For a century, Shell has explored the Earth to make our lives more comfortable. But in its wake, says Andrew Rowell, lies corruption, despoliation and death
The Queen and the Duke of Edinburgh went to the Shell Centre on the Thames riverside near Waterloo last Tuesday, to crown the company’s centenary celebrations. Critics claim the timing of the Queen’s visit was slightly unfortunate: it came just one day after the second anniversary of Ken Saro-Wiwa’s death in Nigeria: he was campaigning against Shell’s oil exploitation in the region.
The Shell Transport and Trading Company (STTC) has risen from its humble roots in a cramped office in the East End to become one of the most successful corporations of the century. What we collectively know as “Shell” is in fact more than 2,000 companies. Last year, the Shell Group’s profit was a record pounds 5.7 billion, the proceeds from sales of pounds 110 billion. “Were our founder, Marcus Samuel, to reappear today, I do not think he would be displeased with what has grown from his efforts,” says Mark Moody-Stuart, STTC’s chairman.
As part of the centenary celebrations, the cream of the City were invited to a reception at the Guildhall. There is also to be a commemorative book. Whilst it may mention the Shell Better Britain Campaign, and even the controversy over Brent Spar, not everyone will agree with the authorised biography’s version of Shell’s history. Here is a less authorised approach.
After it merged in 1907 with its rival Royal Dutch, the Royal Dutch Shell company was formed; its first chairman was the Dutchman Henri Deterding. By the 1930s, Deterding had become infatuated with Adolf Hitler, and began secret negotiations with the German military to provide a year’s supply of oil on credit. In 1936, he was forced to resign over his Nazi sympathies.
During the early 1940s, as the world waged war, Peru and Ecuador had their own armed border-dispute – over oil. Legend in Latin America says that it was really a power struggle between Shell, based in Ecuador, and Standard Oil in Peru. The company left a lasting reminder of its presence in the country: a town called Shell. Activists in Ecuador are seeking to get the town renamed Saro-Wiwa.
In the post-war years, Shell manufactured pesticides and herbicides on a site previously used by the US military to make nerve gas at Rocky Mountain near Denver. By 1960 a game warden from the Colorado Department of Fish and Game had documented abnormal behaviour in the local wildlife, and took his concerns to Shell, who replied: “That’s just the cost of doing business if we are killing a few birds out there. As far as we are concerned, this situation is all right.”
But the truth was different. “By 1956 Shell knew it had a major problem on its hands,” recalled Adam Raphael in the Observer in 1993. “It was the company’s policy to collect all duck and animal carcasses in order to hide them before scheduled visits by inspectors from the Colorado Department of Fish and Game.” After operations ceased in 1982, the site was among the most contaminated places on the planet, although Shell is now trying to make it into a nature reserve.
At Rocky Mountain, Shell produced three highly toxic and persistent pesticides called the “drins”: aldrin, dieldrin and endrin. Despite four decades of warning over their use, starting in the 1950s, Shell only stopped production of endrin in 1982, of dieldrin in 1987 and aldrin in 1990, and only ceased sales of the three in 1991. Even after production was stopped, stocks of drins were shipped to the Third World.
Another chemical Shell began manufacturing in the 1950s was DBCP, or 1,2 -Dibromo-3-Chloropropane, which was used to spray bananas. This was banned by the US Environmental Protection Agency in 1977 for causing sterility in workers. In 1990, Costa Rican workers who had become sterile from working with the chemical sued Shell and two other companies in the Texan Courts. Shell denied that it ever exported the chemical to Costa Rica and denied that it exported it to any other country after the ban in 1977. The case was settled out of court.
Just as people had begun to question Shell’s products, so they began to challenge its practices. In the 1970s and 1980s, Shell was accused of breaking the UN oil boycott of Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe) by using its South African subsidiary and other companies in which it had interests. Shell, singled out by anti-apartheid campaigners for providing fuel to the notoriously brutal South African army and police, responded by hiring a PR firm to run an anti-boycott campaign.
By the 1980s criticism of Shell’s operations was spreading. From Inuit in Canada and Alaska, to Aborigines in Australia and Indians in Brazil, indigenous communities were affected by Shell’s operations.
In the Peruvian rainforest, where Shell conducted exploration activities, an estimated 100 hitherto uncontacted Nahua Indians died after catching diseases to which they had no immunity. Shell denies responsibility, and says that it was loggers who contacted the Nahua. By the end of the decade, the company’s image was suffering in the US and UK, too.
In April 1988, 440,000 gallons of oil was discharged into San Francisco Bay from the company’s Martinez refinery, killing hundreds of birds. The following year, Shell spilt 150 tons of thick crude into the River Mersey, and was fined a record pounds 1 million.
But by now, the company was responding to growing international environmental awareness. “The biggest challenge facing the energy industry is the global environment and global warming,” said Sir John Collins, head of Shell UK, in 1990. “The possible consequences of man-made global warming are so worrying that concerted international action is clearly called for.”
Shell joined the Global Climate Coalition, which has spent tens of millions of dollars trying to influence the UN climate negotiations that culminate in Kyoto next month. “There is no clear scientific consensus that man-induced climate change is happening now,” the lobbyists maintain, two years after the world’s leading scientists agreed that there was.
At the same time, the company has taken its own preventive action on climate change and possible sea-level rise by increasing the height of its Troll platform in the North Sea by one metre. By 1993, as Shell’s spin-doctors were teaching budding executives that “ignorance gets corporations into trouble, arrogance keeps them there”, 300,000 Ogoni peacefully protested against Shell’s operations in Nigeria. Since then 2,000 have been butchered, and countless others raped and tortured by the Nigerian military.
In the summer of 1995 there was the outcry over the planned deep-sea sinking of the redundant oil platform Brent Spar, and in November Ogoni leader Ken Saro-Wiwa was executed, having been framed by the Nigerian authorities. At the time Shell denied any financial relationship with the Nigerian military, but has since admitted paying them “field allowances” on occasion. This year in Nigeria, the three-million-strong Ijaw community started campaigning against Shell, leading to another military crackdown.
“The military governor says it is for the purpose of protecting the oil companies. The authorities can no longer afford to sit by and have the communities mobilise against the companies. It is Ogoni revisited,” says Uche Onyeagucha, representing the opposition Democratic Alternative. In Peru, Shell has returned to the rainforest. It acknowledges “the need to consider environmental sustainability and responsibility to the people involved”, but the move is still criticised by more than 60 international and local environmental, human-rights and indigenous groups.
“Shell has not learnt from its tragic mistakes,” says Shannon Wright from the Rainforest Action Network, which believes there should be no new fossil-fuel exploration in the rainforest: “They continue to go into areas where there are indigenous people who are susceptible to outside diseases.” Meanwhile, Shell publicly talks of engaging “stakeholders”.
It hopes that we, as consumers, will continue to give it a licence to operate. However, for each barrel produced, the ecological and cultural price increases exponentially. Everyone knows we need to reduce our consumption of oil: but Shell’s very existence depends on selling more of it. Senior executives are said to be “girding our loins for our second century” because “the importance of oil and gas is likely to increase rather than diminish as we enter the 21st century”. Can we let that happen?
How climate change looks — and feels — in the Democratic Republic of Congo.
KISANGANI – The searing heat of the last few months in this northern city of the Democratic Republic of Congo is taking its toll. Newborns, the elderly and albinos are the first victims, while others will feel the effects of the crop damage expected from one of the worst heat waves in memory.
Over the past three months, average temperatures in Kisangani have risen from 25°C to 38°C. “This is a first. The city has never known a level over 32°C,” says one veteran meteorologist.
Still, last year there was also a rise in temperatures, and some experts are blaming global warming. Climate expert Emmanuel Kasongo from Kisangani University points the finger at deforestation, which he says “diminishes the frequency of rainfall, modifies the agricultural calendar and produces greater heat.” He exhorts the woodland farmers as well as the population to plant trees.
Beyond the longterm impact, locals are feeling the heat right now. Babies are the first victims. One naked infant of three months is lying face down on a sofa, crying. Her mother tries to take her in her arms to calm her down but it’s useless. “She’s having trouble sleeping because of this red patch,” says the woman. “I’ve been using this ointment the doctor prescribed but it doesn’t work.”
These last three months, the local pediatric center of Alabul has taken in three times as many dehydrated babies as it did during the same period in 2012. Head nurse Alphie Kahambu blames it on the rising temperatures: “Obviously, when it’s 32°C the babies feel 38°C. It results in spots and severe itching sensations. As the infants don’t know how to scratch, they cry a lot, which leads to dehydration.”
Albinos without sunblock
The significant populaiton of albinos are the most affected, since the sun rays cause lesions on their skin. According to the figures provided by the Association for the Protection of Albinos (APRODEPA), “80% of the albino population suffers from minor wounds on their skin and mouth because of the high temperatures,” explains association president Severin Ndumba. “The situation is getting worse since we have no sunscreen to protect us at this time of year.”
The pharmacists refuse to order those products since they don’t sell well on the local market. “No one buys sunscreen. I threw away a whole case of a hundred last year,” says one pharmacist. Another complains that the products are expensive “and most albinos, or their parents, are poor.”
The sheet metal roofs used in local building turn the houses into virtual ovens and many families choose to sleep outside with the doors and windows wide open. One family was robbed recently, but the mother says they have no choice. “It’s too hot inside. My kids caught a heat rash on their backs because of it.”
The plants are also taking a hit. “Every crop is affected by the excessive heat and the harvests have been dropping the last two years,” explains Quadratus Muganza, president of the peasant union for development (UPDKIS). “We used to harvest between 800 and 1000 kilograms of white rice per hectare in 2010, but it plummeted to 400 or 600 in 2011 and 2012.”
Tomatoes are withering under the sun. “We are losing serious money!” says a tomato farmer in front of his field by the river Tshopo. She’s already lost ten patches of large tomatoes since March.
Shell is a name already infamous with many campaigners. Be they concerned with climate change, human rights abuses or health and safety, the Royal Dutch Shell group has a sullied reputation and not only among environmentalists: In September 1993 the TGWU (transport and general workers union) launched a nationwide boycott of Shell petrol stations due to union derecognition at their Shell haven refinery in Essex.
Shell now paints itself as a caring company wishing to dissociate itself from past ‘mistakes’ in Nigeria and ‘accidents’ in the North Sea.
Some of the examples here are historical, but they give an insight into Shell’s culture and despite liberal greenwash, things haven’t really changed so there are more recent examples as well.
When it withdrew from the Global Climate Coalition in 1998 (see Influence/Lobbying section) Shell wished to be seen as one of the pioneer corporations, taking climate change seriously. Even before it withdrew from the GCC, Shell had been attempting to cultivate this image. In May 1997, the day after John Browne gave his speech at Stanford university stating that BP had reached a point where it must consider “the policy dimensions of climate change” (see BP profile), Heinz Rothermund, Managing director of Shell UK Exploration and Production, asked in a lecture he gave at Strathclyde University, “How far is it sensible to explore for and develop new hydrocarbon reserves, given that the atmosphere may not be able to cope with the greenhouse gases that will emanate from the utilisation of the hydrocarbon reserves discovered already? Undoubtedly it is a dilemma”.
Shell, however has not translated this concern into action, it has not ceased or scaled back its exploration and production activities. Quite the opposite, Shell has ambitious plans to increase extraction by 5 per-cent year on year. So far the company is on target: “Compared to the third quarter last year, total hydrocarbon production increased by 5 per-cent”. However, a question mark hangs over the potential for sustained growth at this rate: Phil Watts, delivering the group’s 2nd quarter results for 2001 said that plans to grow output by 5 per-cent between 2000 and 2005 now looked “Very challenging” amid the slowing world economy. Analysts predicted that Shell could scale back its growth target to 3 per-cent, but Mr. Watts refused to be drawn on a figure for longer- term production growth.
Scaling back production does not suit a company like Shell whose worth, despite some investments in renewables, is measured in production volumes and proven reserves. In June 1990, the then chairman and Chief Executive Designate of Shell UK, Sir John Collins, suggested that we “see this great challenge [climate change] as a spur to ingenuity, the free market and sustainable economic development.” So Shell has opted for a techno-fix: In 2000, Shell, together with Siemens began developing a pilot gas-fired power station in Norway, which will capture its Carbon Dioxide (CO2) emissions and pump the gas underground. There are both technical and ethical questions over the use of this unproven technology in combating climate change. Most bizarrely of all, CO2 injection will be used for what is known as ‘enhanced oil recovery’ gas will be injected to increase the pressure of declining fields. What is sold to the public as a solution to climate change will actually be used to extract more oil.
In accepting the reality of climate change, Shell announced in 1989 that the company was going to increase the height of its giant ‘Troll’ platform by 1 meter, to counter predicted rise in sea-level. The platform can be raised further if it becomes necessary over the proposed 70 year lifespan of the rig