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Eastbound to Consult for Royal Dutch Shell… Didja even hear about the spills?


By Hunter Lovins, September 5, 2011

The plane settles into its cruise altitude and I to writing – three hours to Chicago, swap planes, then eight to the Netherlands. Long night.

I’m bound east to consult for Royal Dutch Shell. No idea what they want from me, but I’ll be most interested to chat with them about their world-view. And to give em a piece of my mind. I would anyway, but now it’s a debt. As is this blog.

Once one of the world’s most progressive companies, the Shell I knew prospered under the able leadership of such Managing Directors as Bobby Reid and Sir Mark Moody Stuart, the last Managing Director for whom I consulted. Under these leaders, Shell was on an arc away from being an oil company to being a diversified energy provider, launching solar, wind, hydrogen, biofuels and efficiency divisions. It didn’t matter, for example, to Sir Mark that Shell did not have the proven reserves to long remain an oil company (and he was well aware that the world as we know it could not long survive Shell’s continuing to extract and enable us to burn fossil fuels.) If you are migrating away from oil, it’s a race to the future in which the first movers have the advantage. Under this vision Shell became the world’s largest company and the darling of the socially responsible investment crowd.

Sir Mark rotated out, and an unrepentant oilman named Phil Watts took over. I’ve not been back since. Watts tried to do a U-turn on Shell’s road to sustainability. But he had a little problem: the pesky lack of reserves. So he did what any corporatist, willfully ignoring the dictates of a carbon-constrained world will do: he cooked the books. And got caught. For which Shell shareholders took a 40% sharebath. The Economist called it Shell’s Hell. Phil got the sack, but Shell had returned to the bad old days. It has since been responsible for spilling oil all over the Niger Delta (more oil has been spilled there every year since oiing began in 1956 than the whole BP catastrophe in the Gulf of Mexico) and bringing to the world that marvelous technology known as fracking. Best I can tell from Shell’s website, they now see their future as being a gas company. As you can see, we’ve a bit to talk about.

This is all coming together at an interesting time. In early August 2011Shell admitted to spilling in 2008 more oil in Ogoniland, a small kingdom in the Niger Delta, than ruptured from the Exxon Valdez. The admission came because of a ruling for the plaintiffs in a class action suit brought in the UK by the people of Bodo, one of the more egregiously polluted villages in Ogoniland. It was promptly followed by the release of a studyfrom the United Nations Environmental Program detailing the massive fouling of Ogoniland by Shell and the other oil companies.

Remember Ogoniland? It was home to Ken Saro-Wiwa, the gentle poet, hanged by the Nigerian government in 1995 with the complicity of Shell and the other majors working in the Delta. Ken was accused of killing other Ogoni leaders. Ken, a fellow Right Livelihood laureate was almost certainly not guilty, but as a charismatic and effective spokesperson for the Ogoni people’s fight against the decimation of their homeland, he was clearly someone the majors wished gone. Shell and the others could have stopped the hanging, vigorously protested by many of us and by human rights groups the world around. They did not, and the world lost a wonderful, gallant man.

That, plus the proposal to scuttle the Brent Spar drill rig in the North Sea elicited such outrage that activists in Europe started burning Shell gas stations. The British government instructed Shell to refuse any negotiations, calling it a matter of British National Security. Sir Mark, then the Managing Director responded more thoughtfully. “No,” he said, “Shell had made mistakes, needed to rethink its business model, and reframe its relationships with civil society.” He put up a website saying as much, and asking the public to talk to Shell. He issued the first Shell sustainability report, one of the first such by a major corporation, and earned himself a marvelous role in the movie The Corporation, as he and his wife, Judy, served tea to protesters on their lawn. And yes, he really is that sort of man. And he led Shell into a much brighter future. For a time.

I don’t know what sort of man rules Shell today. Just as I briefed the whole senior management at Walmart so that I could look Lee Scott in the eye and see if I thought he was serious (I believe he was) I want to go talk to Shell.

That Shell’s scenario planning team would invite me to a workshop on the energy, food, water nexus, and ask me to give the opening lecture, I took as a good sign. But I take it as a bad sign that this summer Shell only reluctantly admitted that it had been leaking oil into the North Sea. The worst North Sea spill in a decade, the Gannett Alpha I platform spilled about 1,300 barrels before (we are told) being capped. This is an order of magnitude less than the BP spill of 4.9 million barrels a year earlier, but disconcerting is that it happened at all – Shell had claimed such a blowout could not happen on its watch, as it uses different technology than BP. And Shell now seeks permission to drill in the Arctic, where such a disaster would be vastly harder to contain.

I read the UK Guardian, so watched as the several mile long oil sheen alerted observers off Aberdeen Scotland, who went asking. Only then did Shell sheepishly admit that, well, yes, they did have a small problem at one of their rigs.

C’mon, boys, this is not the way that a responsible company does business.

This was precisely the point one of my favorite partners made to me two weeks ago as we chatted over supper at a favorite San Francisco bar. What should have been a delight of an evening suddenly turned prickly as I found myself defending why I’d failed to do something I’d no idea I’d agreed to.

“You said you were going to give Shell a piece of your mind. Where it is?!”

“Aye, and I shall. I’ll be there in two weeks.”

“No, in your blog. Why haven’t you written it?”

In the prior week I’d driven 800 miles, speaking at American Renewable Energy Day in Aspen, then scrambling back over the divide to judge the entrepreneurial presentations at Alex Bogusky’s Common Pitch Fest. Then back to Aspen to keynote the event’s big day, and drinking with such friends as John Perry Barlow at a gala celebrating the great oceanographer Dr. Sylvia Earle in a fake Tuscan Villa mansion high up Red Mountain. Aye, would have been a very long weekend, traversing the Rockies four times, but for getting to do it at summer’s glorious height in my Porsche with my friend Jeff Hohensee by my side.

Then flying west to speak at Accelerating Sustainable Performance at Infineon Raceway and getting to take hot laps in a Tesla and an Indy car. [See photos (1) & (2)]. Confession: that is wicked fun. By the way, however snappy the Tesla’s electric torque is, the Indy car’s alcohol-fueled punch is a whole lot faster. We ran the track only 18 seconds slower than the next days racers did.

The rest of the week went to kicking off our program in San Rafael to support its small business community [see NCS’Solutions at the Speed of Business] and talking to Pacific Gas and Electric about enabling its small business customers to access our Solutions tool and meeting with colleagues from Bainbridge Graduate Institute. So yes, I’ve been a little busy.

In truth I’d sat down to supper not thinking much of whether I should have been writing, but rather feeling guilty that I’d come west when the royalty of American Activism (Randy Hayes – founder of Rainforest Action Network and Phil Radford, head of Greenpeace) – with whom I’d been drinking in the J Bar in Aspen a few days prior had headed east to be arrested in front of the White House. Along with 1,250 other American citizens they called on Obama to finally grow a spine and meet the commitments he made to take a principled stand against climate change by declining to permit the Keystone pipeline bringing south the Canadian tar sands oil that Shell is digging up at vast environmental cost.

That all seemed a lot to say to explain why I hadn’t written a blog I hadn’t known I’d been supposed to do.

So I temporized: “Just cause….”

Mistake. He rounded on me, accusing me with his rapier-like lawyer’s mind of not wanting to endanger my trip to Rotterdam – and more, the fee that Natural Capitalism would receive for my work.

OK, whoa, buddy, that’s unfair.

We’ve fought before, and the temptation rose to reply in kind.

But this is what friends are for, isn’t it? To call you when they think you might be compromising integrity.

It’s a fine line we walk, Dave Brower alums, activists who hold a vision all living things might share, to also dance with the forces that threaten it all, to seek to turn them to a way that solves the daunting challenges while also offering more profit. That’s the whole thrust of Climate Capitalism: there are better business ways to solve global weirding.

I believe, I truly do, that we can find a way shy of the revolution some now are saying it will take to end the hold that the corporatists have on humanity’s future to craft a future before the economy totally implodes.

But time grows short. NASA scientist Dr James Hansen and many other climatologists claim that if tar sand development goes forward, it’s game over for our ability to preserve a stable climate.  That’s why Jim was one of those arrested last week. Randy Hayes, as he is being hauled to jail always tells the police that he apologizes for taking their time from dealing with real criminals, but that these are life and death matters. The now millions of climate refugees streaming a thousand a day into Dadaab, the world’s largest refugee camp in Kenya, fleeing a 60 year drought are not casual tourists. Climate change is already life and death for them.

“They’re buying your silence,” my friend slashed. We’d talked, several weeks before about the North Sea spill, agreeing it was reprehensible of Shell to have declined to report its spill til caught, and that it should call into question their drilling in the Arctic. I’d said then that I was going to give them a piece of my mind.

I guess he wanted to see it in print.

“Why does that matter?” I asked. “I’ll write, if you think that will help, but I propose to go talk with the Shell folk first.” Talking to a company in person has always seemed to me the responsible approach, given that I am often privileged to be able to do that.

“But you are the voice that people rely on to say it publicly.” He countered. “No one knows about the oil spill. They count on you to tell them such things.”

Is that true? Had you heard about the spill? Apparently. Over the following days I asked most everyone I met, and no one had.

But more, is what I write really cared about by the millions of people he seemed to think are hanging on my words?

“That’s the power of the web,” he argued.

We settled that I would write. And he’d go speak with a brilliant designer of urban agriculture who I think can help a project he’s working on.

So I wing east, writing. I’ll e-mail this to Nancy to post before I walk into the meeting.

And thanks, friend, for keeping me honest. Maybe next time we can have that supper of soft smiles.

 

 

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