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Big Oil wants to be Big Wind. Can fossil fuel companies be trusted?

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Danielle Jensen spent two years working on Mars — not the planet, the offshore oil rig.

Her job was to keep the crude flowing for Royal Dutch Shell. She operated the platform’s pumps and compressors, clocking two-week shifts with a mostly male crew.

Workdays were long, and walking around in a flame-retardant suit all summer in the Gulf of Mexico was brutal. But she felt good about providing energy to the world — modern society was built on fossil fuels, after all.

On a satellite image in the Mayflower Wind offices in Boston, Danielle Jensen points to an area where the power lines from the wind farm will come ashore at Brayton Point in Somerset. (Jesse Costa/WBUR)
On a satellite image in the Mayflower Wind offices in Boston, Danielle Jensen points to an area where the power lines from the wind farm will come ashore at Brayton Point in Somerset. (Jesse Costa/WBUR)

Times are changing, though, and Jensen wants to be part of the future. When Shell posted a job for planning an offshore wind farm off Massachusetts, she leapt at the opportunity. She now lives in Boston and works for Mayflower Wind, a joint venture of Shell and two European utilities.

“Once we get a few of these big projects installed and powering people's homes, I think it'll be unstoppable,” she says.

Jensen is the rare energy worker who has stepped from a carbon-intensive industry into one with almost no emissions at all. Her move mirrors a wider energy transition. Shell is among a handful of large oil companies racing to enter the offshore wind market, banking that their experience with ocean drilling can turn them into clean energy giants.

The question is whether Big Oil — with its history of climate denial and failed forays into renewable power — is truly committed to following through this time. And if so, are companies like Shell best suited to lead an energy revolution?

Oil companies are far from the only players in the burgeoning U.S. market; in fact, they’re not even the most significant ones.

But they’re gunning to be.

Denial and distrust

There’s an active debate about the role fossil fuel companies should play in the renewable energy transition.

Some experts say oil companies’ deep pockets and decades of working offshore make them uniquely suited to build turbines at sea. Others are skeptical. They worry that offshore wind could be a token investment, something to burnish the companies’ reputations while they pour vast resources into oil and gas projects.

Fossil fuel companies have “known for literal decades that the industry they were running was going to ruin the world,” says Mary Annaïse Heglar, a prominent climate writer and co-host of the "Hot Take" podcast and newsletter.

“They try to present themselves as the solvers of climate change and not as the creators of climate change,” she says.

Several big European oil companies have pledged to overhaul their businesses by midcentury. Shell and BP, for instance, say they will slowly reduce their oil production, ratchet up investments in renewable energy and offset or trap any remaining emissions. The Norwegian oil giant Equinor has pledged to increase its spending on renewables from 4% of its budget last year to 50% in 2030.

“They try to present themselves as the solvers of climate change and not as the creators of climate change.”

Mary Annaïse Heglar

But oil companies have dabbled in renewables before. BP famously rebranded as “Beyond Petroleum” in the early 2000s and launched a solar business, only to scrap it a few years later to focus more on its fossil fuels.

Heglar questions why the public should believe their promises this time.

“They've lost all credibility in my eyes," she says. "So I don't understand how they can be trusted with wind energy."

Yet, if there’s a place for oil companies in a world that doesn’t run on fossil fuels, it might be in the ocean, experts say. That’s because, of all the renewable energy sources out there, offshore wind has the greatest overlap with the type of work oil companies already do.

In this 2016 photo, Shell offshore engineers Jacki LaFevers and Danielle Jensen stand on the MARS platform in the Gulf of Mexico. Another platform, the Olympus, can be seen in the background. (Photo courtesy Danielle Jensen)
In this 2016 photo, Shell offshore engineers Jacki LaFevers and Danielle Jensen stand on the MARS platform in the Gulf of Mexico. Another platform, the Olympus, can be seen in the background. (Photo courtesy Danielle Jensen)

“I think the companies right now are putting toes into offshore wind. I don't think we see massive shifts in capital yet. But you can see that potentially, if that becomes profitable, being a big part of their future business,” says David Victor, a professor at the University of California, San Diego.

Whether they’ll be successful at producing offshore electricity instead of oil, he adds, is an entirely different question.

2,000 turbines now, more later

Big Oil, as it’s often called, is not a monolith. Individual companies have adopted varying positions on cutting greenhouse gas emissions and pursuing renewable energy.

They do, however, have one important thing in common, says Paasha Mahdavi, a political science professor at the University of California, Santa Barbara. They face an existential threat in a world that wants to solve the climate crisis.

“The big oil companies know they have to invest in [renewables] or die,” says Mahdavi, who studies the role of oil and gas companies in the energy transition. “And so we’ve seen oil companies trying to pivot because the writing is starting to be written on the wall — I mean, it’s been written on the wall. They’re just starting to see it.”

Mahdavi and three other researchers recently published a paper looking at whether the largest privately-held oil and gas companies were making good on their promises to go green. They found zero companies transitioning away from fossil fuels in any meaningful way. Several U.S.-based companies — like ExxonMobil, Chevron and ConocoPhillips — have actually resisted change and doubled down on fossil fuels.

“The big oil companies know they have to invest in [renewables] or die.”

Paasha Mahdavi

The paper also identified four companies in the middle, the so-called hedgers: Shell, BP, Equinor and TotalEnergies. These European oil companies, facing shareholder and public pressure to address climate change, are promising to reinvent themselves.

Doing this would require a dramatic overhaul of their business model. And it won’t happen quickly; these companies are planning to retain much of their fossil fuel portfolio in the near term.

Consider these numbers: This year, Shell expects to spend around $17 billion on fossil fuels — $8 billion on oil production, $4 billion on natural gas and another $4-5 billion on other petrochemical projects. By comparison, its low-carbon investments, which include offshore wind, will likely range between $2 to $3 billion.

BP, meanwhile, says it will spend $13 billion on all projects this year; $2 billion is earmarked for low-carbon investments. A spokesperson for Equinor says the company anticipates spending $9-10 billion this year, with about 12% going to renewables and low-carbon solutions.

Of course, a few billion dollars is nothing to sneeze at, and these investments have helped the companies position themselves as significant players in the global offshore wind market.

“These are the kinds of investments that they excel at,” Mahdavi says. “And by that, I mean managing extremely large-scale investments with long-term uncertainty.”

To date, the oil companies are not the biggest players in the U.S. market. They control four of the 18 offshore wind lease areas and are playing catch up with the likes of Ørsted, the Danish government-backed energy company that controls eight federal lease areas. (Other competitors include large utilities like Avangrid and Dominion Energy, which are planning several projects along the East Coast.)

But the oil companies are starting to make up ground, both here and internationally.

In Europe, for instance, they were late to enter the offshore wind market and are now muscling out large renewable companies. BP and Total recently outbid Ørsted and other developers for the right to build a pair of new projects off the United Kingdom — Ørsted later said it could not compete with the prices offered by the oil companies.

They have similar plans in America, where the offshore wind market is largely untapped.

While Shell has only two projects under contract to date, a spokesperson says the company aims to be “the largest offshore leaseholder for wind in the U.S.” Equinor, meanwhile, has energy contracts with the state of New York to build three wind farms with a combined capacity of 3,300 megawatts. Last year, BP bought a 50% stake in those projects for $1.1 billion, a move its CEO called an important step in BP’s “pivot to truly becoming an integrated energy company.”

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Claudine Hellmuth/E&E News (graphics); Marta Ribera/The Nature Conservancy (base map); Bureau of Ocean Energy Management (BOEM) (data)
Claudine Hellmuth/E&E News (graphics); Marta Ribera/The Nature Conservancy (base map); Bureau of Ocean Energy Management (BOEM) (data)

Many environmentalists say they welcome any investment in renewables, but they’re wary of oil companies piling into the industry so quickly.

“There's a real risk that, because of the market power of these companies, they may actually crowd out competitors and ultimately make renewable energy more expensive for consumers,” says Brad Campbell, president of the Conservation Law Foundation.

Campbell says he’d like to see federal and state officials do more to help other energy actors, including smaller businesses and startups, so they have a shot at participating in the nascent market.

“I don't think that the oil companies bring — aside from large amounts of capital — particular expertise to the offshore wind space that isn't otherwise available,” he says.

'Wow ... Dad!'

David Marty is a buttoned-up, straight-laced kind of guy. He has closely cropped hair, crisp posture and speaks with a calm, rhythmic cadence. He’s the sort of person you’d expect to find managing operations for a big corporation, which is exactly what he does.

David Marty (Courtesy David Marty)
David Marty (Courtesy David Marty)

After almost 15 years of helping Shell develop oil and gas projects around the world, he decided to try something new, and applied for a job with Mayflower Wind. He thought it would be interesting to join a new industry, but he said it wasn’t because he believes fossil fuels are disappearing anytime soon.

He’s been with Mayflower for about a year and says he’s been happy to discover that the project management skills he used for planning oil and gas developments have translated well to wind.

“It's a lot of logistics. It's a lot of vessel movement,” he says. “It's got a similar feel [even though] your business case is really above the water, not below the seabed.”

It takes years to design an offshore oil platform or wind farm, and many more to map the ocean floor, and secure the boats and construction equipment. Then there’s navigating the federal permitting process, complying with a labyrinth of regulations, and, of course, installing electrical infrastructure at sea.

Two turbines of the Block Island Wind Farm off the coast of Rhode Island. (Jesse Costa/WBUR)
Two turbines of the Block Island Wind Farm off the coast of Rhode Island. (Jesse Costa/WBUR)

But perhaps the biggest and most important skill required is risk management, or what Marty calls the ability “to think in terms of dates and dollars.”

One example: It will cost Mayflower half a million dollars a day to rent and operate just one of the vessels it needs to install a turbine, so the company needs to be very careful when drawing up contracts and planning for things like bad weather.

“It's like a big jigsaw puzzle and you’re just trying to figure out the pieces,” he says. “At $500,000 a day, you want to get that more right than wrong. And oil and gas companies have quite a bit of experience in trying to get that right.”

The MPI Resolution, a self-elevating turbine installation vessel, carries out repairs to the Burbo Bank wind farm in the United Kingdom. (Colin McPherson/Corbis via Getty Images)
The MPI Resolution, a self-elevating turbine installation vessel, carries out repairs to the Burbo Bank wind farm in the United Kingdom. (Colin McPherson/Corbis via Getty Images)

His bosses at Shell have been outspoken about their plans to transform the oil company into a renewable energy giant, so Marty says he’s not surprised to see them invest billions in American offshore wind.

He was surprised, however, by how his teenage daughters reacted when he told them about his new job.

Usually, when he talks about work, they respond with something like, “OK” or “Whatever,” he says. But with wind, they really perked up. “Their feedback was, ‘Wow, I’m really excited to see you get into this, Dad!’ ”

His daughters, like a lot of young people, are concerned about climate change. Marty says he is too, though it wasn’t the main thing driving him to plan wind projects.

“Everybody needs energy,” he says. “And the fact that we have these other avenues to pursue, what we call clean energy, renewable energy, is fantastic.”

Oil money, clean power

There are plenty who doubt the oil majors’ long-term commitment to wind power. Why should they be trusted to shift to another form of energy, especially when it could kill the very business that made them rich, says Justin Guay, director of global climate strategy for the Sunrise Project, a nonprofit committed to ending the use of fossil fuels.

“If we don't want to see people suffer, we need to transform and transform really quickly.”

Deborah Gordon

He says it would have been like relying on Blockbuster to lead the world into the video streaming age.

“We have very little evidence of legacy incumbents disrupting themselves and basically destroying their own legacy markets,” he says. “And yet, that's basically what the oil majors are telling us they will do.”

A protester holds a giant bottle of Greenwash during a 2021 Extinction Rebellion protest in London. (Dave Rushen/SOPA Images/LightRocket via Getty Images)
A protester holds a giant bottle of Greenwash during a 2021 Extinction Rebellion protest in London. (Dave Rushen/SOPA Images/LightRocket via Getty Images)

Guay acknowledges that the oil companies might be able to help jumpstart the offshore wind industry in the U.S. by bringing a few projects online, but he’s skeptical they’ll be willing to build it to the size and scale that’s needed to help replace coal and gas.

Oil companies have spent decades becoming experts at extracting, transporting and refining fossil fuels, he says. “Why would we want to risk — or make the bet — that in the most important transition in the history of civilization, that will actually change?”

Deborah Gordon is someone who knows a thing or two about transitions. She started her career designing oil projects for Chevron, but went on to work for a series of environmental think tanks. Today, she leads the Oil and Gas Solutions Initiative at Rocky Mountain Institute, a research group that advocates for clean energy.

Gordon gets why so many people distrust the big oil companies. But she adds that the world is in crisis and the most important thing is curbing greenhouse gas emissions.

“If we don't want to see people suffer, we need to transform and transform really quickly,” she says. “And I think if we write off anyone, especially anyone who has deep pockets, then we will slow progress.”

Campbell agrees. Most climate solutions require tradeoffs, and in this case, that might mean relying on oil companies with their checkered pasts to help build an offshore wind industry.

But embracing their involvement, he says, doesn’t mean letting them off the hook for lying about climate change and harming the planet. It doesn’t mean abandoning public pressure campaigns or legislative efforts that force them to go green.

What it does mean, he says, is judging them on what they’re actually doing, not just on what they promise.

The five turbines of the Block Island Wind Farm off the coast of Rhode Island. (Jesse Costa/WBUR)
The five turbines of the Block Island Wind Farm off the coast of Rhode Island. (Jesse Costa/WBUR)

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