Oil companies are the villains of today’s environmentalists, but it will take reasonable, strong business leaders to move industry to a sustainable model. Marvin Odum is just that sort of leader. As CEO of Shell Oil Company, Odum speaks with authority on reducing carbon emissions in a realistic way. The company has begun to seek serious investments in natural gas, which produces about half of the carbon emissions that coal or petroleum energy does. Many people are opposed to natural gas, but Shell sees the proliferation of natural gas as a way to quickly reduce emissions and start weaning away from petroleum.
Odum says that his company has to take a rational and comprehensive view of the energy crisis and understands that oil and gas are crucial to maintaining quality of life, but long term focus shows no question about whether energy companies will have to significantly reduce carbon emissions. Odum says that he is already weighing social and sustainability issues as heavily as financial and technical aspects of new investment proposals. He says that the tricky position his company is in provides room for innovation. On one hand, the demand for energy is increasing, but so is the demand for sustainability. At the same time, consumers want energy to remain at low cost, so Shell must work very hard to maintain that balance moving into the future. Odum has shifted sustainability to a core value of Shell and is working to achieve it.
Shell has spent over $2 billion in renewable energy research and development over the last five years. The company is also a major distributor of biofuel and wind energy. In the last decade, Shell has reduced its carbon emission output by nearly 30%. One fifth of performance indicators for management in the company revolves around meeting sustainability checkpoints. Sustainability’s clearly a priority, but it’s not enough for it to be a priority. “Priorities change with conditions,” says Odum, “they change with financial performance and maybe the economy. Core values don’t. And that’s the way I want people to think about sustainability. It’s core.”