The future of Royal Dutch Shell: too good to be true?

We all know Shell, right? The common logo and company we see every day when traveling around the world, the company pumping out billions of gallons of gas a year to millions of drivers each day? Yea, that one. As an environmental science student, I have been educated on the negative effects that companies like Shell have on the ecosystems, environment, pollution and climate change. However, recently, Shell has announced some interesting news which combats these negative implications. This sounds great, but one can not help but remain skeptical. A brief summary of a the negative implications that Shell has involved in, in the past, are summarized below, followed by Shell’s recent and surprising climate change statement.

Over the years, Shell has been accused of a multitude of environmental injustices. This includes lobbying against the climate by paying around $22 million to anti-climate policy advocates. While doing this, Shell outwardly projected that they were in agreement with climate policies like the Paris accord, and eased the minds of the unsuspecting public.  Shell is also accused of over extracting oil from the Niger Delta for almost half a century, disrupting the environment, driving away the inhabitants and creating high volumes of pollution. To make matters worse, an accidental but very large oil spill occurred which caused the surrounding villages to have a decreased quality of water and wildlife. This made it extremely difficult to live in an already minimalized society. When the Friends of the Earth, an anti-Shell activist group in the Netherlands, gathered enough information on this, they took Shell to court, looking for some justice. They were then wrapped up in years of court cases, resulting in justice for one Nigerian farmer. Shell continued to deny responsibility to the environmental damage caused. Lastly, it was discovered that Shell has actually known the truth about the environmental implications their company would cause.

Oil spill in Nigerian subsidiary. The Seattle Times, 2017

To make matter worse, journalist Jelmer Mommers discovered a 1988 report titled ‘The Greenhouse Effect” which highlighted the damage Shell would cause on the climate. Shell realized they were harming the climate as much as 20 years ago, but decided not to act on it right away.

In addition to this, the report calculated that the Shell CO2 emissions alone were contributing to 4 percent of the global amount. This number was created taking into account the plethora of production Shell has on oil, natural gas, and coal products. Climate scientists worried that if Shell didn’t start to act fast that by time they do decide to act, it will be too late.

The start of the 1988 Confidential Report “The Greenhouse Effect” filed by Shell.

With all of this negative evidence against Shell, it is hard to see why anyone could support them, right? Wrong.

This is where the importance of power, money and influence intersects with gullibility. While there are plenty of activists, protests and law cases against Shell, Shell itself, as a superpower, has managed the art of manipulating the public to seeing, hearing, and knowing exactly what they want them to know.

When going online to find more information about Shell, it is extremely easy to get swept up in a maze of articles seemingly about what you want to know. Shell understands that people question their environmentally conscious intentions and so they make it very easy, and apparent to see their views on the topics on their webpage. Shell does this by sharing articles with the titles like “Leading investors back Shell’s climate targets” and “Shell invests in nature as part of broad drive to tackle CO2 emissions.” When reading these articles, a clear, positive and hopeful outlook on the future of Shell is interpreted. With the initial ease of mind for curious individuals, this can quickly deter someone from looking further into the viability of Shell’s statements. And yet another seemingly educated person will leave with a false tranquility.

The most recent news? On Monday April 8th, Shell announced that they will be investing in a $300 million nature program with the goal of reducing its carbon dioxide emissions by 2 – 3%. To do so, over the next 3 years the company claims to focus on projects to store carbon, by increasing reforestation and supporting electric vehicle charge points.

CEO of Royal Dutch Shell, Ben van Burden, stated that:

“Shell will play its part. Our focus on natural ecosystems is one step we are taking today to support the transition towards a low-carbon future. This comes in addition to our existing efforts, from reducing the carbon intensity of oil and gas operations to investments in renewable sources of energy”

Ben van Burden, April 2019

And Mark Tercek, CEO of The Nature Conservancy, called last year’s IPCC report a “wake-up call on climate” for the company.

All sounds pretty good, right?

One can only hope that Shell will now keep their word, keep their promise to do better by the environment and to seriously keep the climate in consideration in the future. Unfortunately, based on Shell’s history, the truth to these statements and potential reality behind them, is still uncertain.

3 thoughts on “The future of Royal Dutch Shell: too good to be true?

  1. Hi Katelyn,
    I really liked your blogpost! I definitely recognise the narrative that these big oil companies try to project, by branding themselves as responsible and progressive. Last year in Norway, our biggest fossil fuel company, which was called Statoil, changed their name to Equinor, clearly wanting to emphasise the seemingly important role they have had and want to play in our welfare state, and also spent a large part of their promotional video showcasing how invested they are in renewables, even though the portfolio is still proportionately small. However, what I really wonder when it comes to with these companies – when you say that they are contributing 4% to the global emissions, it is meant that these fossil fuels are sold and someone else chooses to emit it, right? After all, even though as you say they have done a solid part in lobbying and suppressing research on the greenhouse effect, they are actually responding to a demand for oil and gas. So, how much is there really to be done – a decrease of 2-3% does not really sound that impressive to me – other than just shut down the company? That is obviously not possible, considering it is a very important actor both employing a lot of people and also contributing a lot of taxes. So what to do? I think the real opportunity is to take all of these smart people working in these companies and use their labour to invest in clean energy – should be a good investment for the future, no?

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  2. Thanks for the interesting blog post! It seems paradoxical for fossil fuel companies to invest in green energy. By driving the energy transition, they devalue their fossil fuel reserves and capital investments in infrastructure needed for extraction and distribution. Interestingly, the new plans proposed by Shell were initiated by an activistic shareholder collective called Follow This. Because this collective bought enough stocks to obtain an influential position, they could steer the direction of the company towards sustainable policies. Perhaps this could be a solution as well. Especially when large semi-public institutions such as pension funds, which often own a big part of the stock and have sufficient budget to invest, would join these efforts.

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  3. Hey Katelynn, I just wanted to add to your point about looking behind the ‘green curtains’ of Shell’s new nature policy. While Shell maybe protecting the particular forests in Peru, which may be good, the global demand for agricultural products will keep on increasing. While the particular Shell forests in Indonesia and Peru may be saved, increases global demand for agricultural land will inevitably cause for deforestation and ‘carbon leakage’ somewhere else, maybe in other forests in the same areas. It is therefore false to say that the carbon gets really ‘compensated’, but carbon leakage is really really hard to prove. The reforestation initiative is therefore a rather thorough greenwashing strategy. The solution of Shell when promising carbon compensation is thus an incomplete one, not tackling the structural issues of deforestation and carbon-biomass degradation.

    As you have read into the history of Shell, I wonder if you think whether Shell is still part of “the solution”. Marjan Minnesma yesterday argued that we don’t need them in the future she sees. Is it worthwhile to keep them in the climate change debate? Me and my friends very much disagree about this. While Ben van Beurden may say that Shell is ‘doing their part’, the history you describe clearly shows that Shell has done the complete opposite. When Marjan van Loon came to Room for Discussion last year, activists carried a coffin on the stage to symbolize the deaths they have caused in the Niger Delta that you mention. The experience is that this kind of traumatized her personally and that Shell is now ‘retreating’ from public debates, meaning that the activists have kind of ‘estranged’ Shell in the Dutch climate debate. Marjan Minnesma is not talking to them either. Other activists vilify them too. Is this a bad thing? Do you think we need them “in the conversation”, or is the demonization of Shell, that does kind of estrange them, justified?

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