‘A Trojan horse of legitimacy’: Shell launches a ‘climate tech’ startup advertising jobs in oil and gas

A sleek new startup promising to ‘advance the energy transition’ launched earlier this month promising to “[connect] thousands of innovators across the globe to tackle difficult energy and climate challenges”.

The venture, Onward, is owned by Shell, a company that brought in $28bn in profits from oil and gas last year. The company’s website says it is “accelerating pathways to energy innovation”, serving as a “hub for innovation, collaboration and entrepreneurialism”, and creating a “compelling, evidence-based picture of the benefits of a net-zero future”. Team bios include descriptions of an ideal day “in our clean energy future”: kitesurfing, snorkeling and hiking.

However, despite an abundance of green imagery and language, much of the Onward platform’s existing content appears to focus on improving oil and gas outcomes, an analysis by Drilled and the Guardian has found.

The site’s “Projects” section is a short-term job board hosting dozens of jobs in oil and gas exploration (the hiring companies are kept anonymous). Of the five projects with available descriptions, all but one are explicitly for oil and gas production, while many more of the archived jobs on the platform also appear to be for oil and gas.

One posting asks for applicants to conduct a “coherent petroleum system assessment”; another looks for candidates able “to understand subsurface fluid resource estimates along the US Gulf Coast”. Another advertises a position to map reservoirs using seismic analysis in the Nile Delta.

Projects like Onward “[allow] Shell to pretend it’s helping find solutions instead of just accelerating the climate crisis”, Paris Marx, a technology critic and host of the Tech Won’t Save Us podcast, told Drilled.

Onward is just the latest of several climate tech projects by fossil fuel companies.

Shell has at least three other projects created to invest in energy startups, and in 2022, according to the company, it invested 89% more than it did the previous year in “low-carbon energy solutions”.

Saudi Aramco, the world’s largest oil company, has a $7bn fund and a portfolio of investments in renewables, storage, carbon capture and sequestration, and futuristic fuels like hydrogen and ammonia. Exxon, meanwhile, has plans to invest $7bn in carbon capture and storage, hydrogen and “lower-emission fuels” through 2027. In January, representatives from Shell, Chevron, SoCal Gas, BP, Southern Company, and Saudi Aramco were all on the guest list at a cleantech industry conference in San Diego.

However, many experts say these ventures are largely part of a broad greenwashing strategy.

The world’s leading climate authority has said that all oil and gas exploration must cease worldwide by 2030 in order to avoid the worst impacts of the climate crisis. But even as they flaunt their involvement in climate tech and investment in climate “solutions”, major fossil fuel companies are ramping up production and doing away with previous climate promises and targets. Shell is no exception: the company’s new CEO, Wael Sawan, has pivoted the company away from previous climate pledges and refocused the company’s efforts to boost oil production, despite record profits in the first quarter of 2023.

Drilled and the Guardian sent Onward several requests for comment, including questions about which companies sponsored Onward’s “Projects” listing, and whether advertising for jobs that promote continued oil and gas production runs contrary to Onward’s claims of “achiev[ing] a Net Zero future”. An Onward representative did not respond directly to questions but shared the company’s press release on the rebrand and a press kit.

In conversations with other outlets, Onward’s CEO, Jeff Allyn, said that the organization aims to help solve thorny problems, like “scope 3” emissions, with the energy transition. “The more people we have engaged with the community, the quicker we can create new and innovative solutions to the challenges we face,” Allyn told Axios in February.

The emphasis on collaboration to solve the climate crisis is one that consistently crops up in oil and gas public communication, said Melissa Aronczyk, a professor of journalism and media at Rutgers University.

“Behind the idea of collaboration is the idea that everyone is an equal stakeholder in this movement, that we are all in together to combat climate change,” she said. “But that’s really not what’s going on.”

Aroczyk pointed out that at recent UN climate meetings, oil and gas companies, their lobbyists, and other polluters have been consistently invited to the table under the guise of collaboration – invitations that have enabled them to further block needed action.

“It’s a Trojan horse of legitimacy,” she said. “You’re under cover of the idea that the climate movement is an all-hands-on-deck situation, but what you’re really doing is bringing in players who have very different ideas of what it means to ‘solve’ the climate crisis.”