Paddy's writing on Business, Brand and Reputation

This blog contains some of my writing on Brand and Reputation, including those on Shell - the corporation that I worked for for 37 years. Some of the articles have previously been published - others are seen here for the first time. The purpose of the website is to contribute to discussions on the role of brand and reputation management in today's business world. Please also see: http://www.roadsideretail.com/search?q=Paddy Comments welcome to me at: paddy_briggs@yahoo.co.uk

Friday, February 15, 2008

"Clearing the Air" Who is Shell kidding?


If corporations, especially energy giants like Shell and BP, ever wonder why they are vilified by environmentalists and accused of “Greenwash” one objective viewing of the latest Shell film “Cleaning the Air” should tell them why. This highly professionally made paean to the virtues and responsibility of Shell shows the company seemingly single-handedly trying to solve the problem of city air pollution is a misleading farrago of half-truths and lies. Let’s get out of the way first the overtly “romantic” undertone of the film as handsome young twenty-something male Shell scientist Theo eyes up and then chats up a gorgeous young sceptical female colleague whom he eventually convinces (business-wise anyway) by delivering synthetic diesel fuel for some taxis at the 2004 Athens Olympics. I suppose that the intention here was to show that Shell employs human-beings with all the foibles and fantasises that we all have. The misty images and stolen glances of this embryonic romance, brought to earth (or maybe not) by the revelation that the young woman has a daughter, is as facile as it is irrelevant. If I want romantic escapism I’ll watch a Richard Curtis film thanks.

But it is the false premise of the film, not its soppy story line, which most offends. Theo we are told has a job which requires him to “tackle the problem of city air pollution”. What nonsense! Nobody in Shell has such a job – it’s not what a multinational energy company is for. Tackling cities air pollution is the responsibility of city political leaders or national governments - even supra national bodies like the EU, but not oil corporations whose sole raison d’être is to deliver value to their shareholders. If a consequence of developing Gas To Liquids (GTL) programmes is that gradually the air in cities will become cleaner than that’s good news for all. But Shell’s driver in its GTL programme is not environmental it is commercial. If there is money to be made in GTL then Shell will be in it – if not, not. Period!

The mendacity of the film “Cleaning the Air” is the clever proposition of the premise that Shell is in the GTL business because it cares about pollution. Aside from the convoluted logic which allows any anonymous corporation to have feelings at all there is no evidence that Shell has ever or will ever take a major business decisions for purely environmental reasons – and it is preposterous to imply that the main driver of the GTL business is environmental. The stakes are too high and the costs too massive for there to be anything other than a cool business driver behind Shell’s GTL programmes. That’s how it is and that’s how it should be - for GTL to fly there has to be a hard-nosed evaluation of costs against benefits. So in the Qatar project (140,000 barrels per day of GTL products) the project planners will have satisfied themselves that it makes economic sense to convert a small proportion of the State’s huge gas resources into middle-distillate – principally, I suspect, for local consumption as gas oil and diesel fuel. Little if any of this synthetic distillate will find its way outside of Qatar and there will be no measurable benefit on city air pollution. I don’t recall the small city of Doha being particularly polluted anyway - although the fact that a by-product of the plant’s production of GTL fuel is that it will be a bit less so is to be commended – I suppose!

The facts are that GTL is only an option where there are massive gas resources and where the conventional uses of gas are limited or non existent. Gas is mainly used for electricity generation or space heating in the developed and (mainly) northern hemisphere world. It makes no commercial sense to convert any or Europe’s gas to liquids, for example, when there is a growing conventional demand for all the gas that Europe produces. The same applies in North America. It is true, I guess, that is possible that a Government in a European country could offer subsidies to encourage automotive GTL use rather than refinery fuel. But it’s not very likely is it – certainly in the short to medium term?

The 2004 Athens Olympics “GTL in taxis” exercise was no doubt useful to show some people that it is possible to covert gas to synthetic diesel and to run diesel cars on the liquid. But it was not a commercial venture it was a PR stunt. How many cars in the Greek capital today run on GTL fuel I wonder?

Of course much of advertising is designed to accentuate the positives and eliminate the negatives in products, services or businesses. Most of us have a fairly sceptical reaction to advertisers’ messages and a live filter to stop us being fooled. But “Cleaning the Air” is a pretty mucky example of the corporate communications advertising genre. It suggests, implies, and hints at things that are simply not true. There is no likelihood of GTL being a significant factor in any of the world’s most polluted cities for the foreseeable future. That Shell has the technology to produce GTL is commendable and there are some very clever people involved. That Shell has solved the horrific problems it encountered in its small Malaysian plant is excellent as well. But as one authorative source, “Chemlink”[1], has said
“It is clear that the commercial success of GTL technology has not yet been fully established, and returns from GTL projects will depend on projections of market prices for petroleum products and presumed price premiums for the environmental advantages of GTL-produced fuels.”
Price premiums will come only if governments specifically offer consumers and businesses advantages if they choose synthetic fuel over normal refinery fuel. Such a development is a long way away and except in very special circumstances it may never happen. So for Shell to develop a whole advertising campaign around something that is at best tiny in its impact for the foreseeable future is disingenuous in the extreme.

© Paddy Briggs February 2008



[1] http://www.chemlink.com.au/