KKR entrusting green transition to ex-CEO of oil-guzzling giant Shell

Private equity giant KKR has turned to an unusual source to spearhead its green investment program—the former boss and 39-year veteran of oil-drilling giant Shell. 

KKR has appointed ex-Shell CEO Ben van Beurden as a senior advisor at the $553 billion investment group. Having started part-time in January, van Beurden’s mission is to help identify opportunities in KKR’s $59 billion infrastructure investment unit. 

After spending 10 years in the top job at one of the world’s biggest oil producers, van Beurden’s suitability for a role funneling billions of dollars into sustainable projects is up for scrutiny. 

Indeed, the Dutchman’s record on climate change is mixed, with some praising his relatively progressive views compared with those of his peers at other fossil fuel companies.

He set Shell’s first climate targets, with the $182 billion company aiming for a 2050 target for net zero emissions under his watch.  

However, he was also criticized for moving too slowly on these transition targets. 

Under van Beurden’s watch, Shell was ordered by a Dutch court to reduce its carbon emissions by 45% by 2030. Shell is appealing this ruling.

One of van Beurden’s strategies to cut Shell’s greenhouse gas emissions was through divestment, in other words, selling on stakes in certain carbon emitting activities. Critics argue this does little to offset emissions globally.

“Selling assets to less scrupulous operators, you’re not going to get overall emissions reductions,” London School of Economics researcher Dan Gardiner told Bloomberg. “But equally, if BP or Shell would wind down their production, that production gets filled by less scrupulous operators anyway.”

In 2021, a Bloomberg investigation found Shell and competitor BP had attributed a reduction in greenhouse gases in 2019 and 2020 to divestments. 

He also oversaw the practice of carbon offsetting, a controversial policy that the company de-prioritized in 2023 after van Beurden’s departure.

Van Beurden was named “Fossil Fuel Villain of the Year” by The New Republic magazine in 2022, his final year at the helm of Shell.

The left-leaning magazine gave van Beurden the unwelcome award after the ex-CEO’s 2017 spat with Environmental Defense Fund head Fred Krupp was made public by the House Oversight Committee.

However, KKR appears to back van Beurden’s track record of helping Shell transition from a strong history profiting from fossil fuels towards greener initiatives.

“He was the leader in driving Shell’s strategic transformation,” Brandon Freiman, head of North American infrastructure at KKR, told the Financial Times. “He really led Shell’s work during his tenure as CEO on transitioning it across oil and gas, renewables, sustainable aviation and transportation.”

In December, Reuters reported that KKR was seeking to raise up to $7 billion for its first global climate fund, which would focus on energy transition opportunities. 

Under its new CEO Wael Sawan, who joined in January 2023, the group has reigned in some of van Beurden’s loftier climate targets. 

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