‘We are not in the business of ice cream’: Big Oil is unapologetic in face of worsening climate crisis

‘It’s been great, and I think it’s been a roller coaster. It’s the worst of times and it’s the best of times,’ said the head of British oil giant Shell

Louise Boyle
Senior Climate Correspondent, New York
Monday 02 October 2023 22:31 BST
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See the 'unfathomable' flood damage in Derna, Libya

“Sorry, not sorry” appeared to be the overarching message from the world’s most powerful oil and gas companies at an annual industry summit in Abu Dhabi on Monday.

The largest players in the fossil fuel industry gathered at the Abu Dhabi International Petroleum Exhibition and Conference, just along the coast from where the Cop28 climate summit is being hosted by the UAE in a matter of months.

The oil and gas executives were buoyant, even defiant, about the industry which earned a record $4 trillion last year while countries face worsening climate disasters.

“We’ve got to step up and prepare for the decarbonised systems of the future,” Tengku Muhammad Taufik, president and group CEO of Malaysia’s state energy firm, Petronas, said at a panel hosted by CNBC.

“So, the debate has always been posed here, I’m reminded of an old saying: ‘If you want to keep everyone happy, sell ice cream.’ We are not in the business of ice cream — and I’m reminded, there are people who are lactose intolerant. The indication here is we have to make some tough decisions and we have to be bounded by facts, rationality, practical steps but we will get there.”

Emissions from burning fossil fuels are the primary driver of the climate crisis and countless scientific groups and non-governmental bodies, including the influential International Energy Agency, have called for a rapid transition to clean energy and no new oil and gas projects, to remain at the 1.5 degrees Celsius target of the Paris Agreement. Scientists say global emissions must be cut by nearly half in the next seven years to hold to 1.5C.

At the current 1.2C of global warming, countries are experiencing worsening storms, flooding, heatwaves, fires and drought.

But while clean energy investments are expected to hit $1.7 trillion in 2023, around $1 trillion is still being invested in coal, oil and gas putting the planet far off-course in its net zero goals. The oil and gas industry’s spending on operations to redue emissions was less than 5 per cent of its upstream spending in 2022, according to the IEA’s latest World Energy Investment report.

A view shows the destruction, in the aftermath of the floods in Derna, Libya on September 30, 2023, which killed more than 11,000 people

Regardless, there was a sense of optimism from the stage. Vicki Hollub, CEO of Texas-based multinational Occidental Petroleum, described “really exciting times” for the oil and gas industry but conceded that they must regain society’s trust.

“I don’t see where we are today as something that is going to end our industry although there are some out there that want it to go away. As we have done in the past, we will find ways to innovate out of this situation that we’re in,” she said.

Patrick Pouyanne, head of French oil company TotalEnergies, said that he had been “naïve” and admitted, “we will not please the activists”.

“We will never make enough to please the ones which are against oil and gas, but my mission is not to please them,” he added. “Our mission is to deliver to the society the energy we need today and tomorrow and for that I feel comfortable.”

Wael Sawan, chief executive of UK oil giant Shell, described his time at the top as a “roller coaster”.

“It’s the worst of times and it’s the best of times,” he continued.

Demonstrators during a national protest for climate justice in Bern, Switzerland, on September 30, 2023

“The worst of times I think with the recognition it seems to be a time where we continue to polarise the debate more and more rather than actually converge given that we are trying to solve arguably the world’s biggest problem right now.”

Sultan al-Jaber also spoke at Monday’s event in the UAE capital. Mr Al-Jaber, head of the state-run Abu Dhabi Oil Company, is president of the upcoming Cop28 climate conference, a decision that has sparked anger and suspicion among activists and prominent figures including former US vice president Al Gore.

He called on oil and gas companies to be “central to the solution” to fighting the climate crisis, at the event.

“That is our North Star. It is in fact our only destination. It is simply acknowledging and respecting the science. We must do this while also ensuring human prosperity by meeting the energy needs of the planet’s growing population,” Mr al-Jaber said.

Abu Dhabi Oil Co. is planning to grow its operation to pump five million barrels a day.

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