Being a climate change adviser

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.