The clean energy transition is underway but moving at a pace that is not nearly fast enough to achieve ambitious and necessary climate goals. Limiting warming to the 1.5 degree Celsius target of the Paris Climate Accord is unlikely. Yet each bit of warming we avoid will temper the severity of our climate woes and save some of the planet that we leave to future generations.
Speeding up the transition will require every industry to reinvent and redevelop technologies to decrease their carbon footprint. Perhaps most consequently, new, electrified technologies must run on a clean, carbon-free grid. Transitioning our grid to carbon-free energy is far from easy and will take comprehensive investment in existing and new technologies.
The climate movement has rightfully leveled extensive critique against fossil fuel incumbents and industrial powers for their role in causing and perpetuating the climate crisis. Companies like BP and Shell are abandoning commitments to roll back fossil fuel production while simultaneously lauding their investments in clean energy technologies. Many in the climate movement have called out the discernable hypocrisy and greenwashing of these organizations and demands to hold them accountable for past and current misdeeds abound. Yet, perhaps paradoxically, there is an opportunity for fossil fuel incumbents to use their financial might and experience with capital-intensive projects to speed up a transition desperately needing a boost. To address the climate crisis we’ll need to work with these giants, even while holding them accountable.
Companies like Shell have extensive experience with extractive technologies and techniques that can easily transition to clean energy technologies. For instance, executing deep sea oil and gas projects require notably similar skills and mechanisms as executing clean energy technologies like offshore wind. Drawing from a trained labor force and capital-intensive infrastructure experience, some oil companies have been recognized as potentially influential market actors for their ability to catapult complex projects forward. Shell has been a significant participant. Last year, the company invested $10 million in developing new wind turbines to withstand hurricane winds in the Gulf of Mexico. Shell has co-developed several projects worldwide, including the Hollandse Kust Noord wind park off the Dutch coast and the Atlantic Shores Wind project off the coast of New Jersey. The company has been responsible for 2.6 gigawatts of capacity currently in operation or under construction worldwide, leveraging its existing offshore capabilities to bolster the clean energy sector. While the company’s support for the industry is not unwavering, they have shown a clear role that oil and gas giants can play in bolstering the clean energy transition.
Yet, these positive actions are weakened by their context. These investments are made on the back of an extensive history of misdeeds that have comprised Shell’s long history, including several oil spills, evidence of greenwashing, and continued inaction on climate change even with a clear understanding of the crisis as far back as 1991. Other industry actors are plagued by similar hypocrisy. BP had an extensive plan to pivot away from fossil fuels by investing in electric-vehicle charging infrastructure, selling low-carbon power, and developing energy-storage options. They advertised a clear intention to invest in emerging technologies like hydrogen production and carbon capture. These investments could help bolster an industry in need of extensive and hastened investment. Unfortunately, BP’s clean energy ambition was not long-lived. Even their current pathway of scaled-back climate action should not distract from their storied history of mistreating communities for carbon offset credits, history of oil spills, and, of course, their continuous climate inaction.
We are not going to solve the climate crisis by maintaining the mechanisms of uninhibited capitalism that got us here in the first place. Yet there are pragmatic opportunities for collaboration with titans of industry.
The climate movement should be paying attention to more than just fossil fuel incumbents. Other titans of American industry have thrown their hats into the ring of green investment. One such example is Dow Chemical. Last year, Dow announced a joint development agreement with X-Energy, an advanced, small modular nuclear reactor company. X-Energy’s technology, along with other advanced reactor designs, has the potential to accelerate climate action by complementing wind and solar on a stable grid, providing 24/7, carbon-free energy. These reactor designs can also help decarbonize industrial actors, with application cases in several carbon-intensive processes like chemical manufacturing. But even if long-term costs for new reactor development may become competitive with scale, upfront costs are high. Much like in emerging clean energy technology, continued investments from organizations like Dow will be helpful for new nuclear developments to begin supplying the grid with carbon-free energy.
However, Dow has a questionable history of involvement in nuclear technologies. From 1952 to 1975, Dow Chemical was the managing contractor of the Rocky Flats Site, which manufactured components for nuclear weapons. While managing the plant, Dow oversaw two industrial fires in 1957 and 1969, which released extensive amounts of radioactive materials into the surrounding area. As reported in a piece in Outrider, “the contamination near the plant [after the 1957 fire] was the highest ever recorded near a city — including Nagasaki after the bombing.” In 1974, in a separate incident, the plant accidentally released plutonium directly into the air. There were also multiple leaks of radioactive liquids from barrels on the site, which seeped into the ground. To make matters worse, the nearby community was rarely informed of the danger to the plant’s operations by the plant operators.
These companies’ legacy of contamination makes it hard to stomach their heavily publicized clean energy ambitions. How do we balance holding these players accountable while recognizing that their investments can be meaningful and impactful to the brisk deployment of new technologies?
While these players possess the capital and expertise to move these projects forward more quickly, that should not distract from the need for broad accountability for their past and ongoing injustices. Project developers need to prioritize community benefits and community consent in new clean energy deployment to avoid the mistakes of their past. In this vein, comprehensive and meaningful involvement of community concerns must inform environmental impact reports. Understanding the potential drawbacks of these industrial projects and their potential to harm nearby residents is critical. Furthermore, communities worldwide should have a say in the projects impacting their lives. Offshore wind projects, for example, should only move forward with an understanding of the real and meaningful impacts they may have on fishermen, nearby coastal manufacturing hubs and ports, and other stakeholders. Simultaneously, these investments must come with broad accountability for past mistakes, including remediation agreements for environmental degradation caused by these industry actors and sufficient bonds to clean up potential contamination from new energy projects. Finally, these companies should have meaningful, enforceable commitments to decrease the use of carbon-intensive technologies in the future.
We are not going to solve the climate crisis by maintaining the mechanisms of uninhibited capitalism that got us here in the first place. Yet there are pragmatic opportunities for collaboration with titans of industry. Players like Shell, BP, and Dow Chemical can use their resources to help move forward clean energy using decades of experience, but we can only allow it if it’s coupled with genuine commitments to change. We can hold them accountable for past injustices and hold them to higher standards in the future.