We can spend years fighting companies over issues like human rights abuses, pollution, and climate change – but often we do not get to experience their inner workings or thinking.
Occasionally we puncture the impenetrable oil bubble. Years ago I remember sitting in a dark lecture theatre in the Institute of Petroleum in London and listening to Otto Harrison, Exxon’s clean up coordinator for the Exxon Valdez spill, tell a packed audience of oilmen that the reason that Exxon had flown British scientists into Alaska in the immediate aftermath of the spill is that Americans believed people with English accents more than American ones.
He thought he was talking to friends and under Chatham House rules, that his dark secrets were safe in the dark corners of the room. It was too important not to tell the world, and so I did.
Years later I remember going to a lecture by an oilman about the situation in Berma, just as the Yadana pipeline was being built and human rights abuses were rampant, and he came out with the classic line that the oil industry preferred dictatorships. Democracies were far less predictable. Dictators just locked people up. Or abused them into submission. Oilmen liked dictators.
Shell has history of working with dictators. Of colluding with them, like President Abacha who murdered Ken Saro-Wiwa and the other Ogoni who were fighting the oil giant.
Author, Malcolm Harris has a great piece in the New York Intelligencer about being invited to a Shell Scenarios team event in London to give a talk last October, for an event called the “Sky Scenario,” which the oil giant described as “a technically possible but challenging pathway for society to achieve the goals of the Paris Agreement.”
Over dinner the night before, he talked with a senior Shell executive, Steven Fries, the company’s Chief Economist. He asked Fries about Ken Saro-Wiwa and the fact that Shell had settled with the Wiwa family out of court for $15.5 million, just before the trial. Fries replied to him, “I believe that was the Nigerian government.”
Even now Shell blames the dictator. To Shell, the truth does not matter. It likes dictators to carry on drilling for oil. Something it is not going to give up soon.
Fries said, when asked if the company was serious about the transition to clean energy: “We’re going to get as much out of [oil and gas] for as long as we can.”
As Harris notes, after listening to Shell executives for a day talking about climate change under Chatham House rules: “There’s little doubt that fossil-fuels are, culturally speaking, on the wrong side of history. But there is still a lot more money to extract from those wells, and the fossil-fuel businesses are intent on extracting as much as they can. It’s not necessarily such a bad time to be an oil and gas company, in other words, but it is a bad time to look like one.
“These companies aren’t planning for a future without oil and gas, at least not anytime soon, but they want the public to think of them as part of a climate solution. In reality, they’re a problem trying to avoid being solved.”
He adds: “They’re now hoping to leverage their incumbency, and fossil-fuel wealth, to lay claim to the world’s clean-energy future as well. To do that, they’ll have to persuade young people to forget who caused climate change in the first place, or at least to let bygones be bygones.”
“And if they can transition their corporate profiles from fossil fuel to green energy without missing a profitable quarter, that wouldn’t be a repudiation of their delay strategy; it would be a vindication.”
In this sense “Shell doesn’t seem to see the climate movement as the enemy or even necessarily contrary to the company’s interests… Climate protesters are just another market reality, one that can be profitable when apprehended correctly, even for a big, old oil and gas firm. The question was how to see that generational conflict coming, how to meet it and harness it and ride it into the future.”
Harris writes “Shell’s concern, deeper than its fossil-fuel identity and more urgent than the climate crisis, is Shell. I don’t believe it’s going to lead us to the Paris climate goals, and Shell probably doesn’t believe it will either.”
“But in order to survive and keep the bottom line growing,” concludes Harris: “I am convinced the company will do whatever needs to be done, whether that’s networking solar panels, systematic human-rights violations, or both. Maybe it’ll even make some incidental progress along the way, depending on where the subsidies are, but there’s no comprehensive vision for a livable future here, no ethical imagination, no morality to speak of. It is unfit to lead.”
Further evidence of Shell’s decades long denial campaign has emerged after a ground-breaking Dutch investigation found that for years Shell covertly funded a prominent climate denier in the Netherlands while concern over global warming was increasing.
For nine years, Shell and other multinationals like Bayer, funded a prominent Dutch climate denier, Frits Böttcher, to the amount of close to half a million in Euros “with the explicit goal of sowing doubts about climate change and humanity’s role in it.”
Böttcher used the money to set up an international network of climate skeptics and helped set up the European Science and Environment Forum (ESEF), a think tank linked to the Institute of Economic Affairs in London, which did much to push a climate denial agenda.
Over the years, Böttcher produced multiple reports, books and opinion pieces. In these he wrote, for instance, that the greenhouse effect doesn’t exist and that CO2 is not dangerous, and even quite the opposite: it’s “good for plants.” And this is exactly the same argument being used by Indur Goklany, from the Department of Interior now, as exposed by the New York Times this week.
Shell sowed the seeds of climate doubt. And the Trump administration still allows that climate deception to grow into forests of confusion. And all the while Shell drills, telling you it is the climate movement’s new best friend.