What the Shell?

August 18th, 2011 by Phil Mattera

United Nations Environment Program photo of oil contamination in Nigeria.

It seems that the multinational oil giants are taking turns having spills. After BP’s big mess in the Gulf of Mexico last year and Exxon Mobil’s accident in Montana this year, it is now Royal Dutch Shell that is spewing oil where it should not be going.

More than 50,000 gallons have leaked from a Shell pipeline off the coast of Scotland in the worst North Sea oil spill in more than a decade. Shell has had difficulty locating the source of the leak and identifying its cause.

Just as the Exxon Mobil accident could be seen as a warning about the perils of the giant Keystone XL pipeline project extending from Canada to Texas, so can the Shell accident be viewed as a reminder about the dangers of another petroleum initiative: the proposal by Royal Dutch Shell’s U.S. subsidiary, Shell Oil, to begin drilling exploratory wells in the Chukchi Sea off the northern coast of Alaska. The North Sea accident occurred only days after the U.S. Interior Department gave Shell conditional approval for the Alaska project.

The gods seem to strike back each time the Obama Administration decides to give a green light to offshore oil activity. BP’s gulf disaster happened only days after Obama opened vast coastal areas to new drilling.

There are countless environmental reasons why Shell’s Alaska initiative is a bad idea. It should also be blocked for another reason: Shell cannot be trusted.

For the past three decades or more, Shell has been involved in a long series of accidents, spills and other mishaps at many of its offshore and onshore facilities around the world. It also has a checkered history with regard to human rights and was implicated in a scandal about false reporting about its oil reserves. Here are some of the more notorious features of the company’s track record, which I compiled for a profile on the Crocodyl wiki:

  • A 1988 explosion at a Shell refinery in Louisiana killed seven workers, whose families sued the company and collected more than $40 million in damages.
  • In 1989 Shell paid $19 million to settle federal charges relating to a spill at its refinery in Martinez, California that the company did not disclose for four weeks.
  • In 1995 Shell agreed to pay $3 million to settle a lawsuit brought by the California Public Interest Research Group charging that the company had dumped illegal amounts of selenium into San Francisco Bay and the Sacramento-San Joaquin River Delta.
  • In 1995 Royal Dutch Shell was also the target of a boycott and other protests in Europe over a plan by the company and its joint venture partner Exxon to sink an obsolete offshore oil storage facility known as Brent Spar in the North Sea rather than dismantling it. Environmental groups, led by Greenpeace, warned that the structure, which contained oil sludge, heavy metals and some low-grade radioactive waste, could damage the food chain for fish in the area. The company gave in the pressure and brought the Brent Spar to shore.
  • In 1998 Shell Oil agreed to pay $1.5 million to settle federal charges that its refinery in Roxanna, Illinois was responsible for illegal discharges of pollutants into the Mississippi River.
  • In 2001 Shell Oil and three other major petroleum companies settled a lawsuit filed in California by agreeing to clean up some 700 sites in the state that had been contaminated by the gasoline additive MTBE.
  • In 2005 Shell was fined £900,000 in connection with the 2003 deaths of two workers on a North Sea oil platform as the result of a major gas leak.
  • In the late 2000s, Royal Dutch Shell found itself facing increasing criticism for its huge liquefied natural gas project on the island of Sakhalin in the Russian Far East. Pacific Environment, a San Francisco-based advocacy group, collaborated with Russian activists to form Sakhalin Environment Watch, which challenged the offshore Sakhalin project because it threatened the survival of the world’s most endangered species of whales—Western Pacific Grays. In 2008 the British newspaper The Observer reported that it had obtained dozens of internal e-mails showing that Shell officials in London sought to influence the conclusions of a purportedly independent environmental review of the Sakhalin project.
  • Shell has also been heavily involved in the environmentally disastrous tar sands industry in Canada.

Shell’s tarnished human rights record dates back to the 1980s, when it was targeted for its investments in apartheid-era South Africa. In the early 1990s Shell began to face protests over its oil operations in Nigeria. In 1994 the Movement for the Survival of the Ogoni People, then led by Ken Saro-Wiwa, began blockading contractors working on Shell’s facilities to bring attention to the large number of pipeline ruptures, gas flaring and other forms of contamination that were occurring in the Ogoniland region. The group described Shell’s operations as “environmental terrorism.”

The Nigerian government, a partner with Shell in the operations, responded to the protests with a wave of repression, including the arrest of Saro-Wiwa, who was hanged in 1995. Shell denied it was involved, but critics pointed to the role played by the company in supporting the military dictatorship. A lawsuit charging Royal Dutch Shell with human rights violations in Nigeria was later filed in U.S. federal court under the Alien Tort Claims Act. In 2009, just before a trial was set to begin, the company announced that as a “humanitarian gesture” it would pay $15.5 million to the plaintiffs to settle the case.

A report recently released by the United Nations Environment Program estimates that a clean-up of oil industry contamination in Ogoniland will cost at least $1 billion and take up to 30 years.

On its corporate website, Shell insists that “we are qualified to do the job right — to explore for offshore oil and gas in Alaska in a very safe and careful way.” On the Other Earth, perhaps. But not on this one.

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