Welcome to the beta version of newint.org — we have just redesigned it — more features coming soon!
We care about your opinion. Let us know what you think, or report any problems. Feedback »

You Can Be Sure Of Shell


new internationalist
issue 256 - June 1994

Sticky business in the Niger Delta: Ogoni activist examines the evidence of Shell's 'care' for the environment.
You can be sure
of Shell
The oil giant Shell likes to promote itself as ‘green’. But closer examination reveals another picture.
Andrea Goodall takes a look at one of the world’s biggest companies.

Green pastures and beautiful rolling hills scroll over the TV screen. A reassuring voice tells us that this beautiful countryside – filled with badgers and rabbits and foxes and buttercups – is a Welsh Valley after Shell has laid a pipeline through it.

The voice goes on to tell us how the company consulted with local people before laying the line. The commentary ends with the rhetorical question: ‘Can we develop the industry we need without destroying our countryside? You can be sure of Shell.’

Let’s slip down the globe a bit – 3,000 miles or so to the Niger Delta, where Shell has been operating since 1957. Over six million people live here: an average of 1,250 people per kilometre compared to the Nigerian average of 300.

This area is home to the Ogoni people. Shell maintains that ‘the company has never acquired land without paying due compensation or obtaining the approval of landlords’.1

But the Ogoni people see it differently. In 1990 80 villagers were killed by the Mobile Police Force during a protest against Shell. A judicial inquiry into the disaster concluded that, because oil companies were negotiating settlements with mostly illiterate villagers, the settlements were always unfair.

The judicial inquiry then presented a catalogue of reasons why the Ogoni had cause for complaint. ‘Their streams get polluted with waste products from oil operations rendering the river void of fishes... their farm crops planted on the remaining areas of farmland get damaged by oil pollution; their trees are hewed down...’

It went on: ‘The compensations paid for these deprivations are just a pittance, a meagre pittance...’ 2

The environmental degradation caused by Shell’s operations is widespread across Ogoni land. High-pressure pipelines pass above ground through villages and over agricultural land. Some pipelines are laid within metres of houses. Others criss-cross land that was once used for agricultural purposes, rendering it economically useless. The Ogoni claim that they have never seen, let alone been consulted over, an environmental impact assessment.

It’s a far cry from Shell’s vaunted gentle treatment of the British countryside. When constructing its pipeline from Stanlow in Cheshire to Mossmoran in Scotland, for example, the company commissioned 17 different environmental surveys before cutting a single turf.

But Shell has an answer to criticism over its operations in the Niger Delta region. It maintains that ‘60 per cent of oil spills... are caused by sabotage, and that therefore the company is not directly responsible’. 3

The Nigerian Ministry of Petroleum Resources does not agree. Of the 2,676 oil spills that took place between 1976 and 1990, sabotage was only responsible for 18 per cent, it states. The largest single cause – 38 per cent – was equipment malfunction.

Shell's 'care' for the environment.

Ogoni spokesperson Ken Saro-wiwa has accused Shell of waging an ecological war against the Ogoni. 4

He has also tried to highlight their plight through the international media. Shell is getting worried. Internal draft documents of a meeting on community relations and the environment held in the Hague and London in February 1993 revealed that the company was concerned that its Nigerian operation had the potential to turn into an international PR nightmare.

The document went on to propose that Shell Petroleum Development Corporation and Shell international public affairs departments should ‘keep each other more closely informed to ensure that movements of key players... are more effectively monitored to avoid unpleasant surprises and adversely affect the reputation of the Group as a whole’. 5

In Nigeria Shell’s threats to the environment – serious though they are – can in a certain sense be categorized as ‘regional’. But the threats Shell poses are global as well. Nowhere are the ultimate goals of the company more questionable than when it comes to greenhouse-gas emissions and climate change.

In 1990 a body of renowned scientists, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), declared themselves certain ‘that global warming would occur if society continued to emit greenhouse gases in anything like the volumes it does today’.

These scientists could not be certain how fast this would happen but considered it likely that the rate would seriously endanger the ecosystems on which humans ultimately depend. The possible consequences of global climate change include changes in rainfall patterns, rising sea levels, disruption of food supplies, mass extinction of species and flooding of coastal plains and islands which could force hundreds of millions of people from their homes.

Burning oil is the number-one source of the number-one greenhouse gas: carbon dioxide. Oil companies like Shell cannot claim that they have no knowledge of the damage their main product causes. In 1990, when the IPCC’s scientists reached their verdict, the age of innocence was over.

Shell is the world’s leading oil and gas producer with more reserves than any other company. 6

In 1992 its annual sales exceeded the GNP of all but 23 countries of the world.7 With 2,000 operating companies spanning the globe, it is one of the top three companies in almost every consuming region. It has more marketing operations in more countries than any other oil company and is responsible for five per cent of the world’s oil and gas production. Its liability for climate change is undeniable.

Shell has accepted the theory of global warming, in principle: ‘Shell companies,’ a company publication reads, ‘accept that there is enough indication of potential risk to the environment for governments to take prudent precautionary measures’. 8

But what is Shell doing about it? Is it vigorously developing solar and other renewable energy supplies? Is it advocating emergency international projects on energy efficiency? Championing high-mileage cars, even?

It is doing none of these things. What it is doing is supporting a number of lobby groups with useful-sounding names: the Global Climate Coalition and the Business Council for Sustainable Development (BCSD), for example.

The Global Climate Coalition is an organization funded by oil, coal and auto companies with the goal of derailing any negotiations which may limit the use of oil and other fossil fuels. BCSD was founded in 1991 by billionaire Swiss industrialist, Stephen Schmidheiny, and is an alliance of 43 of the world’s richest transnational corporations. Its oil industry representative argued on TV at the Earth Summit that all the oil on the planet could be burned with impunity. 9

In one regard at least, then, you can certainly be sure of Shell.

Andrea Goodall is an oil researcher with Greenpeace.

1 Shell International, Heat of the Moment, London 1992.
2 Hon Justice Inko-Tariah O, Chief Ahaiakow JA, Alamina BA, V Chief Godwin Amadi, Commission of Inquiry into Causes and Circumstances of Disturbances .. in Rivers State, Nigeria, 1990.
3 Tookey, RW, 9 Dec 1992, letter to Shelley Braithwaite, London Rainforest Group, SIPC.
4 UNPO, Development in Ogoni, 1993, Nigeria, Office of the General Secretary, The Hague.
5 SPDC, Draft minutes of Meeting at Central Offices on Community Relations and the Environment 15 and 16 Feb, London and 18 Feb, the Hague, 1993.
6 Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, Climate Change, Cambridge University Press, 1990.
7 World Bank Atlas; Fortune 1992, the Fortune Global 500.
8 SIPC, Shell and the Environment, 1992.
9 Gabrielle Cagliari, CEO of ENI, in Superchannel TV interview in Rio de Janeiro, June 1992.

previous page choose a different magazine go to the contents page go to the NI home page next page