Shell’s Game

Why Good People Do Bad Things

For a while it seemed that Shell had stopped pretending. The advertisements that filled the newspapers in 2006, featuring technicians with perfect teeth and open-necked shirts explaining how they were saving the world1, vanished. After being slated by environmentalists for greenwash, after two adverse rulings by the Advertising Standards Authority2, Shell appeared to have accepted the inescapable truth that it was an oil company with a minor sideline in alternative energy, and that there was no point in trying to persuade people otherwise.

The interview I conducted with its chief executive, Jeroen van der Veer, broadcast on The Guardian’s website yesterday, contains what appears to be an interesting admission. I asked him whether Shell had now stopped producing ads extolling its investments in renewable energy. Mr van der Veer does not express himself clearly at this point, but he seems to admit that his company’s previous advertising was not honest. “If we are very big in oil and gas and we are so far relatively small in alternative energies, if you then every day only make adverts about your alternative energies and not about 90% of your other activities I don’t think that — then I say transparency, honesty to the market, that’s nonsense.” So, I asked, Shell did not intend to return to that kind of advertising? “Probably not,” he told me. “I’m very much keep your feet on the ground, tell them who you are and explain why you are who you are.”

But since the interview was filmed, Shell’s messianic tendencies appear to have resurfaced. In December the company ran a series of ads in The Guardian suggesting again that it had come to save the world. “Tackling climate change and providing fuel for a growing population seems like an impossible problem, but at Shell we try to think creatively,” one of these advertisements boasts3. It features a diagram of a human brain, divided into sections labeled “fuel from algae,” “fuel from straw,” “fuel from woodchips,” “hydrogen fuels,” “windfarm,” “gas to liquids” and “coal gasification.” This suggests progress of a kind, in that the company is acknowledging that it sometimes dabbles in fossil fuels, but its core business — oil — and its massive investments in tar sands are missing from the corporate mind. Could Shell be having a senior moment?

The confusion deepens when you watch its latest publicity film. It’s called “Clearing the Air,” and it does just the opposite. It is supposed to tell an inspirational tale of discovery, but the script and the acting are so gobsmackingly bad that it inspires you only to rip your clothes off and run screaming down the street. The lasting impression it leaves is that Shell’s staff is chaotic and incompetent. Perhaps the clean-cut corporate clones featured in the ads of 2006 put people off.

Mr. van der Veer is neither an incompetent nor an automaton. He is charming, friendly and smart. But he refused to answer some of the questions I had prepared.

Reading Shell’s reports and publicity material, I kept stumbling on an absence. In 2000, the company boasted that it would be investing $1 billion dollars in renewable energy between 2001 and 2005. But since then it appears to have produced no figures for its renewables budget. The company now claims that “we’re investing significantly in wind energy”, but it doesn’t say what significantly means. Of the ten wind farms listed on its website, only one appears to be in the planning or development stage: the others are already in operation. Where is the evidence of new money? When Shell pulled out of Britain’s biggest windfarm, the London Array, last year, did this represent the end of its major investments?

I asked Mr. van der Veer a simple question — fifteen times. (Only a few of these attempts feature in the edited film). “What is the value of your annual investments in renewable energy?” He waffled, changed the subject, admitted that he knew the figure, then flatly refused to reveal it. Nor could he give me a convincing explanation of why he wouldn’t tell me, claiming only that, “those figures are misused and people say it is too small” and it “is not the right message to give to the people.” It strikes me that there is only one likely reason for these evasions: that Shell’s spending on renewables has fallen sharply from the figure it announced in 2000. It’s a fair guess that the current investment would look microscopic by comparison to its spending on the Canadian tar sands, and would make a mockery of its new round of advertising. I challenge Shell — for the 16th time — to prove me wrong.

Nor would Mr. van der Veer give me a straight answer to another straight question: “is there any investment you would not make on ethical grounds?” I asked this six times. He was unable to furnish me with an example. It’s not hard to see why. As well as exploiting the tar sands, which means destroying forest and wetlands, polluting great quantities of water and producing more CO2 than conventional petroleum, Shell is still flaring gas in Nigeria, at great cost to both local people and the global climate. It has been fiercely criticized for its secret negotiations with the Iraqi government, which led last year to the first major access for a western company to Iraq’s gas reserves4. It is prospecting for oil in some of the Arctic’s most sensitive habitats. All this makes my question difficult to answer. Aside from the greenwash, it is not easy to spot the practical difference between this civilized, progressive company and the Neanderthals at Exxon.

Like all oil companies, Shell simply follows the opportunities. Shut out of the richest fields by state companies, struggling to extract the dregs from its declining reserves, it has been turning to ever more difficult oil, some of which lies beneath rare and fragile ecosystems. When the price of oil was high, it announced massive investments in the tar sands. Now that the price has dropped again, it has canceled further spending5. It has even less of an incentive to invest in renewables. Shell does what the market demands.

I don’t blame Shell or van der Veer for this: they are discharging their duty to their shareholders. I do blame them for creating the impression that the company has a different agenda, and I blame governments for allowing them to drift into whatever fields they find profitable, regardless of the consequences for people or the environment.

On this issue Jeroen van der Veer and I agree. Oil companies, he says, should not seek to determine a country’s energy mix: that is for the government to decide. Saving the biosphere, in other words, cannot be left to goodwill and greenwash: the humanity of pleasant men like van der Veer will always be swept aside by the imperative to maximize returns. Good people in these circumstances do terrible things. Companies like Shell will pour big money into alternative energy only when more lucrative or immediate opportunities are blocked. Where is the government that is brave enough to block them?

  1. The three examples I have in my files are: Shell, 30th May 2006. “The world wants more energy, the planet wants less pollution.” Page 10, Financial Times; Shell, 29th April 2006. “One energy company is going further to make hydrogen a reality.” New Scientist; Shell, 22nd May 2006. “How can we produce more energy but lower carbon emissions?” Page 23, New Statesman. []
  2. ASA, 7th November 2007. Adjudication: Shell Europe Oil Products Ltd; ASA, 13th August 2008. Adjudication: Shell International Ltd. []
  3. Shell, 20th December 2008. “In the New Energy Future, if it doesn’t exist we’ll need to invent it.” Page 21, The Guardian. []
  4. eg Terry Macalister, 24th September 2008. “Shell’s $4bn Iraq breakthrough could boost Britain’s natural gas supplies.” The Guardian. []
  5. Kristen Hays, 13th December 2008. “Petroleum companies delay expansion, new projects.” Houston Chronicle. []
George Monbiot is the author of the best selling books, The Age of Consent: A Manifesto for a New World Order and Captive State: the Corporate Takeover of Britain; as well as the investigative travel books Poisoned Arrows, Amazon Watershed and No Man’s Land. He writes a weekly column for the Guardian newspaper (UK). Read other articles by George, or visit George's website.

4 comments on this article so far ...

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  1. Don Hawkins said on January 6th, 2009 at 8:25pm #

    Where is the government that is brave enough to block them? There on Mars and some on Venus George. Probably a good idea to return to Earth while there is still time. Can that be done? I don’t know.

  2. The Angry Peasant said on January 6th, 2009 at 8:31pm #

    Some good people do bad things because they know no better. Many do, in fact. A bamboozled, uninformed segment of the population that wanted “change” voted for a war-mongering elitist, after all. Then there are those who aren’t really good people; they just play the part well. Such as…Obama! Boy, this guys gonna fill in for Bush just splendidly. He’s already the prime example that springs to mind when talking about bad peopl.

  3. Don Hawkins said on January 7th, 2009 at 7:30am #

    Do you read your comments George? I sent this to one of the financial channels this morning where you can see some of those them people. I think they read my e-mails hell I don;t know. I wonder if Obama or any of his people read DV as just on the off chance they do Obama are you going to try and block them whoever them are you know fight them? Many of us will be watching and if you don’t there is not much we can do as working together is key if we wish to survive. Heck give it a fight what have we got to lose. Human civilization and I am sure you already know this. Thank you thank you very much.

    “Nobody realistically expects that the large readily available pools of oil and gas will be left in the ground. Caps will not cause that to happen – caps only slow the rate at which the oil and gas are used. The only solution is to cut off the coal source,” Hansen

    So far it looks like what Hansen wrote not to do will be the plan. Say this is how it plays out then what, not much. It’s called down the drain in slow motion. Now many will think we are doing what is needed and of course in just a few years anyway even if we did do what is needed large changes to weather Worldwide. In the Southeast we can already see the changes warmer winters and the crops some so far not good. That weather in the Northwest the next few day’s is what is the word records. California the next few summers should give us a sign that’s Indian talk. George Monbiot just wrote a new article and put it on DV here is the last paragraph.

    On this issue Jeroen van der Veer and I agree. Oil companies, he says, should not seek to determine a country’s energy mix: that is for the government to decide. Saving the biosphere, in other words, cannot be left to goodwill and greenwash: the humanity of pleasant men like van der Veer will always be swept aside by the imperative to maximize returns. Good people in these circumstances do terrible things. Companies like Shell will pour big money into alternative energy only when more lucrative or immediate opportunities are blocked. Where is the government that is brave enough to block them?

    And I put a comment on where is the government that is brave enough to block them?

    There on Mars and some on Venus George. Probably a good idea to return to Earth while there is still time. Can that be done? I don’t know.

    This new administration is it brave enough to block them with the help of congress? Probably in a few months we get to see greenwash in it’s glory. One question who is them?

  4. kalidas said on January 7th, 2009 at 8:26am #

    “A society of cheaters and the cheated.”