A Conversation with Maarten Poort, Shell Shipping & Maritime, Americas

Port Bureau News,

We had a chance recently to sit down with Maarten Poort, Shell’s General Manager of Shipping & Maritime in the Americas, to discuss a range of topics that are facing the industry.  His thoughts, coming from a company that is itself on a journey to decarbonize while also providing the fuels and solutions to help broader industry and society do the same, offer insights and challenges in a fast-moving and sometimes contradictory world.

Maarten, thanks for taking some time with us.  How about we start off with a little bit of background on who you are and what you’re up to these days?

Certainly – and it’s a pleasure.  As the General Manager of Shipping & Maritime for the Americas, I lead an inclusive community who help provide the safest, cleanest, most efficient maritime solutions across Shell’s businesses in North and South America.  My organization is responsible for safety, operational and project management across a wide range Shell’s maritime activities such as chartering of ships and barges, the waterfront at terminals and refineries, floating production storage and offloading units (FPSO’s) and decarbonization of ports and vessels.

Beyond our safety journey, , over the last few years my team has leaned into leading industry-wide shipping decarbonization efforts in North America and to be part of a broader team which is becoming the world leader in delivering more and cleaner energy solutions to society.

I’ve been with Shell since 2005, beginning as a petroleum engineer, and I’ve had a a broad, international career focused on deepwater.  I have a passion for safe operations, learning, innovation and transformative leadership.

Most important though, I’m a husband to my wife, Ali, and a dad to my three young daughters.  I want to leave the world a better place for them.

You mentioned maritime decarbonization and the role you and your team play.  Can you tell us a bit more about that? Obviously, it’s a big theme in the industry and it something that virtually everyone is engaged in in some form or fashion.  What is your role?

Well, I’ll be frank here: there is a lot happening in our industry, and globally, to take steps to address the need to decarbonize.  But right now it’s not enough if we, as society, were to reach net zero by 2050. The maritime industry, according to the International Chamber of Shipping, is responsible for transporting some 11 billion tons each year, representing an impressive 1.5 tons per person based on the current global population.  That’s basically 80% of the world’s trade volume. Shipping is the glue that holds the world economy together.  Shipping’s capacity to transfer goods and materials from where they are produced to where they will be ultimately consumed underpins modern life.

The shipping sector has a unique role to play: as the backbone of global trade and by far the most efficient mode of freight transport, it is not only a sector that must decarbonize, but also an enabler of global and local decarbonization. Of course, making this happen requires collaboration within the shipping industry itself, across the broader shipping ecosystem and with other sectors.

And that is what I and my team does.  As I mentioned, we’ve been very active in decarbonization over the last few years.  We’re not only demonstrating concrete steps to decarbonize our own operations through actions like testing the efficacy of bio and renewable diesel in our chartered fleet, but also by helping to drive innovation in the broader ecosystem. You might have recently seen the christening of Kirby’s M/V Green Diamond in Houston, the first hybrid-electric inland tow boat.  That vessel will be chartered by Shell but also supplied with Shell-supplied 100% renewable power backed by renewable energy credits, delivered through a shore-side charger also owned by Shell.  This is a great example not only of our own commitment to decarbonize, but also of the power of working together to move the needle.

Wow – that’s a pretty impressive project, and it leads me to another question: as an industry of long-lived assets, decarbonization is changing the language and the activities within shipping with terms like CO2 emissions and ton-mile.  Are emissions reductions becoming table stakes for those involved in the maritime sector?  What is driving the shift to lower emissions, and why do public and private entities need to take steps to implement changes now? 

The world today is going through extraordinary change, and many factors are influencing the move to lower emissions.  Whether it’s regulations from the IMO, country or state-specific legislation or regulation, or expectations from customers and broader society.

Shipping emissions are expected to continue to grow, increasing the importance of addressing barriers to innovation and progress. If the world is going to reach the goals of the Paris Agreement it’s going to take all parties working together to make that happen, and sectors such as shipping need to cut their carbon emissions and do so fast.

Society is facing a dual challenge with the energy transformation — moving to a low-carbon energy future while simultaneously meeting the energy needs of the world today.  And I fully recognize that for companies looking at this, that decarbonizing profitably is a crucial element in the eventual success of the endeavor.

OK, so what are some of the implications for local and regional stakeholders when we consider implementing decarbonization solutions?  

Beyond just the industry, vulnerable and underserved communities must have access to affordable and reliable energy, and benefit equally from climate mitigation and adaptation opportunities presented by the transformation of our energy system.

Achieving an inclusive transition to a net-zero emissions energy system means engaging deeply with disadvantaged communities and enabling them to shape their own energy future. More and more we’re also seeing requirements from government for environmental and social justice elements to be part of requests for government grants – take for instance the Port Infrastructure Development Program ("PIDP") grants.  It’s important particularly for ports and their stakeholders and partners to consider what the impacts and benefits to their communities will be as they decarbonize.

And truly, pathways to decarbonization really require a total value chain perspective. And while that can be daunting, it’s not insurmountable either – especially if we work together.

As you’d referenced in an earlier question, ships have decades-long lives, and infrastructure changes not only take a long time to implement but are around for a very long time.  So, making choices to adopt a particular vessel or fuel are certainly not to be taken lightly.

There are also issues around clear and consistent regulation, both on the water side and the shore side of the equation depending on from what perspective you’re looking at things.  But as I said, none of these are insurmountable.  Challenges, yes, but we can figure it out.  And the nice thing is that there are many solutions, not just one, and that allows for innovation and fit-for-purpose results.  

Let’s shift to talking about paths to meeting the challenge of cleaner ports.  When you start working on decarbonization, you begin to realize the scale of the challenge. Is there a framework for how ports and the maritime community can think through how to accelerate change?

Well, there isn’t a one-size fits all prescription, that’s certain.  Every port is going to have different challenges, different opportunities, different stakeholders and, in many instances, different regulatory regimes.

But there are some fairly consistent themes and considerations.  Electrification is a huge opportunity, not only for port infrastructure but also for those vessels that call there.  At Shell, we’re working with ports and ship owners/operators along the Gulf Coast and beyond – looking at a variety of ways to support them in their sustainability and decarbonization journeys; with options like shoreside charging and cold ironing of ocean-going trade as part of the solution for both vessels and the port.

Choosing the right vessels for the right purposes also matters – and how those vessels are used, including when and where.  I mentioned the work we recently announced with Kirby – that’s just one example of how ports and those that operate in that ecosystem can take a concrete steps now, while continuing to accelerate and scale our impact. 

Of course, we also need clear and consistent regulatory direction.  The more we can advocate for that in all respects, at all governmental levels, the better able we’ll be to plan and develop for the future.  For instance, we would like to see more incentive programs dedicated to decarbonization of port infrastructure, and specifically for funding dedicated to shoreside electricity and other electrification .solutions.  We see these as important elements to sectoral decarbonization and beneficial to surrounding communities.

In terms of helping projects be economically viable and environmentally substainable Shell also supports the creation and use and use of voluntary carbon credits for the maritime industry and would like to see market mechanisms to enable the development and use of carbon credits to incentivize acceleration of cleaner energy solutions. The maritime industry and its financial partners should continue to work together with corporate, financial market participants and governmental entities to support a more liquid market with a high quality and trust

Alternative fuels get much of the attention in this discussion. What’s the place of lower emissions fuels in the journey to decarbonization? 

Well, as you know, we supply a portfolio of marine fuels all over the world, with many decades in the marine fuel market.

When it comes to alternative fuels, I’ll point to the role of LNG as the only lower-emissions available at scale – and while I also recognize that there are challenges there – methane slip and otherwise – it is still a fuel that has shown up to a 23% reduction of CO2 and reduced SOx, NOx, and Particulate Matter; and the industry is making strides in e methane slip and instituting additional technologies.

But there is definitely a role for other fuels in the mix as well; whether that’s renewable or bio-diesel, methanol/bio-methanol, ammonia, synthetic hydrogen based fuels or others. I’d say that what’s important overall is to firstly ensure these solutions are safe, and secondly that we think end-to-end so that for instance available feedstocks that don’t compete unnecessarily with other uses, and we have the ability to scale and innovate with engine technologies of the future.

In the U.S. domestic market, for instance, due to a variety of factors that include, among others, feedstock availability, technology limitations and the diversity of the global and local shipping fleets, a single fuel type is actually pretty unlikely to be adopted and/or even become available at the scale needed to fuel the domestic fleet – and much fewer international vessels flagged or calling at U.S. ports.  As a result, multiple lower carbon fuels will be needed to achieve rapid decarbonization.  So, we’d like to see the incentivization of lower-carbon fuel options, while recognizing that full engine/fuel transitions will take time and a range of fuels will be necessary for the maritime sector for the short/medium term.

And in fact, we’ve recently been advocating for more parity in treatment of marine fuels in our tax code. For instance a broader application of renewable identification number ("RIN") credits as a transportation fuel within the Renewable Fuel Standard without creating obligations under the program, which would allow for the ability to generate RINs without changing the definition of transportation fuel which would create deficits or obligation.

But more broadly, everyone, including ports, need to be part of the discussion – especially when it comes to building out the appropriate infrastructure to support the fuels of the future.

Can you also talk about the potential impact of technological and operational changes the industry can make to improve energy efficiency and reduce emissions?  Many believe these changes can provide substantial emissions reductions even before alternative fuel and electrification options can be implemented.  

I think we could probably talk about this for hours but let me point to a few things that have the potential to move us in the right direction even, as you say, before we start talking about fuels and other activities.

Operational efficiency has the potential to reduce emissions by up to 20% alone, but it will require us to think different about energy efficient technology and how to work together operationally as well. There is significant potential in partnering differently. 
There are a lot of opportunities here and they should be a part of the broader consideration for how to decarbonize – whether that’s at a port, with a single asset, or from a more macro-viewpoint of the maritime sector overall.

From your perspective, beyond individual solutions, what are the actions the community can take to move the needle on maritime decarbonization? 

When I think of “community” I think about all of those that are part of the maritime ecosystem.  And the bottom line: this is going to take working together differently.  No one is going to do this alone and communities are integral to the success of the industry in decarbonizing.  

Greater Houston Port Bureau’s leadership in the Texas gulf coast region, for instance, along with all of the other groups driving for change, are critical to success by bringing together all of the relevant stakeholders from industry to government to financial and communities.

And as we’ve touched on, government plays a big role through incentives; and carrot vs. stick is proving to be a better way to proceed in that respect.

Any last thoughts?

I’ll be blunt: I believe we have opportunities now to change the way we do things, to move our industry forward and to do so collaboratively.  No one company, government, NGO or individual is going to be able to solve the challenge of getting to Net Zero, but we can take decisions, including some that might be hard, to innovate and step out of how we’ve done things in the past.  I mentioned my daughters earlier; I want to be able to tell my children and their children that I did something to make difference.  We owe it to them, and we all have to do it together.  And I know we can do it – we have the people, we have the technology and innovative mindset; it just takes a first few steps, and then to keep on moving.