Shell is often cited in climate change discussions, sometimes disparagingly simply because it is an oil and gas company, but increasingly as a company that has recognised that major changes in both the provision and use of energy across the globe will be needed to both meet demand and significantly reduce greenhouse gas emissions. Following from the Paris Agreement, it is hard to see how this won’t be the case. The leadership in Shell regarding climate change has always come from the top. The first major steps were taken in the period 1997 to 2001 when the foundations for change were established by former Chairman Sir Mark Moody-Stuart. He catalysed the necessary focus on the climate issue and had the foresight to establish a carbon trading desk within Shell Trading, just as the Clean Development Mechanism and the EU Emissions Trading system were in their early design stages. In 2005, then CEO Jeroen van der Veer created our CO2 team and gave it high visibility within the company. This eventually led to developments such as the Quest carbon capture and storage project in Canada. Today, we have a new energies business starting up. Our current CEO Ben van Beurden has also championed our position on issues such as government implemented carbon pricing and Shell has recently published scenario thinking on a net-zero emissions energy system of the future.
Within this journey of change, one question I am often asked is how I came into my job in Shell as Chief Climate Change Adviser and what it is like to perform such a role in the oil and gas industry. Some think that I might be a climate scientist, others picture the role as something of a fig leaf. In reality, neither is the case.
I started in Shell like many others, as a chemical engineering graduate in one of the 30+ refineries that Shell had back in 1980. The year in which I interviewed was one where all new chemical engineers were spoilt for choice – graduating classes had shrunk and demand was booming. But Shell offered a great value proposition – a global company with the very real prospect of a global career. My job offer was as a technologist in Geelong Refinery, a ~100,000 bbl/day facility just outside the city of Geelong, Australia and some 70 kms south-west of Melbourne. It was a complex refinery, with reforming, cracking, lube oil manufacturing, chemicals and various hydrotreating units. In the subsequent decade in the Downstream business I also worked in the global offices in The Hague and at Clyde Refinery in Sydney. Towards the end of this time I moved into the supply side of refining where the crude oil purchasing and refinery operating mode decisions are made based in part on linear programme models of the operation and the market it faces. This in turn led me to Shell Trading in London where I spent a decade trading Middle East crudes and managing the chartering of all the crude oil shipping that Shell required. Trading and shipping are at the very core of Shell, not just in terms of its operation as an oil and gas company, but in its DNA as well. After all, only a few hundred metres from where I live today, Marcus Samuel started his own trading business by procuring shells from sailors in the Port of London and making trinkets for people to buy when they visited English seaside towns such as Brighton and Torquay. This tiny enterprise, along with a similar entrepreneurial company in the Netherlands, eventually became the Royal Dutch Shell plc of today.
So twenty years after graduating I found myself with a solid background in what the company did, how the economics of the industry worked and perhaps most importantly how a critical component of the global energy system actually operated. What should I do with this expertise? I had my eye on the various functions in the Corporate Centre of the company and one in particular came up in mid-2001 which looked interesting. It was the role of Group Climate Change Adviser, a relatively new position that Shell had created in 1998 as it took its first steps to manage the business risk presented by climate change. In my interview for the position, my soon to be boss was pleased to meet someone who had worked in the refining business and had a good knowledge of the energy markets and trading. Even then it was clear that the development of policy would involve markets, and pricing, and present a real challenge to the incumbent businesses.
Like most in the company, I had imagined that this would be another 3-4 year assignment, but 16 years later I remain immersed in the climate change issue at Shell, although the role I originally took and the one I have now are worlds apart. Much has happened in that time externally, culminating in the Paris Agreement last December; internally the journey for the company has similarly progressed, although not without some tough questions along the way. Being part of all this over such a long period has been rewarding, a huge privilege and very challenging. It perhaps isn’t where I expected my career to go, but I can only look back and say that I am glad that it did. Some may think that a large corporation means a very restrictive and bureaucracy bound office life, but this is far from reality. I have a broad mandate and considerable freedom to engage externally on climate change, to publish my thinking on the issues that the world faces as it strives to manage emissions, but also to take all this back to colleagues within the company and challenge them as they try to run their businesses. Over time, I have also had considerable opportunity for travel, which has included every continent (yes, Antarctica as well) and over 30 countries.
From time to time, people considering a career in environmental management ask me where they should start and what steps they might take. I almost never recommend that they start in an environmental role. Rather, building real experience developing new projects, troubleshooting problems in existing facilities and understanding the economics of the energy industry is my steer. My own experience has led me to believe that such a grounding is essential in tackling major issues such as climate change. As a new graduate considering an energy career, these are the sorts of jobs that a company such as Shell will most likely offer. My advice would be to take one, and then look towards the longer journey of change.
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Good evening, Mr Hone. Long time blog reader, first time commenter. Just wanted to ask more about your illustrious and whether you had given any thought to taking up an academic position at a tertiary institution, even part-time? You seem to have a wealth of knowledge and experience that would be a shame to not pass on to students coming up through chemical engineering or environmental studies?
Thanks for the comment. I have had several opportunities to speak to classes at various business schools and have always enjoyed it. Some excellent debates have taken place.
Take heart young environmental engineers & scientists! You can still get “real” experience developing new projects, troubleshooting problems in existing facilities, and understanding the economics of the energy industry. Even in “just” an environmental role. I have spent the last almost 20 years of my life doing it.
Though I will also admit that there is a perceived glass ceiling for environmental folk because of things like those stated in David’s last paragraph. For some reason it stands that people in the environmental skillpool aren’t qualified to hold higher level positions in Shell. But, this brings up an entirely different topic of discussion.
Nevertheless, this is David’s blog and that’s his opinion. My opinion is that if you are passionate about the environment and making change, go for it with whatever role you take out of school. My experience has been for the most part that environmental graduates who took non-environmental roles have not been happy in them and quickly moved once they had a chance.
I think you are misrepresenting my suggestion. Getting experience in a broad area of activities across a company like Shell is a huge benefit in pursuing the environment as a specific discipline. It means you can draw on that experience in proposing changes and have the credibility to see such proposals carried through. But one thing I didn’t say is that recognising and acting on the environmental impact of a project or even an entire industry must be an inherent part of every job, not necessarily a specialism that a few people hold dear.
Very happy reader and first time commenter after reading your excellent personal illustration and analysis of “how a career should rather be developed in an industrial and highly technical sector”.
I am a firm believer and promoter of the need to first get acquainted with operational jobs before embracing broader issues ….I do think that things are improving on that front, after many years of a worldwide “overselling” of early positions in Corporate SD or CSR departments.
I am somewhat surprised to see that Shell is giving serious consideration to the assertion that traces of CO2 in a planet’s atmosphere gives/will give rise, other parameters remaining the same, to an increase of temperature at the interface of the atmosphere and the solid or liquid.surface
Having read the arguments presented by the IPCC in the various assessment reports between 1990 and 2013 I am far from certain that the IPCC model of atmospheric temperature rising with CO2 concentration.
Temperature in the atmosphere is an equilibrium condition. If the atmosphere is cold the the greenhouse gases absorb sunlight, warming it up until its temperature is high enough to balance the incoming radiation with outgoing radiation. In this condition it doesn’t matter how much CO2 is present, the temperature remains the same.
This analysis assumes the atmosphere is uniform, rather like a box or a balloon. The point is that the real format of the atmosphere, which is held in place by, gravity more or less uniformly over the surface of a sphere.
None of what I write here should be taken as ‘denying’ climate change, there are plenty of mechanisms that can account for observed changes in surface temperature, the most obvious being the effect of cloud cover. It is common knowledge that surface temperatures are colder on cloudy days; the answer to the surface temperature question lies, at least partialy, in the amount of cloud cover.
Kind regards and best wishes.