Deciphering Big Oil’s Retreat from Renewables

road_tanker_refuelling_credit-bpA New York Times article this week concludes that major oil and gas companies are, as the headline roared, “Loath to Follow Obama’s Green Lead.” Such stories bashing Big Oil’s slim investment in renewable energy tend to fall short by failing to consider how renewables intersect with an oil major’s core business, and this one is no exception.

As the Times ably demonstrates, big oil is freezing or cutting investment in renewable energy and doing so from a relatively small base. It notes that Shell, which has frozen spending on wind, solar and hydrogen energy, has invested just $1.7 billion on alternative energy projects since 2004 compared to $87 billion to keep its oil and gas flowing.

That should come as little surprise since Big Oil’s insubstantial and fickle commitment to renewable energy goes back decades. Following the 1973 oil shock, for example, U.S. oil majors of the time such as Mobil and Chevron embraced photovoltaics, only to dump the projects when oil prices crashed and OPEC’s power waned a decade later. British Petroleum’s promise to go “Beyond Petroleum” already looked weak five years ago when it ditched production of next-generation cadmium-telluride thin-film photovoltaics — the technology that Tempe, AZ-based First Solar has since ridden to the top of the world PV market.

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