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?
When the drill bored down toward the stony fissures
and plunged its implacable intestine
into the subterranean estates,
and dead years, eyes of the ages,
imprisoned plants’ roots
and scaly systems
became strata of water,
fire shot up through the tubes
transformed into cold liquid,
in the customs house of the heights,
issuing from its world of sinister depth,
it encountered a pale engineer
and a title deed.
However entangled the petroleum’s arteries may be,
however the layers may change their silent site
and move their sovereignty amid the earth’s bowels,
when the fountain gushes its paraffin foliage,
Standard Oil arrived beforehand
with its checks and it guns,
with its governments and its prisoners.
Their obese emperors from New York
are suave smiling assassins
who buy silk, nylon, cigars
petty tyrants and dictators.
They buy countries, people, seas, police, county councils,
distant regions where the poor hoard their corn
like misers their gold:
Standard Oil awakens them,
clothes them in uniforms, designates
which brother is the enemy.
the Paraguayan fights its war,
and the Bolivian wastes away
in the jungle with its machine gun.
A President assassinated for a drop of petroleum,
a million-acre mortgage,
a swift execution on a morning mortal with light, petrified,
a new prison camp for subversives,
in Patagonia, a betrayal, scattered shots
beneath a petroliferous moon,
a subtle change of ministers
in the capital, a whisper
like an oil tide,
and zap, you’ll see
how Standard Oil’s letters shine above the clouds,
above the seas, in your home,
illuminating their dominions.
Translated by Jack Schmitt