We will still explore Arctic region despite protests, insists Shell chief

Mr van Beurden questioned the logic of opponents to Arctic development

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Shell’s chief executive has staged a defiant performance at the company’s annual shareholders meeting, claiming that calls to curb new oil developments were “unrealistic” and saying that there would always be opponents to plans to drill in the Arctic.

Ben van Beurden insisted that Shell was sensitive towards global warming and the environment – telling shareholders that “your company was the first to acknowledge the link between CO2 emissions and climate change”.

He also said that the scale of the safety precautions Shell was taking as part of its plan to drill for oil in the Arctic was “unprecedented” in the history of the oil industry.

But Mr van Beurden accompanied this greener, sympathetic side with a much harder-edged analysis of real-world demands, at the AGM in the Hague, in the Netherlands. He took aim at the “carbon bubble” – the idea that much of the world’s fossil fuel reserves must remain in the ground if the world is to avoid catastrophic climate change, which is the basis of the growing calls for investors to divest fossil fuel shareholdings.

“That particular theory also ignores the reality of the industry. As a matter of fact, it risks distracting from the real issues around the energy transition needs,” said Mr van Beurden, pointing out that an end to further investment now would create a 70 million barrel-a-day shortfall in supply by 2040.

“We will need sustained and substantial investment to just meet the demand to fuel economic growth, especially, of course, in the developing world,” he added.

Many of the questions from shareholders related to the Arctic, with campaigners concerned about Shell’s plans to explore for oil in the Chukchi Sea in Alaska.

One woman who lives by the Chukchi Sea said that an oil spill in the area could wreak havoc on the community. She asked the board: “Would Shell have the obligation of bringing in food annually in the event of a major spill?”

“I live in the Chukchi Sea and we still subsist on our traditional food…. I question whether Shell would supply food for the next 50 generations [if there was a big spill],” she said.

Another shareholder pointed to a protest in Seattle on Monday, in which hundreds of people in kayaks, canoes and sailboats gathered near Shell’s 400ft-tall Polar Pioneer Arctic drilling rig, as evidence of the widespread opposition to its Alaskan campaign.

Mr van Beurden responded by questioning the logic of opponents to Arctic development. He said that some campaigners wrongly assume that Arctic drilling contributes more to climate change than production in other regions, when in fact its carbon footprint is relatively low.

“I’ve come to accept that people who have that logic – which I respect and understand – no amount of arguing, no amount of assurance, no amount of logic for that matter, will change the argument. You just have to respect that we have different views.”