Shell’s Music Video About Sustainable Energy Is Catchy as Hell. But Will Anyone Believe It?

Weighing the oil company's intentions against its actions

When you've been around 126 years or so, it's tough changing people's perceptions of who you are and what you stand for. But the easiest way of hacking into somebody's head is, well, finding the right beat. 

Shell just released "Best Day of My Life," a catchy, colorful music video featuring Jennifer Hudson, Luan Santana, Pixie Lott, Yemi Alade, #TanWeiWei and Steve Aoki. This is part of its ongoing "#makethefuture" campaign, so seven energy innovations also appear. 

The stars perform in individual pockets of hives, highlighting the innovations while demonstrating how they interconnect for a more sustainable future. The hives—systems that work apart, but are best used together—include Capture Mobility, a project where windmills alongside busy roads can harvest the air movement of passing traffic and solar energy; Bio-Bean, which recycles coffee grounds into advanced biofuels and biochemicals; Insolar, a Brazilian solar energy startup; Shell Eco-Marathon, an engineering challenge to design energy-efficient vehicles; MotionECO, which could transform used cooking oil into biofuel; smart flooring solution Pavegen; and GravityLight, which uses gravity to generate off-grid electricity. 

All projects are supported by Shell, part of its Sept. 28 #makethefuture event in the Santa Marta favela in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. 

The goal is to make science feel less "cold and intimidating" to young people by using pop culture to showcase new technology, says JWT London.

According to the agency, energy demands worldwide are expected to rise by 75 percent. "Current resources simply cannot support this increase alone," JWT writes. "The world needs a new 'energy mix' combining different sources of energy." It touts Shell's yearly $1.3 billion investment in R&D, "more than any other international energy company."

The video is charming. Super charming. It's also timely, given that, just this month, we officially surpassed the "safe" level of atmospheric carbon—which officially puts us in the shit, environmentally speaking. 

So while it's no surprise that major oil companies are increasingly investing in green technology, we can't help remembering something former Greenpeace national spokesman Travis Nichols said in 2014: "There are no [oil] companies we would trust to bring us into a renewable energy's future."

But "Best Day of My Life" is fun and sticky. It's natural to want to like it. The question is, can you trust Shell? To put your mind at ease, we took a quick look at what Shell's been up to in the past couple of years. 

In 2014, CEO Ben Van Beurden gave a speech at Columbia University about "the real and current threat of climate change," touting Shell's efforts to reduce carbon emissions.

"Global companies like Shell have a responsibility to speak up" about climate change's "potentially devastating effects," he said, making him one of the few major oil executives to publicly seek common ground between his industry's interests and those of conservationists. But he also focused a lot on "[broadening] the frame of this discussion," and maintained that oil and gas would remain the heart of Shell's global strategy.

At the time, Shell was embroiled in a regulatory conflict over its $4.5 billion effort to drill in the Alaskan Arctic (a project it abandoned in 2015), while simultaneously committing to building a carbon capture and storage plant in Scotland (which the UK cut funding for in 2015). 

A year after that speech, an unprecedented coalition of 150 churches, local authorities and pension funds in the U.K. put pressure on BP and Shell to become more environmentally transparent. Led by law firm Client Earth and investor group ShareAction, the coalition held 1 percent of shares in both BP and Shell.

The resolution required a positive vote from 75 percent of shareholders. By May, nearly 99 percent backed it, driving both Shell and BP to commit to greater transparency and reporting. Shell is now legally obliged to report on operational emissions management and low-carbon energy research and development, among other things, in annual reports. 

Since Shell's merger with BG group, it's become one of the largest and most powerful producers of liquefied natural gas in the world. While many of its biofuels aren't entirely "green," it committed to investing nearly $75 million in clean energy in India—a growing solar power player—over the next five years. The project will also impact Africa. 

"An average firm in the alternate energy [market] takes six to ten years and $5 million to $20 million before they start making profits. We have patience to fund these companies until the time they succeed, as we have a bigger risk appetite," said Shell deputy director/COO Pradeep Pursnani.

Let's leap to this year. 

In May 2016, Shell—now Europe's largest oil company—announced New Energies, a separate division dedicated to investing in renewable and low-carbon power. This happened days after experts at Chatham House told international oil companies they must either change or face a "short, brutal end" in the next 10 years. 

New Energies unites Shell's existing hydrogen, biofuels and electrical activities. It will also be used for wind power research and development—building on the nine other wind projects in Europe and North America in which Shell holds interest—and will operate alongside the Integrated Gas Division. It's also nicely funded, with $1.7 billion in capital investments against an annual capital expenditure of $200 million. 

That sounds like a lot, but that annual spending level is less than 1 percent of the $30 billion Shell still invests in oil and gas. It's ended its Arctic drilling hijinks, but is also still engaged in deep-water projects (though it claims to limit environmental impact) and high-CO2-generating Canadian tar sands. (Remember what we said about the CO2 level earlier?) 

All this considered, there's only one real conclusion to make: Shell is looking to change in the same way a hedge fund manager takes calculated risks: Hedging small on a "future bets" pipeline until he sees a winner, and current "big-money" bets dry out. Though Van Beurden seeks to establish Shell as a leader in oil sector innovation, he hasn't signaled any slowdown in Shell's huge oil and gas investments. 

"The big challenge, both for society and for a company like Shell, is how to provide much more energy, while at the same time significantly reducing carbon dioxide emissions," says Van Beurden, neatly enough. 

In 2012, the Polling Report found that 64 percent of Americans believe the government should more strongly enforce existing environmental regulations, with 70 percent demanding stricter emissions limits, and 65 percent wanting a greater renewable energy focus. (Also—hey!—61 percent of us have a negative view of oil companies.) 

In 2015, 74 percent of oil and gas employees expressed certainty about global warming—60 percent think it's man-made, with over 75 percent agreeing it's a serious problem, and 68 percent believing that burning less fossil fuel is a good way to address it. 

So Shell's being squeezed both from within and without—which is, all things considered, the best possible position an oil company can be in. Money tends to follow the gravity of opinion. So let's hope that, on top of making splashy collaborations with stars, Shell will also scale back on less sustainable revenue lines. Because that money isn't free—it comes on credit from the future it apparently wants so badly to be part of. 

But what have we learned? That it won't start doing that until eco solutions start paying big and fossil fuel revenue starts dropping. On top of Liking that video, this is a goal we can all actively contribute to when we vote, buy and move around.