Shell tries to spin oil into a green (as in the environment) future

A Royal Dutch Shell platform
Eddie Seal | Bloomberg | Getty Images

Global oil markets are as lubricated with supply as ever. That, however, hasn't stopped major oil companies from testing an unusual energy production strategy—protecting the environment from carbon emissions.

With varying degrees of success over the years, Big Oil has tried—but mostly failed—to bolster its green credentials even as it pumps more fossil fuels. Royal Dutch Shell is the latest example of how oil majors are trying to strike an environmentally friendly pose.

In a speech at Columbia University in New York last week, CEO Ben van Beurden added his voice to the growing chorus of those who think the U.S. ought to export its burgeoning oil bounty.

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Yet van Beurden devoted a surprising amount of time to addressing what he termed "the real and current threat of climate change," and he promoted Shell's own initiatives to reduce carbon emissions. The CEO implied that oil companies and conservationists could find common ground in a "skewed global debate" about the environment and oil production.

Reinventing Royal Dutch Shell
Reinventing Royal Dutch Shell

"Global companies like Shell have a responsibility to speak up," about what van Beurden called "the potentially devastating effects of climate change." He backed growth in renewables, even as he acknowledged they were not yet sufficient to satisfy all the globe's energy demands.

To be certain, Shell remains devoted to pumping oil: the company has been embroiled in a regulatory tussle over its $4.5 billion effort to drill in the Alaskan Arctic. Simultaneously, Shell has taken a bath on efforts to tap the U.S. shale boom.

Yet by giving such prominence to environmental concerns, Shell's efforts could be seen as either a sincere move to diversify away from oil—or a public relations campaign to neutralize opponents. In a sign of its commitment to curbing carbon dioxide after jettisoning its own investments in the solar sector, Shell is now building a carbon capture and storage plant in Scotland.

So can Big Oil really go from black to green? Recent history has been less than encouraging, and the environmental movement certainly has its share of doubts.

"These are not companies we would trust to bring us into a renewable energies future," Travis Nichols, a national spokesman for Greenpeace, told CNBC.

Big Oil companies "see climate change as an opportunity to search for more oil rather than search for alternatives," Nichols said, calling van Beurden's speech "deeply cynical" given Shell's plans to drill in the Arctic.

Aside from environmental skepticism, Europe's largest oil company is also treading a road already traveled by other Big Oil companies, and one littered with either failed or stalled initiatives.

Most notably, BP rebranded itself with an "Beyond Petroleum" campaign that plowed money into renewable energy. Last year, the company decided to divest that portfolio. Separately, ExxonMobil has invested at least $100 million in algae biofuel research, but has yet to reap any rewards.

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Shell's CEO certainly doesn't deny oil and gas remain at the heart of the company's global strategy. Yet his speech in New York appeared to walk a fine line between "the urgent need to reduce greenhouse gases, and satisfy global [energy] demand" in a way that makes sense.

"We urgently need to broaden the frame of this discussion," van Beurden said.

—By CNBC's Javier E. David