By Andy Rowell and James Marriott
The oil giant Shell spends millions of dollars each year to anticipate the future to try and predict the unpredictable.
In a corporate game of crystal-ball gazing, Shell likes to play the long game, looking decades into the future to predict upcoming geopolitical or technological trends.
Shell has led the way in corporate long-term thinking. It has been doing so for over fifty years, led by its “Shell scenarios” team. Jeremy Bentham led this team at Shell for nearly two decades until his retirement last year. “If things go wrong, you can lose a sack load of money or miss a lucrative emerging opportunity,” says Bentham. “Worse still, you can lose your reputation and your license to operate.”
On the walls of Bentham’s old office hung a picture of a dodo. The job of the Shell Scenario team, which numbers nearly thirty people, is to stop Shell from becoming extinct.
Despite the best efforts of the company to keep itself out of trouble and to constantly re-iterate its license to operate, it repeatedly screws up, often shredding its reputation in the process.
Shell of course, is not alone. Many oil companies have defining moments in their corporate history when things go badly wrong. For Exxon, think Exxon Valdez in 1989. For BP, think the Deepwater Horizon disaster in 2010. For Shell, though, the scandals keep coming, and each new one erodes the company’s license to operate.
Earlier this month, November 10th, was the twenty-eighth anniversary of the murder of the Nigerian writer, Ken Saro-Wiwa and eight of his colleagues. Called the Ogoni 9, the men were murdered by the brutal Nigerian military for campaigning against the oil giant.
We have both written extensively about how Shell colluded with the Nigerian military to silence Saro-Wiwa and the others, including in the book The Next Gulf. There is overwhelming evidence that Shell has blood on its hands, despite its initial pitiful denials.
The Ogoni 9 were murdered in 1995, the same year another scandal engulfed the company: the Brent Spar fiasco. Shell had been planning to sink its redundant oil platform in the Atlantic, until Greenpeace forced the company into a humiliating U-turn. The oil giant faced a huge media outcry over its plans to make the ocean into an industrial dump site. Greenpeace occupied the rig for three weeks.
As James and Terry Macalister noted in their book, Crude Britannia – How oil Shaped A Nation, the events in Nigeria and Brent Spar “demonstrated how public opinion could turn against the corporation and how this could impact on the functioning of the company.”
Other companies were taking notice too of Shell’s troubles. Writing in the Guardian, then economics editor, Larry Elliot, said “Brent Spar was a turning point for the whole corporate responsibility debate. Lessons, hard lessons, were learned by corporations, who decided that they had to shed the tough skin of the free-wheeling, greed is good 1980s in favour of a more caring, compassionate business philosophy.”
For a while, Shell tried to spin this corporate compassion with publications such as People, Planet and Profits, with a public relations strategy dreamt up by the spin doctors from Fishburn Hedges.
“We must deliver – and be seen to deliver – in two ways”, said Sir Mark Moody-Stuart, Chairman of Shell from 1998-2001. As well as profitability, Shell companies also accepted “that their responsibility to help deliver the economic, social and environmental requirements of sustainable development. Being trusted to meet societal expectations is essential for long-term profitability.”
Some will rightly argue that Shell never embraced sustainable development, it only ever pursued long-term profitability at the expense of people and planet. The days of Mark Moody Stuart at Shell are long gone. The new boss at the helm is Wael Sawan, who joined Shell two years after the murder of the Ogoni 9 and Brent Spar, just at the time that Shell began to spin its image towards being a caring company.
Under Sawan’s leadership, Shell keeps courting controversy. Month by month, the company doubles down on fossil fuels, and sheds its last remaining veneers of being a company that cares about people and planet.
He has reversed what pitiful progress that Shell had made to address the scale of its CO2 emissions, angering climate campaigners and scientists. In June, the Guardian reported that Sawan “has rowed back on the oil giant’s climate commitments.” The paper added that since taking over, Sawan has emphasised financial returns for investors. He told financiers at the New York stock exchange that he wanted to “reward our shareholders today and far into the future.”
In September, Reuters reported that Sawan “has come under pressure over his strategy from within the energy company after two employees issued a rare open letter urging him not to scale back investments in renewable energy.” The following month, in October, Sawan responded by cutting 200 jobs from the company’s low-carbon division to focus on high-earning oil profits.
And now, last week, the day before the Ogoni 9 anniversary, it was announced that Shell was suing Greenpeace for over $2.1million in damages. But that is just the start. The legal action also calls for an indefinite blocking against Greenpeace protests at all Shell infrastructure worldwide, otherwise, the claims could be as high as $8.6 million.
Big Oil company @Shell is suing @Greenpeace and @GreenpeaceUK, threatening to claim up to $8.6million in damages for peaceful protest. That’s the average amount @Shell made every 2 hours in 2022. https://t.co/6AMexf4eEB
— Oil Change International (@PriceofOil) November 9, 2023
The lawsuit, which the Guardian notes is one of the “biggest ever legal threats against the group”, was served by Shell after Greenpeace campaigners occupied one of Shell’s moving oil platforms earlier this year.
Earlier in the year, four Greenpeace protesters boarded the White Marlin Floating Production, Storage and Offloading Platform (FPSO) just north of the Canary Islands. The platform was on its way to the Penguins oil and gas field northeast of the Shetland Islands, off the coast of Scotland. They remained on board for 13 days until the ship reached Norway.
So in 1995, Greenpeace occupied a Shell rig for three weeks and there was global condemnation of the oil company and Shell U-turns. In 2023, Greenpeace occupies a Shell oil platform for under two weeks and now Shell is trying to intimidate it into silence.
Shell is trying “to crush Greenpeace’s ability to campaign, and in doing so, seeking to silence legitimate demands for climate justice,” said Areeba Hamid, co-executive director of Greenpeace UK.
It is worth remembering that Shell made a record $40bn in profits last year, equivalent to about $110mn a day. So, the company made nearly $1.5 billion during the period that Greenpeace occupied the rig.
In our view, the lawsuit is not about money. It is designed to chill and prevent protest. One environmental lawyer described such lawsuits as a part of “the overall counter-attack by the polluter industry against the environmental community.”
Some have argued that Shell’s legal action against Greenpeace is in itself a response to legal action against the company by lawyers and activists. But by trying to sue Greenpeace, Shell will be remembered as a brutal corporate bully. It is a company that cannot change.
The company’s lawyers and senior executives do not understand that they are not the only ones who now play the long game. Civil society groups and frontline communities know that the fight for environmental justice is not a fight of years, but decades. It is multi-generational. A new breed of activists who never knew Ken Saro-Wiwa or the Ogoni 9, remember their struggle. They will never be forgotten.
Whenever Shell cuts a climate commitment or threatens its critics, it loses its social license to operate. Day by day, it looks like a corporate Dodo. It may not happen tomorrow or even in the next decade, but Shell’s days are numbered. A just, equitable future does not include the bully boys from Shell who still threaten their critics. In our collective future, they will become extinct.