Shell CEO says climate change is real, but energy demand growth is ‘unstoppable’

By Steven Mufson, The Washington Post - May 25, 2017
Ben van Beurden is the chief executive officer of Royal Dutch Shell. (Aaron M. Sprecher / Bloomberg)
Ben van Beurden is the chief executive officer of Royal Dutch Shell. (Aaron M. Sprecher / Bloomberg)

Ben van Beurden, the chief executive of Royal Dutch Shell, took time to speak to The Washington Post on May 17 during a visit to Washington, and he touched on the oil giant’s transformation, climate change, millennials, the new Trump administration, economic sanctions, and the Organization of the Petroleum Exporting Countries.

It’s been a turbulent couple of years for the Shell chief executive. With the roller coaster in crude oil prices, the company’s stock has lurched from a high of $83.12 a share six months after he took charge to a low of $36.87 a share. The stock has climbed back, but revenues have plunged by a third since 2013.

Along the way, van Beurden has been reorienting Shell, placing more emphasis on natural gas and less on oil, based on the theory that as climate concerns grow companies will favor gas because of its lower carbon dioxide emissions.

Last year Shell made a $53 billion acquisition of BG Group, which is big in the growing liquefied natural gas market. At the same time, van Beurden has abandoned some of Royal Dutch Shell’s high-profile oil ventures. He halted the unsuccessful $7 billion quest to find oil off Alaska’s Chukchi Sea coast; he sold the company’s oil, or tar, sands holdings in Alberta; and he sold some older oil fields in the North Sea. Eager to reduce debt after purchasing BG, van Beurden has sold about $30 billion worth of assets.

This article is edited for clarity and brevity.

Q: You’ve said that Royal Dutch Shell was making a transition toward becoming more of a natural gas company. How is that going?

A: It is not a just a single-minded transition from oil to gas. It is, actually, making investment choices and evolving our portfolio into what we think is very competitive but also very resilient portfolio.

We’ve always seen that gas was going to be the fastest growing hydrocarbon, twice as fast as oil. And within the gas family, LNG is growing twice as fast as the average gas. Therefore, making a bet on that part of the hydrocarbon segment is a sensible choice.

We have a strong focus also on petrochemicals. We believe petrochemicals for slightly different but nevertheless fundamental demographic megatrend reasons, will continue to grow faster than GDP. But also we have to have investment strategies on renewable energy whether biofuels or straightforward investments or new business models that somehow are related.

Gas is probably closest to our traditional pedigree, but also the single largest component in our growth strategy. We made a major step forward with BG. Now we are, of the international oil companies, far and away the largest LNG integrated gas player.

Q: The last time we met the United States and Europe had imposed economic sanctions on Russia over the annexation of Crimea. Does Shell believe these sanctions are still needed and how might it deal with an easing of sanctions there and in Iran, where sanctions have already been eased somewhat?

A: We have a history in Iran but, at the moment, we have nothing in Iran. We comply with sanctions, and there is no question about it. When sanctions were put on we ceased all our activities in and with Iran as we were obligated to do.

We have a trading relationship with the national oil company of Iran which is allowed under the loosened sanctions regime. We established that again. But investment in Iran is a different story. The country has lot of potential. Iranians would like to have access to modern technology like the technologies we have. We have been in a dialogue with the Iranians but ultimately we have to decide: Is the opportunity there attractive for us within the terms and conditions that would allow us to compete for capital in our portfolio?

We are a long way off from making that determination. How would investing in Iran work and specifically what do we think the attitude of Europe and the United States would be towards Iran and would that be an environment that would allow us to move forward?

The good thing is we have plenty options. We are in a continuous mode of deciding which ones to move forward with within the capital discipline we have placed ourselves under. We have said we are going to invest no more than $25 billion to $30 billion a year, definitely not more than $30 billion. In today’s oil price environment probably closer to $25 billion. We are not scraping the bottom of the barrel so to speak for opportunities.

Q: Russia?

A: Russia is a different story. We are a significant player in Russia. We have some very high quality and strategic assets. The sanctions regime on Russia is such that we are free to invest in these opportunities. Of course there are constraints on certain areas of the industry and we’re not playing in those.

In terms of investments that we can do we are pursuing our venture with Gazprom in Sakhalin [Island, a giant oil and gas export facility on Russia’s east coast]. We are looking for opportunities to replicate a joint venture on the Baltic Sea, an energy project that would be very strategic for both our companies. We also have a downstream business we invest in. And we play a small role, more of a financing role, with Gazprom in the Nord Stream 2 [gas pipeline] project coming into Europe. We consider Russia in that sense a strategic partner, certainly Gazprom.

Simply also because if you look at geology and geography – two things that you cannot change – it makes a lot of sense to bring gas from the largest gas resource in world close to the largest market. So there is an intrinsic rationale for developing that resource. We want to be a player in that space. Certainly if we are free to do so.

Q: How do you view President Trump and his administration and the prospect of changes in policies?

A: It will take some time before the policy contours become very clear. More philosophically what you could say is that this administration is clearly keen to improve the investment climate in the United States, certainly for energy.

The United States is the single most important country in our portfolio by whatever metric you choose. There is no country in which we invest as much as in the United States.

Q: He wants to revive the Keystone XL pipeline in which you had originally reserved space for oil from Alberta’s oil sands.

A: We basically sold down our oil sands position. We don’t see ourselves investing more in oil sands. We now have basically gotten out of it. To have evacuation infrastructure may still be needed but not for us.

Q: How do you see future oil and gas demand amid political pressure over carbon emissions and the changing driving habits of millennials? Will these political and demographic changes constrain the oil and gas industry?

A: I believe what has changed most is the acceptance by ever more people that this energy transition – driven by climate change and the actions of governments, or the attitudes of millennials [and their] lifestyle changes – all that has pointed more and more toward an energy transition that is unstoppable. At same time, it is clear that the growth in energy demand is also unstoppable. And the demographics or megatrends there are that more people and more people aspire to the lifestyle of the western developed world and that also has to be accommodated.

What hasn’t quite registered in people’s minds is that these two forces that compete and collide with each other and make up an exquisitely complex puzzle that we have to solve as a society. Therefore the relatively simplistic narrative that more renewables will take care of everything or that we just need to leave it in ground and everything will be fine is in my mind an impossible story to believe in.

[In Western society, people say] if I can have an electric car everybody can. If I can insulate my house everybody can. And my son doesn’t have driver’s license nobody will anymore. But the big global trend is a different story altogether.

It’s unfortunate. I would love for society to finally grasp the magnitude of the challenge that we are really dealing with.

The opportunity set that comes with it is evolving all the time. The more we see individual governments taking actions, the more we see disruptions taking place, the more we are able to find business models that take advantage of it. For a company like ours, we aren’t in the business of just getting oil out of the ground and putting it in a pipe or into a ship and then we make money. We are a much more sophisticated company.

We are not a one trick pony. We have never been a one trick pony.

Increasingly we see more ways to differentiate ourselves to be not only a successful navigator in the energy transition but to be an absolute winner at the end.

Q: Many members of the Trump administration don’t believe in climate change. What are your views?

A: We believe that climate change is real. We believe that the threat of climate change is real. And we believe that action is needed.

It doesn’t mean we have to kiss hydrocarbons goodbye. In fact, we can’t. But it does mean that we have to make more intelligent choices.

Q: The Organization of the Petroleum Exporting Countries meets on May 25. How do you view OPEC?

A: The demise of OPEC, which has many times been touted as imminent or already happened, is overdone. OPEC is a very significant voice and a very significant actor. Maybe its volumetric share is less than what it used to be decades ago, but they still have a very important role in stabilizing oil markets. In a way, stable oil markets is a good thing. My concern is not whether the oil price is $30 or $130. My concern is whether it will be oscillating. [When prices fluctuate,] people are drawn in by the hundreds of thousands and then laid off by the hundreds of thousands. Socially it is not a good thing and it creates a structure that breeds inefficiency. So I’m a great fan of stability.