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Shell takes its turn in the climate change spotlight

Photo: Michael Macor, Staff / The Chronicle

What did you know and when did you know it? Those are the questions increasingly directed at Big Oil as concerns about global warming, rising sea levels and climate change grow.

For a few years now, Exxon Mobil has faced a bombardment of allegations — which the Texas oil company denies — that it knew about climate change related to fossil fuels in the 1970s and buried the evidence. State investigations in New York and Massachusetts continue to focus on whether Exxon Mobil misled the public and the company’s investors.

Now Exxon’s European counterpart, Royal Dutch Shell, is facing similar allegations that it was aware of the impact of fossil fuels on climate decades ago, but continued to produce and sell petroleum products.

The European online news publication De Correspondent released a trove of internal documents claiming Shell knew fossil fuels were becoming the primary cause of rising carbon emissions as early as the 1980s. The documents also claimed that Shell researchers reasoned that it might be too late to act once global warming became more detectable.

Exxon is doing more to reduce methane emissions and invest in alternative energy, but Shell has made a larger public show of promoting the Paris climate accord and its plan to dramatically reduce its dependence on crude oil for its corporate profitability.

At a Houston energy conference in March, Shell Chief Executive Ben van Beurden emphasized that Shell is investing more in cleaner-burning natural gas, offshore wind farms, biofuels, carbon capture projects and the planting of trees and forests. Shell is rolling out a new program in Europe to charge about 1 or 2 cents more for gasoline to fund tree-planting projects worldwide.

“There’s no other issue with the potential to disrupt our industry on such a deep and fundamental level,” van Beurden said of climate change.

Shell aims to cut its carbon footprint in half by 2050 — and by 20 percent by 2035. Shell also supports a potential “Sky scenario” that envisions the world achieving net-zero carbon emissions by 2070 to keep global temperatures from rising above 2 degrees Celsius, the target set by the Paris climate accords.

But is that too little and too late from Shell given its research from 30 years ago?

“With very long time scales involved, it would be tempting for society to wait until then to begin doing anything,” said a confidential 1988 report released by De Correspondent. “The potential implications for the world are, however, so large, that policy options need to be considered much earlier. And the energy industry needs to consider how it should play its part.”

Shell declined to comment on the documents. Shell, in a sustainability report released last week, admitted that its greenhouse-gas emissions rose last year as the energy sector rebounded with rising oil prices and Shell added new refineries, according to a new Shell sustainability report released last week. But the company also put out an energy transition report detailing its eventual reduction — but not elimination — of oil production.

The oil and gas industry has moved beyond the debate over whether climate change is real. For the most part, the energy sector acknowledges climate change and the role fossil fuels play in it. But what the industry does next is very much up in the air.

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