Behind the lies: Shell

The adverts tell you the company’s green. The Ecologist tells you the truth.


In 1916 the New Orleans Refinery Company (Norco) bought a plant in a town called Sellers in Louisiana. The plant, located in the town’s predominantly black Diamond community, grew so large that Sellers adopted Norco as its name. Shell bought the plant in the 1920s, and expanded it to within 20 feet of people's homes and the playground it had previously built for the community. Today over 5,000 Norco residents breathe chemical-laden air carrying intense smells and are plagued by 24-hour lights and noise from Shell. Explosions at the plant have resulted in property damage and death.

Last September (after four decades of struggle) more than 100 property owners in Norco succeeded in compelling Shell to buy their homes – some of which are as close as 15 feet to the refinery. Led by Concerned Citizens of Norco, a grassroots group representing the neighbourhood of Old Diamond, the residents won a concession from Shell of $120,000 for each home ($50,000 for trailer homes), plus moving and legal expenses.2 (Coincidentally (or not), earlier in 2002, the Shell Foundation had announced a $3m campaign to raise awareness about the loss of Louisiana’s wetlands and to gain support for efforts to save coastal Louisiana.3)

Also in Louisiana last year, Shell was ordered to pay $135,000 to settle allegations by the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) that the firm had failed to implement standards to protect workers against hazardous chemicals in one of its processors in the town of Geismar. OSHA opened its investigation after a catalyst technician died in a February 12 accident at the facility.4 Finally, in October the Norco refinery again spewed an oily substance over the neighbouring residential area.5

Interestingly enough, Shell won an award in the US last year – top honours in the 2002 Keep America Beautiful competition for its ‘nationwide beautification and community improvement efforts’. Accepting the award, Roxanne Decyk, Shell's senior vice-president for corporate affairs and human resources, said: ‘Each of us has a role to play in improving the neighbourhoods in which we live and work.’6)

‘The issue of global warming has given rise to heated debate…’

Shell acknowledged several years ago that global warming was a reality when in 1998 it pulled out of the Global Climate Coalition – an industry pressure group that spent over $60m in the mid-1990s denying the science of climate change.11 Since then, Shell has held itself up as a responsible oil company. By suggesting that there is still any genuine debate about the existence of human-induced climate change, Shell implies it is one of the good guys for siding with those who believe in its dangers. Having done that, however, it proceeds to belittle the ‘debate’ by adding the words ‘or just a lot of hot air’.

‘Shell believes that action needs to be taken now…’

Only one action matters – stopping the extraction of oil. At no point does Shell suggest it is going to do that. Shell has committed to spending up to $1 billion on renewables over the next five years. But at $200 million a year, that is roughly equal to 1.7 per cent of Shell’s annual capital expenditure of $12bn. At the same time, Shell is still spending around $8 billion a year on fossil-fuel exploration and production.12

‘…We are delivering on our commitment to reduce greenhouse gas emissions from our operations…’

Like the other fossil fuel giants, Shell’s impact on climate stems not primarily from its use of oil and gas, but from its production. Oil produced by Shell alone accounts for more CO2 than most countries in the world.

In 2001 Shell’s greenhouse gas emissions actually rose by 2 per cent – up to the equivalent of 103 million tonnes of CO2.13 Likewise, a 21 per cent fall in methane emissions (which occurred mainly because Shell sold its coal business and implemented some reductions in gas venting) was offset by increased oil-refining activity and an 11 per cent increase in flaring.14

‘…We're working to increase the provision of cleaner burning natural gas…’

On a molecule-per-molecule basis, methane is a more potent warming agent (about 25 times more effective in trapping heat) than CO2. This is particularly important for Shell, which has made a major shift towards extracting more natural gas, liquid natural gas and gas-derived liquids. Natural gas drilling, flaring, venting and transmission losses, for example, are among the major sources of methane emissions globally.15


Since 1958 Shell has extracted $30 billion worth of oil and natural gas in Nigeria.7 At the Earth Summit in 1992, Shell contributed to a World Business Council book on sustainable development called Changing Course: a global business perspective on development and the environment. Though 2,976 Shell oil spills blackened the Niger delta between 1976 and 1991 – an average of four a week –, Shell gave guarantees in Changing Course that ‘quality and safety standards would not be compromised, and good environmental management would be enhanced’ during its Nigerian activities.

In 1995 the Nigerian government executed Ken Saro-Wiwa and eight other members of the Ogoni people. Evidence later emerged that Shell, the target of Saro-Wiwa's criticism, was complicit in his death. As Naemeka Achebe, general manager for Shell Nigeria, revealingly commented: ‘For a commercial company trying to make investments, you need a stable environment. Dictatorships can give you that.’8

Corporate Watch later wrote: ‘In response to the massive public criticism around its role in Nigeria, Shell moved beyond greenwash in an attempt to whitewash its human rights image. Conveniently forgetting the years of complicity with apartheid in South Africa, Shell began pointing to its support for political prisoners. Seeking to recast itself as a protector of civil liberties, it posted the Universal Declaration of Human Rights on its website, and had the gall to point to Nigeria as a positive example of its human rights advocacy. Using the technique of blatantly co-opting the message of one’s critics, Shell featured a photo of a pro-Ogoni rally on its website.’9

Little changes. Reporting on an incident on October 20, 2002, Environmental Rights Action said: ‘Diebiri-Batan, an Ijaw community located along the Batan river in Delta State, Nigeria, suffered from a “massive” oil spill by Shell resulting from slack in two bolts used on a tie-in manifold located under the water at a deliver line. The river is the only source of drinking water for the local people. The adjoining creeks, in which the local people carry out their fishing activities, were also severely polluted.’

Though the report blamed Shell’s equipment failure, Shell is now claiming no responsibility. Chief JG Orubu, the ebenanawei (paramount ruler) of the Diebiri-Batan community said: ‘Since this spill occurred, neither Shell nor the Delta State government has deemed it necessary to send us relief materials. Instead, Shell came to our community with armed troops to harass us and repair its equipment.’10

‘…and encouraging the use of lower-carbon fuels for homes and transport…’

Like methyl tertiary-butyl ether (MTBE)? In 1990 Shell began promoting SU 2000e – an unleaded petrol that (by adding the oxygenate MTBE) was claimed to be better for both the air and the car. It was later discovered that underground storage tanks at petrol stations were leaking petrol, and that the MTBE contained in the mixture was spreading into nearby wells.16 In 1998, the water authority for Lake Tahoe, Nevada, sued 31 oil firms, including Shell, on the grounds that MTBE was a defective product. By 2001, 26 of the companies (but not Shell) had agreed a $33m settlement. An internal Shell memo revealed that the firm had known of the dangers of MTBE since 1992, yet continued to market it for eight more years. The jury found that Shell ‘acted with malice, since the company withheld information about the dangers of MTBE’. In August 2001 Shell agreed to pay the South Tahoe Public Utility District $28m.17

‘…It's all part of our commitment to sustainable development…‘

Shell’s commitment goes further than most. Former CEO Mark Moody-Stuart (who still sits on Shell’s board) is the chair of the Business Association for Sustainable  Development (BASD). Shell’s chairman, Phillip Watts, is also chairman of the World Business Council for Sustainable Development (WBCSD). Moody-Stuart said: ‘Our message going into the Earth Summit in 2002 is that business is part of the solution.’18 However, an open letter sent to Kofi Annan at the most recent Earth Summit from environmental groups including Friends of the Earth, Christian Aid and the Sierra Club, stated: ‘We believe that such support is a litmus test for corporate lobby groups like the International Chamber of Commerce, the WBCSD and their new offspring the BASD. As long as these groups continue to campaign against effective international mechanisms to ensure corporate accountability, they cannot be said to have embraced sustainable development in anything but words.’19

‘…Solutions to the future won't come easily, particularly in today's business climate, but you can't find them if you don't keep looking…’

At last we agree. Today’s ‘business climate’ is one where, rather than allowing weapons inspectors to ‘keep looking’ in Iraq, we are about to go to war to protect the oil interests of the few.


1 Jack Doyle, Riding the Dragon, p 197, Environmental Health Fund, Boston, 2002

2 Op cit, Doyle, p 205

5 Report of local citizens and Louisiana Bucket Brigade, New Orleans, Louisiana, October 2002


11 Sharon Beder, Global Spin, p235, Green Books, 2002

12 Ibid, Doyle, p303

13 Ibid, Doyle, p303

14 Ibid, Doyle, p303

15 Ibid, Doyle, p264

16 Jim Doyle and Susan Sward, ‘MTBE leaks a ticking time bomb; gas additive taints water nationwide’, San Francisco Chronicle, December 14, 1998

17 Chris Bowman, ‘S Tahoe utility settles lawsuit,’ Sacramento Bee, August 6, 2002


19 Kenny Bruno and Joshua Karliner,, Food First Books, 2002

In Shell’s own words:                          

‘We welcome your input. Contact us on the internet at:  Or email us at: ‘’  Or write to us at: ‘The profit and principles debate’, Shell International Ltd, Shell Centre, London SE1 7NA, UK.’

Don’t keep them waiting!

This article first appeared in the Ecologist March 2003

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