Shell Game: It Will Take More Than Goodwill and Greenwash to Save The Biosphere

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 world, vanished. After being slated by
environmentalists for greenwash, after two adverse rulings by the
Advertising Standards Authority, 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.

interview I conducted with its chief executive, Jeroen van der Veer,
broadcast on the Guardian's website today, contains what appears to be
an interesting admission. I asked him whether Shell had stopped
producing ads extolling its investments in renewable energy. 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.

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 boasted. It
features a diagram of a human brain, divided into sections labelled
"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
extraction 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 are chaotic and
incompetent. Perhaps the clean-cut corporate clones featured in the ads
of 2006 put people off.

Jeroen 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.

Shell's reports and publicity material, I kept stumbling on an absence.
In 2000, the company boasted that it would be investing $1bn 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 it is "investing significantly in wind energy", but it
doesn't say what "significantly" means. Of the 10 windfarms 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

I asked Van der Veer a simple question - 15 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 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
production, Shell is still flaring gas in Nigeria, at great cost to
both local people and the global climate. It has been fiercely
criticised 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 reserves. 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 civilised, 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 extraction, 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 the
price has dropped again, it has cancelled further spending. 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

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 maximise 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?

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