Garden Bridge over the Thames: ill thought-out, sustained by five-star rhetoric, prettified by a lot of green add-ons, and going nowhere pretty much from the start. But a lot of people still need a lot of reassurance.

If anything, Shell is even more enthusiastic about transitional bridge-building, and still clearly believes that these bridges will keep them profitably in the hydrocarbon game for the next 30 years. I’m pretty familiar with these illusions. Back in the day, we worked as much with Shell’s senior managers as with BP’s – and we developed a few handy smell-tests to work out what was real and what was just smoke and mirrors.

For instance, Malcolm Brinded, its former Executive Director of Exploration and Production from 2004 (the equivalent of Bernard Looney) was a great enthusiast for CCUS – as long as it was paid for by taxpayers! Relative to its total annual capex throughout that time, Shell’s own investments in CCUS were nugatory. After two decades of unabated emissions, Shell has just one scheme fully operational (the Quest facility near Edmonton in Canada), which has sequestered around five million tonnes since 2015 – during which time Shell has emitted around 420 million tonnes of CO2e.

Today’s CEO of Shell, Ben van Beurden, is equally enthusiastic about CCUS – and is now ready to put a bit more of Shell’s money on the table as it ‘seeks to get access to an additional 25 million tonnes a year of CCS’ – spot the ultra-cautious wording, indicating that everything will still depend on how much subsidy it can squeeze out of the usual governmental cash cows. Shell is also doubling down on gas (with a further $4bn investment in LNG), even as it writes down its crassly destructive investments in Canada’s tar sands – to the tune of at least $8bn just last year. Its latest plans talk of reducing output of oil and gas by about 15% by 2030 (cf BP’s 40%), and investing around $2bn of capex on renewables – versus $8bn per annum on new oil and gas. Unlike BP, Shell is also sticking with its huge petrochemicals division.

All in all, it’s pretty modest stuff, albeit infinitely better than anything the US-based majors (ExxonMobil, Chevron and ConocoPhillips) have come up with, which is little more than glossy green lipstick on some very oily pigs.

However, even their inadequacies pale into insignificance in comparison to the industry’s real power-brokers in the National Oil Companies – these companies are responsible for around 65% of total oil and gas production, and own 90% of identified reserves. In response to the Climate Emergency, they’re all dead set on one final hydrocarbon hurrah, with planned investments amounting to more than $2tn already in the pipeline.

Dealing with BP and Shell is a doddle in comparison to dealing with this army of climate-wrecking criminals.