‘Oil’ and ‘Gas’ Are Out: How Energy Firms Are Rebranding for the Climate Change Era

May 12, 2019, 11:30 AM UTC

When Denmark’s state energy company changed its name in 2017, almost everyone involved agreed it was high time: after all, it was called DONG Energy. (It originally stood for Danish Oil and Natural Gas.)

The revamp was also part of a move to get out of the oil and gas business and focus on offshore wind, where the company has become a world leader. But changing its name to the hard-to-pronounce Ørsted, after one of the country’s best known scientists, turned out not to be the controversy-free choice management had envisioned.

Other energy companies in Europe that have changed their names have faced charges of “greenwashing,” or scrubbing their branding of fossil fuels while failing to do the same to their portfolios. Ørsted (pronounced “Ehr-still”) side-stepped such allegations, but it still confronted opposition: from the Ørsted family itself.

On Friday, the energy company won a court battle to keep the Ørsted name brought by seven descendants of Hans Christian Ørsted, the scientist who discovered electromagnetism.

The family members filed the lawsuit in January 2018, objecting to their newfound association with the company. They argued the Ørsted name is rare and significant enough to be off-limits.

The judge didn’t agree; it should be noted that about 1,200 people in Denmark now have Ørsted as a middle or last name—including the pop star MØ. (Interestingly enough, the company ran into a similar—albeit less litigious—problem when selecting its earlier name of DONG. In addition to snickers by English speakers, the Dong family of Valby, Denmark was not thrilled, though it never pursued legal action.)

Ørsted stands out for its legal tiff, but in the world of energy, it’s just one more company changing its name to eliminate words like “oil” or “gas.” Norway’s state energy company, for instance, changed its name from Statoil to Equinor last year. The company says the change reflects the country’s shift away from petroleum extraction to renewable energy, but it’s been accused of using a rebranding effort to make itself appear more “green” than it really is.

Statoil became Equinor last year. (LEON NEAL—AFP/Getty Images)
LEON NEAL AFP/Getty Images

And there are others: Finland’s Neste cut the “oil” from “Neste Oil” in 2015, the same year France’s GDF Suez (GDF stood for “Gaz” or gas “de France”) changed its name to Engie.

The transitions presented new, and often more “sustainable,” images—not uncommon for energy companies as a whole these days. That was Ørsted’s official reason, too: the company has become the world’s largest producer of offshore wind energy. The Danish state has a 50.1% ownership stake in Ørsted.

But embarrassment was something of a factor too: “DONG,” while innocuous in Denmark, tends to have a different meaning among English speakers.

Meanwhile, the debate over the company’s new name is not necessarily settled: Friday’s ruling in Ørsted vs. Ørsted could be appealed, the family’s lawyer, Jens Jakob Bugge, told Fortune. If so, he said, it could end up before the Danish Supreme Court.

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