A peculiar theme park in the Hague celebrates the history of the Netherlands through a series of miniature models. The Madurodam features little canals, old-fashioned windmills, tiny tulips and, amid it all, an homage to Royal Dutch Shell, the oil giant that is the biggest company in the country and, by revenue, the second largest publicly traded oil-and-gas company in the world. There’s a Shell drilling platform, a Shell gas station and a Shell natural-gas field, complete with a drilling rig. The display is at once odd–energy infrastructure in a children’s theme park–and entirely fitting: Shell has been, for decades, one of the most powerful players both in Dutch politics and on the global economic stage.
But that could soon change. As concerns grow over the existential challenges posed by climate change, Shell must grapple with its own existential crisis: How should a company that generates most of its profits by serving the world’s enormous appetite for oil navigate a long-term future in which shifting political and economic tides threaten to make fossil fuels obsolete?
Shell CEO Ben van Beurden has a bird’s-eye view of the situation from his corner office at the company’s global headquarters in the Hague. “We have to figure out what are the right bets to take in a world that is completely changing because of society’s concerns around climate change,” he says.
Projections from energy companies show demand for oil could peak and fall in the coming decades; some outside analyses suggest demand for oil could plateau as soon as 2025. Markets are already jittery about the industry: energy was the worst-performing sector on the S&P 500 index in 2019. In 1980, the energy industry represented 28% of the index’s value, according to the Institute for Energy Economics and Financial Analysis (IEEFA). Last year, it represented less than 5%. The shift away from oil looms so large that Moody’s warned in 2018 that the energy transition represents “significant business and credit risk” for oil companies. The heads of the Banks of England and France said in an op-ed that any company that does not change strategically to the new energy reality “will fail to exist.” On Jan. 14, Larry Fink, founder and CEO of investment giant BlackRock, wrote in an open letter that “climate change has become a defining factor in companies’ long-term prospects.”
As oil flirts with the prospect of decline, energy executives are at odds over what to do. Some firms, like ExxonMobil, are positioning themselves to squeeze the last lucrative years from the oil economy while arguing to shareholders that they will be able to sell all their oil. Shell and a handful of others are beginning to adapt.
Under van Beurden’s leadership, Shell is charting a path that will allow it to continue to profit from oil and gas while simultaneously expanding its plastics business and diversifying into electrical power. By the 2030s, the 112-year-old fossil-fuel giant wants to become the world’s largest power company. As part of this strategy, Shell has worked to present itself as environmentally friendly. Last year, it committed to reduce its emissions by as much as 3% by 2021, and by around 50% by 2050, tying its executives’ compensation to the cuts.
Analysts say it’s too early to tell whether Shell’s strategy to reduce reliance on oil will pay off for shareholders in the long run. Last year, Shell, while continuing to pay large dividends, bought back stock, helping maintain its share price. The maneuver kept the company’s stock valuation roughly level, but it’s hardly a workable long-term strategy. Across the sector, companies “have to figure out who they are in this changing market,” says Tom Sanzillo, director of finance at the IEEFA. “They are not the profit center that they used to be, and they probably never will be.”
The viability of sticking with oil, even as major world economies promise to move away, is uncertain. Both ExxonMobil and Chevron are staying the course, hoping to outlast their competitors. But Shell and others are moving to adapt. BP, for instance, has also invested in natural gas and power, while ConocoPhillips has prioritized “short-cycle project times” to help it stay economically competitive. Occidental has dropped money into a method of drilling that allows it to store CO2 in the ground, a bet that it can offset some of the regulatory costs of CO2 emissions within its own operations. And in December, the Spanish oil giant Repsol committed to being carbon-neutral by 2050 and wrote down many of its oil assets on the grounds that their value will diminish as oil fades.