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Monbiot Grills Shell Oil CEO: Is There Any Investment You Would Not Make on Ethical Grounds?

Shell will pour big money into alternative energy when more lucrative opportunities are blocked. Where is the government brave enough to block them?

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I asked Mr van der Veer a simple question -- fifteen times. (Only a few of these attempts feature in the edited film). "What is the value of your annual investments in renewable energy?" He waffled, changed the subject, admitted that he knew the figure, then flatly refused to reveal it. Nor could he give me a convincing explanation of why he wouldn’t tell me, claiming only that "those figures are misused and people say it is too small" and it "is not the right message to give to the people." It strikes me that there is only one likely reason for these evasions: that Shell’s spending on renewables has fallen sharply from the figure it announced in 2000. It’s a fair guess that the current investment would look microscopic by comparison to its spending on the Canadian tar sands, and would make a mockery of its new round of advertising. I challenge Shell -- for the 16th time -- to prove me wrong.

Nor would Mr van der Veer give me a straight answer to another straight question: "is there any investment you would not make on ethical grounds?" I asked this six times. He was unable to furnish me with an example. It’s not hard to see why. As well as exploiting the tar sands, which means destroying forest and wetlands, polluting great quantities of water and producing more CO2 than conventional petroleum, Shell is still flaring gas in Nigeria, at great cost to both local people and the global climate. It has been fiercely criticised for its secret negotiations with the Iraqi government, which led last year to the first major access for a western company to Iraq’s gas reserves. It is prospecting for oil in some of the Arctic’s most sensitive habitats. All this makes my question difficult to answer. Aside from the greenwash, it is not easy to spot the practical difference between this civilised, progressive company and the Neanderthals at Exxon.

Like all oil companies, Shell simply follows the opportunities. Shut out of the richest fields by state companies, struggling to extract the dregs from its declining reserves, it has been turning to ever more difficult oil, some of which lies beneath rare and fragile ecosystems. When the price of oil was high, it announced massive investments in the tar sands. Now that the price has dropped again, it has cancelled further spending. It has even less of an incentive to invest in renewables. Shell does what the market demands.

I don’t blame Shell or van der Veer for this: they are discharging their duty to their shareholders. I do blame them for creating the impression that the company has a different agenda, and I blame governments for allowing them to drift into whatever fields they find profitable, regardless of the consequences for people or the environment.

On this issue Jeroen van der Veer and I agree. Oil companies, he says, should not seek to determine a country’s energy mix: that is for the government to decide. Saving the biosphere, in other words, cannot be left to goodwill and greenwash: the humanity of pleasant men like van der Veer will always be swept aside by the imperative to maximise returns. Good people in these circumstances do terrible things. Companies like Shell will pour big money into alternative energy only when more lucrative or immediate opportunities are blocked. Where is the government that is brave enough to block them?

George Monbiot is the author Heat: How to Stop the Planet from Burning . Read more of his writings at Monbiot.com. This article originally appeared in the Guardian .

 
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