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Shell Executive Says the Company Might Drop the Word 'Oil' From Its Name

Environmentalists say the possible move is a ruse aimed at disguising the company's impacts on the environment and contribution to climate change.

by Esha Dey
Jul 10 2015, 10:05pm

Photo by Matt Mills McKnight/EPA

Shell Oil Company, the US arm of the Anglo-Dutch oil and gas giant Royal Dutch Shell, is toying with the idea of dropping the word "oil" from its name.

A company executive said it would reflect the company's increasing interest in developing renewable energy sources, but environmentalists responded that it's simply a ruse.

Speaking at the Toronto Global Forum, the Shell executive admitted that having "oil" in the company name was a little old fashioned, and that "at one point we'll probably do something about that," Bloomberg reported on Thursday. 

"Climate change is real," Marvin Odum, director of the company's upstream Americas business, said. "We spend a fair amount of time as an executive committee, as a board actually, looking at what that wider swath of investment opportunities out there are, including the alternative and renewable options."

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Environmentalists in the United States have been voicing their outrage at fossil fuel companies, demanding that they change their business models to move towards more environment-friendly sources of energy. The fossil fuel divestment movement has mobilized students, unions, and religious congregations across the country and, since 2012, has pressured 181 institutions and local governments and nearly 700 individuals to drop fossil fuel investments totaling over $50 billion in assets.

Even President Barack Obama lent his support to the movement. 

"Push your own communities to adopt smarter practices. Invest. Divest," he said in a 2013 speech at Georgetown University on climate policy. "Remind folks there's no contradiction between a sound environment and strong economic growth."

350.org, an activist group founded by university students and popular author and environmentalist Bill McKibben, is a leading voice in the divestment movement and remains un-impressed by the possibility of Shell's gesture toward renewables.

"They can call themselves Shell Candy Company for all anyone cares, but the point is that they are still making a product that is toxic and destructive and people are going to see that," Karthik Ganapathy, the US communications manager for the group, told VICE News. "Companies don't want to be associated with words like petroleum and oil anymore. They want to window dress it so they can hide what they are doing."

Related: Some of the world's biggest energy companies want a price on carbon pollution

While Royal Dutch Shell has stressed it is concerned about climate change and has said that it is continuously exploring options for sustainable energy sources, it is difficult to discern exactly how much of its investments are directed towards finding renewable options.

In its latest sustainability report, the company said it spent $1.2 billion in research and development in 2014, including on renewables. Since 2009, it has put around $1 billion into developing "lower-carbon technologies," which includes natural gas — a fossil fuel with a lower carbon footprint than coal and oil — as well as renewables. 

To put the numbers in perspective, the company's total revenue for 2014 year was $430 billion, with $15 billion in profit.

At the same time, the company has undertaken several controversial oil drilling initiatives, the most recent and high profile one being its plans to drill for oil in the environmentally sensitive Arctic Ocean off the coast of Alaska. The harsh weather and rough seas of the Arctic could make cleaning up a spill especially difficult. 

Experts estimate that exploiting the fossil fuel reserves trapped below the Arctic seafloor could release up to 15.8 billion tons of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere — nearly equivalent to 10 years of emissions from the US transportation sector.

"Shell is the most irresponsible company on Earth. They watched climate change melt the Arctic, and decided that was an invitation to go drill in the newly melted waters," 350.org's Ganapathy said. "That's irony so painful that people will remember it a hundred years from now, no matter what Shell is calling itself."

Related: Former ExxonMobil scientist says the company has long known of its climate change impacts

The company isn't the first to undertake a rebranding meant to promote a more environment-conscious business image. British Petroleum changed its name to BP a few years back. Its new green logo hints at the company's focus on renewables even though it is actually a relatively tiny part of its portfolio. And, for a time, it referred to itself as being "beyond petroleum."

"Corporate identity is a complicated subject ... when you have a long term brand name such as Shell, making a move like that is not a knee jerk reaction," Tracy Arrington, a lecturer at University of Texas's Stan Richards School of Advertising & Public Relations, told VICE News. "Oil and gas companies have traditionally not been the heroes outside their walls … so when you are making a decision about your brand identity, you want to have a positive spin."

Shell, on the other hand, said it had no further comments on the matter of a name change.

"[N]o action has been taken on this. It was really a hypothetical question and answer," Kelly op de Weegh, head of Shell's US media relations, told VICE News.

Follow Esha Dey on Twitter: @deyesha