Green politics, philosophy, history, paganism and a lot of self righteous grandstanding.

Saturday, 15 November 2014

Is Shell's 'sustainability' sustainable?

Shell executives yesterday looked out of their office window to see a rather familiar banner hanging off a railway bridge. 

However whilst they may have recognised the corporate colours it certainly wasn't the company's message. Greenpeace had paid them a visit.

One of those dangling off the bridge, Phil Ball, had this time last year been in a Murmansk prison, detained along with 27 other activists and 2 journalists after Russian paramilitaries seized the ship Arctic Sunrise in the Barents Sea.

Their target then had been a rig belonging to Russian state owned oil company Gazprom that was exploring for oil. The Russian state is a key player in the Arctic, but Gazprom have a partner on whom they are even more dependent; Shell.

Shell and Gazprom appear to be doing a 'Good Cop, Bad Cop' routine in the Arctic. Shell are the caring modern company which gets nominated for sustainability awards. By contrast Gazprom seem to be happy to play the role of the thug. However Shell and Gazprom are actually closely allied in the quest for Arctic oil, and Gazprom could not operate without access to Shells' technology. 

Shell have been front runner in the field of 'sustainability' for nearly two decades. It all started in 1995 when in the space of a few months they first received a bloody nose from Greenpeace over their plans to dump the Brent Spar in the North Sea and then the scorn of the whole world when they were implicated in the execution of Ken Saro Wiwa and eight other Nigerian activists.

Shell spent $20 million on its counter strategy, which may be a lot in ordinary terms but was a fraction of what it would cost to clean up the Niger Delta. They adopted a strategy of 'openness and dialogue', published a set of business principles including 'honesty, integrity and respect for people'. They launched a global advertising campaign and produced a glossy report entitled "Profit and Principles; Does there have to be a choice?"

The big coup was that the NGO SustainAbility Ltd, previously critics of Shell, were now on board and wrote part of the report. Entitled 'a personal view' their contribution contains the line (on page 52) "a sustainable oil company is a contradiction in terms", a statement of the obvious that Shell made sure didn't appear in any future reports.

Christian Aid responded with a report entitle "Behind the Mask" in which it revealed that Shell's clean up efforts in Nigeria were failing and that many of their community projects were ineffective and divisive. Unfortunately they didn't have $20 million budget to promote it, so nobody took any notice. Shell's reputation amongst 'key opinion formers' recovered.

The company moved into Canadian tar sands, adding another dirty fuel to its portfolio, and then started to tentatively explore the Arctic. Meanwhile in the Niger Delta the gas flaring continues and the local people live their lives in extreme poverty amongst the mess. 

'Key opinion formers' may have forgiven Shell, but in September 2011, in a test of a proposed Law of Ecocide, the United Kingdom Supreme Courts of Justice heard a mock trial of a pair of oil executives of a company not unlike Shell, which had polluted a country not unlike Nigeria, and found them guilty.

Greenpeace meanwhile continued its campaigns. When Putin banged up the Arctic 30 the gloves came off. Activists targeted Shell wherever their logo appeared. Just before 2013 ended the pressure worked and the Arctic 30 were released and Phil was reunited with his MG TF.

In the New Year Greenpeace's changed to Lego, a company whose interpretation of Corporate Social Responsibility actually does seem to mean taking the word 'sustainability' literally. Rather reluctantly they were persuaded to drop a £65 million deal with Shell.

The question now is what can Shell do next? It's hard to think that business people, who may be blinded by greed but are not actually stupid, actually believed Shell had become 'sustainable', but they clearly believed Shell had a strategy to see off the hippies. Whether they still think that may now be open to question.

Money usually triumphs over principles, and spin over facts, but the truth has a habit of coming out eventually. Fellow 'sustainable' oil company BP now has a reputation that is slightly lower than Gazprom's. Are Shell about to follow them down?

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