Shell Games at the Earth Summit


By Kenny Bruno and Joshua Karliner

August 15, 2002

Tracking the behavior of Royal Dutch Shell from the 1992 Earth Summit in Rio to the WSSD in Johannesburg is particularly instructive in drawing out how global corporations have pursued a pro-environment and human rights public-relations strategy on the one hand, while continuing to be deeply engaged in destructive activity on the other.

At the first Earth Summit, Shell's Senior Managing Director joined the World Business Council for Sustainable Development (WBCSD) -- a consortium of corporate chieftains who sought to portray themselves as part of the solution to the world's environmental ills, rather than the center of the problem. As part of this effort, the WBCSD published a book, Changing Course: A Global Business Perspective on Development and the Environment. Part of the book was dedicated to "best practices" case studies in sustainable development. Shell's contribution was about "human resource development" in Nigeria and included this paragraph:

Foreign direct investment from a multinational corporation is often the most effective way of exchanging the skills and technologies needed to further sustainable development in developing countries. In particular, foreign investors can contribute directly to the building of local management expertise and employee expertise through training programs. This has benefits not only for the company concerned, but also for the wider community.

While some may have gained skills working in the Niger Delta's oil fields as a result of Shell's "sustainable development" strategy, it is clear that the giant oil corporation's definition of sustainable development included extracting well over $30 billion in oil from operations in the Niger Delta region since 1956, which has brought little wealth or development to the Delta Region.

Conveniently ignored in this best practices case study is the fact that Shell has also created a social and ecological disaster in the Niger Delta that has become a classic case study of the horrendous impacts of oil on people and the environment. Very little, if any of the $30 billion went back into the communities of the Niger Delta, where schools and health clinics are hard to come by, and where toxic contamination from oil spills and gas flares fill the water and air.

The heinous conditions in the Niger Delta did not keep Shell from brazenly trumpeting its commitment to sustainable development in the region. The Shell best practices case study explained in Changing Course that, as a result of its training program, "quality and safety standards would not be compromised, and good environmental management would be enhanced." But as Ken Saro-Wiwa, a novelist and leader of the Ogoni people in the Niger Delta wrote, the reality on the ground was quite different than Shell's Earth Summit greenwash:

Shell has waged an ecological war in Ogoni since 1958. An ecological war is highly lethal, the more so as it is unconventional. It is omnicidal in its effect. Human life, flora, fauna, the air, fall at its feet, and finally, the land itself dies. Generally it is supported by all the traditional instruments ancillary to warfare-propaganda, money and deceit. Victory is assessed by profits, and in this sense, Shell's victory in Ogoni has been total.

Three and a half years after the Rio Earth Summit, the Nigerian government executed Ken Saro-Wiwa and eight other Ogoni. Subsequently, evidence emerged that Shell, the target of Saro-Wiwa's criticism, was complicit in his death. After Saro-Wiwa's hanging, the Nigerian military dictatorship cracked down on dissent in Ogoniland.

As Naemeka Achebe, General Manager for Shell Nigeria said, "For a commercial company trying to make investments, you need a stable environment. Dictatorships can give you that." In that one crude phrase, Achebe revealed the harsh reality behind Shell's slick sustainable development rhetoric.

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.

Human rights violations and local ecological destruction were not the only things flowing out of Nigeria along with Shell's oil. The release of methane from massive gas flaring, a practice prohibited in Shell's home countries of England and The Netherlands, as well as in most industrialized countries, combined with the burning of the oil exported from Nigeria, were helping make Shell a significant contributor to climate change. As public concern around global warming grew, it presented another environmental public relations problem for Shell in the 1990s.

Efforts such as the Climate Convention, signed at the Rio Earth Summit, and the Kyoto Protocol, which evolved from it, threatened the future economic viability of Royal Dutch Shell Corporation and the rest of the oil industry. As a result, these companies have become intensely involved in the Kyoto Protocol negotiations, working to water down the global effort to address climate change, the greatest environmental threat in the twenty-first century.

For instance, Shell sent forty-three official representatives and lobbyists to the November 2000 climate negotiations at The Hague, a delegation larger than those sported by most countries and nearly half the size of the 100-plus person U.S. delegation. All the while, Shell claimed that it was offering constructive proposals to help save the world's climate.

Those with experience dealing with Shell on the local level believed otherwise. S. "Bobby" Peek, a winner of the prestigious Goldman Environmental Prize and representative of the South African organization groundWork, told a press conference at The Hague that:

[U]ntil we exposed them, Shell lied about their refinery emissions in South Africa for forty years. Today Shell's toxic pollution continues to poison local communities in a democratic South Africa, and contribute to the company's global carbon emissions. If they lied to their neighbors about emissions in South Africa, how can we begin to believe their rhetoric at the climate change negotiations?

In fact, on closer examination, Shell's activities at The Hague were more focused on developing ways to profit from the Kyoto accord's pollution trading and "clean development" mechanisms, than on creating measures to stave off global warming. As it worked to shape the Kyoto accord inside the halls of the U.N. negotiations, Shell took out a full-page advertisement in the Financial Times declaring, "action needs to be taken now, both by companies and their customers," and pledging to reduce its own greenhouse gas emissions.

This was a fine step, but not nearly as significant as it might have seemed. Like the other fossil-fuel giants, Shell's impact on the climate stems not from its use of oil and gas, but from its production of the commodities: oil produced by Shell accounts for more of the global-warming gas carbon dioxide than most countries in the world, including Canada, Brazil and Mexico.

Through public relations and advertising, Shell and the rest of the oil industry continue to pay lip service to global warming (or in some cases, such as ExxonMobil's, still deny its validity as a problem). At the same time, they have never slowed their worldwide efforts to locate and produce more oil and gas. If we are to avoid catastrophic climate change, the world cannot afford to burn these fossil fuels.

Shell did not let up in its public relations offensive at Earth Summit II, either. Instead, at the WSSD Preparatory Meetings in New York earlier this year, Shell continued to tout itself as the purveyor of beneficial projects in Nigeria, passing out glossy booklets even as the Ogoni continued to denounce the company's role.

Shell also became deeply involved in industry efforts to influence the negotiations and project a green image. Its former CEO, Mark Moody Stuart, helped found and became Director of the corporate front group created especially for the event-Business Action for Sustainable Development (BASD)-a joint initiative of the World Business Council for Sustainable Development and the International Chamber of Commerce. BASD, in its own words, was "formed to ensure business rallies its collective forces for the U.N. World Summit on Sustainable Development to be held in Johannesburg." As Moody Stuart put it, "our message going into the Earth Summit in 2002 is that business is part of the solution."

Moody Stuart's message was sophisticated. He urged companies to support the Kyoto Protocol, support regulations and support renewable energy development. His discourse was, in fact, a lot more environmentally friendly than that of many governments. But then, so was Shell's discourse on Nigeria prior to the Ogoni scandals.

So activists were skeptical. Shell, they pointed out, had great rhetoric in Rio, also, but the reality was something else. "It is especially ironic that a Shell executive is taking this role, because through its actions, Shell became a symbol of environmental destruction and complicity in human rights violations in the 1990s," said Victoria Corpuz, Executive Director of Tebtebba Foundation, an indigenous people's organization based in the Philippines.

"The choice of Moody Stuart sends the message that Business Action for Sustainable Development will be more about style than substance."

Kenny Bruno is cordinates the Corporate-Free UN Campaign and co-authored "Greenwash: The Reality Behind Corporate Environmentalism."
CorpWatch Executive Director, Joshua Karliner, is author of "The Corporate Planet."

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