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Just What is Sustainability? – Shell Delves Into a Thorny Issue, Part One

| Wednesday November 19th, 2008 | 1 Comment

shellrigrockies.jpg It seems that the word “sustainable,” or variants thereof, is never far away these days. It’s been on the minds and lips of scientists, environmentalists, environmentally conscious politicians, policy advocates and “green” public relations agencies for many years now.
More recently, it’s been rising to the “top of the charts” on the agendas of corporate executives as the potentially staggering costs of climate change and energy security become more evident – and not only in terms of dollars and cents. Add to the mix the establishment of local, regional, national and international climate change mitigation and renewable energy requirements and programs and it’s increasingly clear that corporate executives ignore the issue of “sustainability” at their own growing risk.
But pinning down a definition of “sustainability” is a thorny task. Its meaning varies and depends on who’s speaking and who’s listening. With all the attention and hype, as well as resources, “going green” has attracted, it’s important to establish clear definitions of fundamental terms, and to be able to wade through all the claims and promises of “sustainability” being made today – in other words to wade through them and determine what is “greenwash” and what is not.
Multinational oil and gas companies have as large a vested interest in the energy and sustainability debate as anyone. Earlier today, the corporate communications team of one of the oil industry’s pioneering, and still largest, private multinationals – Shell–hosted a live Web chat on the issue, one that was accompanied by introductory video and text transcripts in which a variety of professionals from a variety of fields voiced their opinions about greenwash, the do’s and don’ts of corporate media campaigns to do with “sustainability,” just what is or isn’t meant by it, and how to deliver on the promise.


Eye of the storm
shell-logo.jpg If any industry has been in the eye of the storm, so to speak, when it comes to energy security, climate, the environment and sustainability, it’s the oil industry. Oil has been the predominant source of energy, particularly when it comes to transportation and industry, since at least World War II. It’s fueled growth in material comfort, possessions and human population unprecedented in history, benefits that for the most part have accrued to those companies and nations that have been able to develop the technology, and muster all the human, capital and other resources necessary to find, extract, refine and process petroleum derived hydrocarbons into the myriad fuels, physical materials and consumer products that have come to play such a large part in daily modern life.
Yet the call to get off oil and fossil fuels is growing into a resounding one as the multinational integrated oil companies and their national, government-owned counterparts have been reaping record-setting revenue and profit while war continues to rage on in Iraq and Afghanistan, and other potential military conflicts and confrontations over oil stew in places like central Asia, West Africa and, of course, the Middle East.
All the big oil companies have been investing in enhancing the productivity, efficiency and human and environmental safety and pollution control aspects of their oil and gas operations. To varying degrees, they have all also been investing in developing renewable energy. Some, such as BP and Shell, have been more forthcoming when it comes to communicating with the public, in effect acknowledging to a greater degree than others the social and environmental impact and obligations of private, shareholder owned businesses. Others, such as Exxon Mobil, have been less so, keeping their cards close to their vest and holding on to their perceived rights as a privately-owned corporations dearly.
Nonetheless, oil gas exploration and development remains the driving focus of all the oil majors, the largest and most profitable corporations in the world in recent years and perennially in the top ranks. With worldwide energy demand forecast to grow 1.6% per annum out to 2030 and all that’s been invested in infrastructure, distribution and manufacturing of petroleum-based derivatives for industry and consumer products, the contention is that oil will remain humans’ predominant source of energy for at least 20 years, and likely well beyond.
If you’re interested, check out Shell’s latest Energy Dialogue, “Communicating Sustainability” for yourself. Then check back tomorrow for a review and some additional thoughts about the issue and Shell’s discussion of it here on Triple Pundit.


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  • Rob

    What did they say?
    Shell is a business. It’s not a government or nonprofit. It survives by being competitive. One competitive advantage is externalization of costs. One in particular is pollution (CO2 or whatever). They CANNOT take a direction where they internalize costs that their competitors are still externalizing. They will lose and fail. Government must require ALL for profit organizations to internalize costs (like CO2) equally, on a level playing field. Corporations are not thinking entities. They are more like a dog that smells bacon when it comes to profits. They will do whatever we (the government) require of them but no more. It’s up to us to get them out of government and put in place a sustainable (by our definition not theirs)framework (playing field) for them to operate in.