- The head of one of the world's biggest oil companies
has admitted that the threat of climate change makes him "really very
worried for the planet".
- In an interview in today's Guardian Life section, Ron
Oxburgh, chairman of Shell, says we urgently need to capture emissions
of the greenhouse gas carbon dioxide, which scientists think contribute
to global warming, and store them underground - a technique called carbon
- "Sequestration is difficult, but if we don't have
sequestration then I see very little hope for the world,"said Lord
Oxburgh. "No one can be comfortable at the prospect of continuing
to pump out the amounts of carbon dioxide that we are pumping out at present
... with consequences that we really can't predict but are probably not
- His comments will enrage many in the oil industry, which
is targeted by climate change campaigners because the use of its products
spews out huge quantities of carbon dioxide, most visibly from vehicle
- His words follow those of the government's chief science
adviser, David King, who said in January that climate change posed a bigger
threat to the world than terrorism.
- "You can't slip a piece of paper between David King
and me on this position," said Lord Oxburgh, a respected geologist
who replaced the disgraced Philip Watts as chairman of the British arm
of the oil giant in March.
- Companies including Shell and BP have previously acknowledged
the problem of climate change and pledged to reduce their own emissions,
but the issue remains sensitive, and carefully worded public statements
often emphasise uncertainties over risks.
- Robin Oakley, a climate campaigner with Greenpeace, said:
"This is an important statement to make but it does have to come with
a commitment to follow through, and that means making the case to his peers
in the oil industry who are still sceptical of climate change."
- Mr Oakley said a gulf was opening between more progressive
oil companies such as Shell, which invests in alternative energy sources
including wind and solar power, and ExxonMobil, the biggest and most influential
producer, particularly in the US.
- In June 2002 ExxonMobil's chairman, Lee Raymond, said:
"We in ExxonMobil do not believe that the science required to establish
this linkage between fossil fuels and warming has been demonstrated."
- Lord Oxburgh's words will also fuel arguments over sequestration.
Supporters say it will allow a smoother transition to reduced emissions
by allowing us to burn coal, oil and gas for longer. Critics argue that
the idea is an expensive and probably unworkable smokescreen for continued
reliance on fossil fuels.
- Last year the Guardian revealed that ministers were considering
plans for a national network of pipelines to carry millions of tonnes of
carbon dioxide from power stations to be buried under the North sea.
- "You probably have to put it under the sea but there
are other possibilities. You may be able to trap it in solids or something
like that," said Lord Oxburgh, who claimed even vehicle emissions
could be trapped and disposed of. "The timescale might be impossible,
in which case I'm really very worried for the planet because I don't see
any other approach."
- According to a 3,000m (about 10,000ft) ice core from
Antarctica revealing the Earth's climate history, carbon dioxide levels
are the highest for at least 440,000 years.
- Lord Oxburgh said the situation is particularly urgent
because many developing countries, including India and China, are sitting
on huge untapped stocks of coal, probably the most polluting fossil fuel.
- "If they choose to burn their coal, we in the west
are not in a very good position to tell them not to, because it's exactly
what we did in our industrial revolution."
- Bryony Worthington, a climate campaigner with Friends
of the Earth, said: "It isn't a responsible attitude to say we're
going to pledge to do sequestration but if the plans don't work out then
the world's messed up. He's done quite a clever job by making it clear
he's concerned but at the same time not pledging to do anything about it."
- She called for tougher emission standards for new vehicles,
as well as greater investment in energy efficiency measures and renewable
- A former non-executive director with Shell, Lord Oxburgh
was catapulted into the chairman's role after the company was forced to
reveal it had overstated the extent of its reserves. He was widely viewed
as a safe pair of hands.
- He followed his long-standing academic career with spells
as chief science adviser to the Ministry of Defence and rector of Imperial
College, London. A crossbench life peer, he still chairs the Lords science
and technology select committee, although he must retire from Shell next
year. Guardian Unlimited © Guardian Newspapers Limited 2004