Mike Baillie
Mike Baillie

Shell-shocked

I think it’s outrageous that Shell sponsors part of the environment section on the National Geographic website.

What makes the situation even more ironic is that right beneath one of Shell’s adverts on the page is National Geographic’s slogan: Inspiring people to care about the planet since 1888.

Shell sponsor on National Geographic

Now I don’t think there are many corporations around the world who can keep up with Shell’s record of environmental degradation and human-rights abuses. The corporation’s versatility when it comes to abusing nature and human rights is truly alarming. One report I came across names Shell as the most carbon-intensive company in the world. And for good reason.

Shell is one of the fuel companies currently involved in extracting oil from the Canadian tar sands — one of the most energy intensive and ecologically destructive means of obtaining oil. While “conventional” oil reserves involve pumping oil wells, in the case of tar sands, the “oil” is mixed up with soil, clay and water. Obtaining liquid fuel from the oil sands is an intensive process that generates two to four times the amount of greenhouse gases per barrel of final product compared to the production of conventional oil1.

Then there is also the environmental degradation that is caused during the excavation of the tar sands. Roughly two tons of the oil sands are needed to produce one barrel of oil, and those two tons exclude the top soil and vegetation that is cleared in order to access the oil-containing sands2.

There are many other problems with oil-sand extraction, too many to go into here. But the point is a simple one: is exploiting the oil sands really a case of “building a better energy future” as Shell advertises on the National Geographic site? Well the British Advertising Standards Authority doesn’t seem to think so. It ruled in 2008 that Shell had misled the public when it claimed that a $10 billion oil sands project in Alberta, Canada, was a “sustainable energy source”.

Shell’s presence in the Niger Delta is notorious for the extreme environmental problems it has caused. Many of its pipelines are old and corroded, constantly leaking oil into the environment. Then there is the case of Ken Saro-Wiwa who fought against Shell’s presence in the Niger Delta. In November 1995 he was hanged following a trial widely criticised by human-rights organisations. Many believe Shell played an important part in his hanging.

There are many more incidents that all lead back to Shell. Combined, they paint a picture of a corporation that will do anything to generate a few more profits, and at whatever cost. Apparently applying a liberal coat of greenwash is just one tactic they are happy to use; it’s much easier to clean up a brand’s image than its ethics and practices.

In writing this I realise that, yes, we do need oil right now, and that our entire way of life is built up on the constant and reliable supply of oil. Is Shell the only company to blame for the lengths it goes to feed our addiction to oil? Maybe not. Are its practices the most harmful? Who can say. Does that mean that I can’t criticise Shell? Definitely not.

Regardless of whether or not other oil corporations are doing the exact same thing, Shell is still 100% culpable for the harm and destruction it causes and profits from. But then to go on, attempting to hide that destruction behind slick adverts and a clean shiny logo in order to boost sales a little more, that just takes the cake.

As the human population and our hunger for energy continues to grow, there must come a time when we say “enough”. A point where we decide to go beyond oil as the means of energising our way of life. Perhaps if the full costs of oil extraction and its refinement — carbon emissions, environmental impacts, pollution — were included in the price we pay for oil, we’d realise that our continued reliance on oil is madness.

There are other technologies available, and better means of powering our lifestyles. Technologies with far fewer externalities. And if we spent as much time and effort on these resources as we do in the pursuit of oil, then these resources would become increasingly attractive in economic terms.

Having the guts and integrity to turn down an advertising partnership with Shell is what I’d have expected from National Geographic. Instead part of Shell’s dirt has rubbed off on the Society. After all, Shell pays National Geographic for the advertising space on its website, and where do you think that cash comes from?

——–

1 Joseph J. Romm (2008). Hell and High Water: The Global Warming Solution. New York: Harper Perennial. pp. 181–82. ISBN 9780061172137

2 “Does oil sands ‘mining’ affect the environment?”. Oil sands frequently asked questions. Government of Alberta Energy Ministry. http://www.energy.alberta.ca/OilSands/792.asp#Does_oil_sands_mining_affect_the_environment. Retrieved 2009-04-09.

  • X Cepting

    Perhaps while we’re about it, we can also ask ourselves how Shell became such a big company that can have such devastating effects on the environment? The answer is easy: with our support. To illustrate with an unrelated example – I read with trepidation this morning that Facebook is now funded by investors Goldman and an almost 10% Russian shareholding. Will I continue to support Facebook knowing how the money that makes it all possible was made?

  • Judith

    Shell has an appalling track record and National Geographic has definitely soiled its image by accepting advertising from them. As concerned world citizens, we all need to oppose what they and the other oil companies are doing to our environment. If we wish to have a future for our children and grandchildren, we have to apply the pressure that cleans up our environment and start using sustainable solutions.

  • Larry Lachman

    I explode verbally every time the Shell advert appears on TV in its various forms over the recent years. Their PR department and ad agency play the old deception of projecting themselves as saviors of the environment while the gullible lap it up subconciously.

    I have driven past their forecourts for years now in my own personal boycott.

  • Bill

    The Oil companies are really cleaning up their
    acts.

    Shell is a great company, face it we need oil.

    If you don’t agree, don’t ever consume anything that has a bad effect.

  • Die Antwoord

    Why single Shell out? They are all as bad as one another. BP probably outdid Shell with the Deepwater Horizon disaster, which was caused by the same kind of corporate malfeasance Shell indulges in, in Nigeria.

    And let’s not forget closer to home where Sasol and Exxaro (for Eskom) are strip mining the sensitive eastern Mpumalanga grasslands and killing off all the wetlands with sulphuric acid!

  • Lyn

    Well researched. You should send your research to Greenpeace.

  • JB

    Well done, Bill. You’ve just won the Shell employee of the day award. You get to park next to the MD for a week.

  • http://www.thoughtleader.co.za/jenniferthorpe/2010/03/31/rape-sex-or-power/ Mike Baillie

    Hi Bill.

    I’d love to see some of your sources that lead you to believe that oil companies are cleaning up their acts.

    Right now oil companies are greedily preparing to start drilling in the North Sea and are hoping to spread out into the seas around Greenland. If there were to be a spill there, the effects would be catastrophic.

    I agree that today we need oil, and that we are very dependent on it. That doesn’t mean we can critique the way it’s extracted, or our dependence on oil.

    There are other options available to us — it just requires us to realise that our dependence on oil is untenable and wholly unsustainable.

    I wrote a blog recently that dealt with the stupidity of saying things like ‘if you disagree with Shell’s practices, you’re a hypocrite for using their products’. You’d do well to read it.

  • http://www.thoughtleader.co.za/jenniferthorpe/2010/03/31/rape-sex-or-power/ Mike Baillie
  • Jan Hofmeyr

    “But then to go on, attempting to hide that destruction behind slick adverts and a clean shiny logo in order to boost sales a little more, that just takes the cake”-The sad thing is that it actually works.It illustrates how dumb and gullible the majority of the humane race are.

  • Hugh Robinson

    Such an unimportant happening and you find that a cheek. Have you taken note that the government intends to add to our costs with a stealth carbon tax?

    They will be taxing government approved, Government owned entities that have been deliberately designed to generate Carbon, i.e. Eskom power stations and Eskor / Mittal and others.

    Considering that Eskor, Sasol and Eskom make up near seventy percent of the Carbon generated I feel this is something we must stand against.

    Government already derives benefit from the VAT, company taxes, electricity price increases etc. Now that add a carbon tax that will in the long run add to the taxpayers stress. They will get near 82 billion Rand a year from this carbon tax and we get SH-one-T in return.

    Now that is worth grumbling about in light of Government deliberately using coal to generate electricity.

    The smoke and mirrors trick has to be uncovered.

  • Hugh Robinson

    tyhen of coarse I have to ask that you lead the way in planet protection and stop your consumer ways. Every item you buy is supported directly or indirectly by oil. From the plastic you use to the paint on your wall to soap you bathed with this morning.

    You cannot have it both ways. I suggest you start a movement that prevents the wearing of cloths and bathing. 40% of your shirt and trousers is attributed to oil by products followed by bathing where sixty percent of content is oil based. Now you have 100% of something to be pleased about.

    Think about how much carbon you have in clothing, furnishings and other items like your mobile phone before you dare point fingers at the rapist Shell oil of the world.

    Get real, If the oil stopped flowing the world will collapse. Maybe not a bad thing becuse then the ANC governmnt would not be able to carbon tax us.

  • Perry Curling-Hope

    Whilst I too, am opposed to wanton and unnecessary damage to the environment, it is inevitable that the processes which release ‘conventional’ energy will have an environmental impact.

    Whether Shell is worse than BP, or better than Exxon, but not as bad as so and so is moot.

    It is a cost / benefit ratio, and energy, which is an absolute primacy to every human ‘good’ (goods and services), is subject to economic realities.
    One cannot simply discount such realities in designing a future world, whatsoever energy systems are employed, they will still have to be ‘economic’, i.e. yield a net return which is profitable, even without ‘growth’.

    Most understand that the growth in conventional energy use is unsustainable, the inevitable result is that at some point, the global economy will start contracting, and with it, so will ‘carbon emissions’ and ‘globalisation’ as will the indispensable inputs of conventional chemical energy to the develop and sustain ‘alternative’ energy.

    Much of what currently passes as alternative energy stands squarely upon a fossil energy infrastructure, and with fossil fuels gone, the amount of concentrated, dispatch able energy available to the world will be quite limited by today’s standards.
    Our “way of life” at its current scale is not ‘energisable’ by other means; it only exists in the first place because of the fossil heritage.

    The ‘problems’ perceived to have been caused by fossil energy will disappear with the demise of fossil energy long before ‘environmental disaster stops us in our tracks’

  • http://www.thoughtleader.co.za/jenniferthorpe/2010/03/31/rape-sex-or-power/ Mike Baillie

    One more time for Hugh Robinson and all those who find my argument hypocritical, please do me a favour and read this post: http://www.thoughtleader.co.za/mikebaillie/2010/07/22/the-hypocrisy-of-greenies-a-fair-charge/

    I quote (but please go read the full piece):
    For as long as we have little choice in whether we use oil or not, I don’t see protests against oil companies as automatically hypocritical. In fact I would argue that one of the things we need to be most vocal about is the fact that we don’t have any other choices here. I am not saying that in every case protesters are beyond reproach for not practising what they preach. Far from it. In most cases environmentalists must follow their imperatives absolutely; hypocrisy is the surest way to undermine a movement. What I am saying is that in this instance specifically, the pervasive and extensive use of oil is such that environmentalists don’t have direct control over whether they rely on oil or not, and as such they are not hypocrites when denouncing oil companies.

  • MLH

    Why blame BP alone for its disaster when it might have happened to any of the oil companies? Why blame Shell alone for bad practices when all the oil companies use them? The problem is that an oil market was ever created. And you are part of that market. You would do a lot more good fighting closer to home as has been suggested, especially since, at least in Africa, governments are now elbowing into the action. Should SA take over mining to any extent, the state would become more responsible for AMD, which won’t change anything because it is already responsible and appears to be doing far too little to improve degraded water quality.
    Some people would view the Shell adverts as the company giving something back (clearly how the company sees it). Corporate advertising used to promote the services companies have to offer. Now it’s more about bragging how much has been used to help the poor, which negates their actions. In this case, Shell just wants to say that it cares.
    Oil sands mining sounds disgusting, but someone wants it done and presumably sees benefits.
    The way I see it, you and I are “100% culpable for the harm and destruction the oil market causes and profits from.” Perhaps Greenpeace should only use rowing boats. Perhaps the ANC should cover the entire Eskom carbon tax itself; after all, it owns the company.
    If you wrote the blog mentioned, leave it to someone else to recommend it.

  • toni benoni

    Umm, you do know that the biggest oil producers are umm. governments in particualr russia, saudi arabia, venezeula. Their “environmental and human rights records” make shell look like the girl guides. But then that would not make you a thought leader would it? It is easier to bash “big business” in a lefty rant than to actually look at the facts. 80+ % of worold oil is produced by governments… 80% of the carbon, human rights abuses etc. are government led… that is news

  • brent

    Mike your article and reply do show you ‘discriminate’ in your moral outrage. The tar sands are the 2nd biggest ‘oil’ deposits after Saudi so if Shell did not exploit it for N.America some other comapny would. Why do you ‘Lefties’ only attack big oil, the Saudi state company is twice as big as the 6 biggest oil companies combined – think of all the abuse etc etc etc that power allows them plus the free pass that Mike and the worlds ‘Lefties’ give them.

    Brent

  • Grant

    ummm Toni, i think, umm, you missed the point of the article ummm….

  • http://www.thoughtleader.co.za/jenniferthorpe/2010/03/31/rape-sex-or-power/ Mike Baillie

    Hi Brent,

    In this article, the first thing I was complaining about was the Shell does one thing, but then attempts to portray itself as something else. I haven’t seen an ad by the Saudi state attempting to greenwash its activities. If I did, I’d complain about that too.

    In the later part of the blog I point out that Shell is possibly not the worst of the lot. That it is just doing what oil companies do. And I think they should stop doing it. The lengths they are going to supply us with oil are increasingly dangerous and damaging. Its not just Shell that I think should stop its operations. Its all oil projects, regardless of whether they are state-run, big oil companies, or small oil companies.

    Cool?

  • X Cepting

    I just love those advocates of oil that says: complain as you will, we must have oil. I wish South Africans would just occassionally go and look at what is happening in the rest of the world, not just when there is a disaster. This provincial attitude to living in the global village will simply leave us behind, once again. Broaden your horizons.

    http://www.renewableenergyworld.com/rea/home

    This is only one of many such sites. Oil is increasingly not the only solution anymore. Only Big Oil: Shell, BP, the Saudi Cartel, etc. would have us believe it is. Even they don’t believe it any more which is evidenced by their efforts to change their economies as fast as they can while they still have oil money to do so (Dubai, etc.)

  • Hugh Robinson

    The pro green energy miss some important points.
    We need oil derivatives to manufacture at least 80% of the GREEN components.

    Blood donated costs the end user up to R2400.00 a pint. The same with renewable energy. It costs ten times as much to maintain and errect when the ratio of output to construction cost is taken into consideration.

    I forget the study done on the UK South West coast but it was pretty eye opening.

    Green energy will never replace coal fired or nuclear energy. Every molecular chain with commercial use that has been developed from the mid thirties has its origins in oil

    Wind is 40% efficient and can only be used in a grid fashion to back up coal or other power generators. Solar the same applies. Biomass and other “green” engergies have just so much capacity then take time to deliver that capacity.

    At best green energy may be used as a backup to oil and coal.

    That said if those on the pro side put there money where their mouth is and refrain from buying consumer goods, there would be no arguements as there will be enough oil to go around.

    You cannot have your bread buttered on both sides. Either support complete ecconomic colapse or live with the oil problem.

    AN EXAMPLE Just to save and convert rainwater for household use has cost me R20,000. The pay back will take 20 years.

  • http://www.societymatters.org Alan Mairson

    You might be interested to know that Robert Stone, one of the National Geographic bloggers on this Shell-sponsored initiative, recently quit over precisely the points you’ve raised. Details here:

    http://societymatters.org/2010/12/18/ng-blogger-quits-over-shell-sponsorship/

  • Peter Squires

    Closer to home it always makes me smile when I see SASOL chimney stacks spewing waste into the air while SASOL sponsors bird conservation initiatives.

  • X Cepting

    @Hugh Robinson – Did you even look at the link? As with all new technologies, renewable energy is in its development phase and those facts you mention to a large extent outdated. Even China, using coal and nuclear at present is not only looking into but fast becoming the world leader in cleantech. It is like the beginning years computers. If we South Africans are going to continue saying “can’t be done” we will be left so far behind that we will continue to stand cap in hand buying outdated tech from the developed world at a premium. If each home generated their own power, which is possible, where is the need for wasteful transmission? I think the only thing holding back renewable tech is the deathgrip the monopolies and their government buddies have, and wish to keep, on power generation. The possibility the renewable energy industry has for job creation alone is phenomenal. Medupi was not necessary but it made someone somewhere rich!

  • X Cepting

    Oil is not the only base material for organic molecule synthesis. Up to now it is just the one we’ve been comfortable using.

  • http://www.thoughtleader.co.za/jenniferthorpe/2010/03/31/rape-sex-or-power/ Mike Baillie

    Wow, thanks Alan.
    That is pretty cool that he quit — and his comments about quitting are spot on. Thanks for posting the link!

  • Hugh Robinson

    XCepting. I think blame lies in believing what you read. Not if I read your link.

    No one is saying that it cannot be done. What is being said is that it is no good pointing fingers,or making demands when the New science has not been perfected and has a long way to go before the pitfalls become annoying.

    Without oil the new science would not exist. Wind turbines use Transformer oil and Special synthetic grease for example.

    Note I used the example of my RWH schemes that I use on my own home. You noted the cost. That was but an example of the real cost of free Harvesting when comapred to existing services.
    A “saving” with a huge price tag. Now apply that to the new science.

    If you care to read up on other wind farm problems that have few answers.

    http://www.saveourstateri.org/wind_power_problems.htm
    http://www.aweo.org/problemwithwind.html

    Finally consider a potentially huge problem with Solar farms inasmuch that they have the ability to add to the global warming problem if applied on the scale required to replace Coal or Oil. They have the ability to create atmospheric hot spots. A potential for localized weather changes.

    Best we reduce consumerism and capitalism will follow weeping.

  • Perry Curling-Hope

    X Cepting

    “If each home generated their own power, which is possible, […]”

    Sure they can, it just depends upon how little power ‘they’ would settle for.

    People often fail to distinguish between advances which might be achieved through technology, and absolute upper limits determined by foundational physics.

    Peak insolation at the equator, at perfect 90° incidence is about 1kW per square meter, and the average for the habitable earth, only 1/5 or 200W/m2 which yields 4.8 kW-hr/m2 /day.

    No ‘technology’ whatsoever can increase this, you would need a bigger Sun, end of story.

    Silicon, as an element, exhibits a photoelectric property which is constrained by a ‘band gap’, i.e. it only converts that part of the solar spectrum which lies within the band gap to electricity, and even with optimum doping of the crystal lattice still sets the theoretical upper limit to 30%, although only about 25% has been realized, with real world, economic panels which I can buy NOW in the region of 10% to 15%

    A medium income ‘warm’ country such as Australia consumes a per capita average of 33kW-hr/day excluding gas and petroleum (a cold country like Norway 3 times that ) which would mean a family of 4 requiring a (theoretical ideal) minimum of 110m2 of panels with full 2axis solar tracking, +/- four times that with a fixed ‘rooftop cladding’ scheme.

    That excludes electricity for the family’s ‘green’ car, assuming someone can figure out how to store the stuff.

  • X Cepting

    @Perry Curling Hope – OK, now you have dealt with solar PV… Why is it that when people object to renewable they always use the most hightech inefficient one of the lot to illustrate. A solar heat convertor can be built in the average home workshop with scrap.

    I was also not talking about powering an igloo in Alaska but powering the average home/shack/tent in South Africa where we have abundand sun in most areas, abundant wind in coastal towns not to mention the fact that we have coast on 3 sides and, please, if biogas could provide a city the size of London with lights in the 19th Century, when tech was in its infancy, well, each house has sewage available and a little bit of green building tech should half most home’s energy requirements. I own neither fan nor heater which does not mean I am uncomfortable or bath in cold water, I like my water hot. It is a matter of rethink, redesign, retrain and for goodness sake, build it locally.

    Here’s a novel one: a gym in California gets all their power from the clients, just a matter of thinking of muscle power as just another abundantly waste power that can be converted to electricity. The average 5 yr old on a cleverly designed jungle gym could provide the power for the bath.

    Think people! It takes very little energy.

  • X Cepting

    Also, electricity is electricity, no matter how made, so it is just a matter of designing a battery with the right storage capacity for a home, as backup. How do people on boats store longterm? Many processes can be direct gas that is now plug in. Cooking for instance. Solar for electronics works just fine and is available but ludacrously expensive because, yes, we do not make it locally and the mfrs have too little market as yet.

  • X Cepting

    I could go on but prefer not to bore.

  • X Cepting

    @Hugh Robinson – I was not going to comment on R20 000!!! for a rainwater collection system which is probably only supplementary, but, you have been had. I very rarely trust in believe, prefering facts, for which I make sure by continuous study that I have the necessary understanding. The site I gave is not devoted to one oak with a bril energy idea, but it is one of the few new sites that lists, discusses and acts as a portal for global tech, current research, ongoing projects, feedbacks and criticisms between known global experts. Think: “Engineering News” for Renewable. I try not to be one of those people wasting others time with non-science (nonsense).

  • X Cepting

    It does not mean I don’t agree with you about rampant consumerism, and would add rampant human overbreeding.

  • X Cepting

    We did just fine without fossil fuels for thousands of years, why should a hundred years relying on it hamstrung us forever? It just does not make sense.

  • Hugh Robinson

    I do not wish to continue this further as it is clear that unless we are talking cross purposes you have your mind set and appear to lack the ability to see the wider problems with the so called wholly green strategy.

    My suggestion is that you visit the local wind or solar farm and ask the right questions first hand.

    As for the water option please do your homework before commenting. RWH is not just a tank attached to a gutter. My system has all the whistles and bells including a bio-digester to meet the international blue drop water standard.

    If you are so prepared for change put your money where your mouth is and do not wait for the inevitable climate change and poisonous water

    Because Granddad did it without XYZ does not mean that it can be done again whilst still maintaining the current world standard.

    I ask that you accept that there is not enough green energy to meet the concurrent everyday sustained demands of households and industry.

    Green is not the Beginning and end all of our problems. Sit down and really study the situation.

    Finally until some really great invention that can create energy and not convert it comes along we will be using based carbon fuels.

  • Perry Curling-Hope

    Hi X Cepting,

    I would agree that solar water heaters, evacuated tube designs rather than backyard DIY varieties anyway, which are not subject to the spectral limitations of PV, are an excellent and viable supplementary source of total hot water needs, which typically constitute 20% of household electricity usage.

    I will return to addressing the validity of the assertion as to the possibility for “each home to generate its own power” and confine my comments thereto.

    No “igloo in Alaska” here, I specifically selected favorable sites exhibiting 200W/m2
    which are representative of Southern Spain, Australia (or SA).

    I failed to get my point across, i.e. regardless of what technology is applied, not enough solar energy falls on the rooftop of a typical dwelling to satisfy energy demand, if one accepts that the per capita energy consumption of a middle class in a middle income country, such as Australia, is justified.

    For practical purposes, ‘home’ generation is essentially restricted to direct solar and solar PV systems, and in my own case, using real solar panels and instrumentation rather than relying upon the assertions of some special interest blog, determined I would require 4½ times my available rooftop area to supply AVERAGE electrical consumption.
    A solar heater would not reduce this requirement significantly, and this is only the collectors.

    One would still require sufficient storage capacity to accommodate peak loads and to bridge night time use and a run of cold, overcast days in mid winter.

  • Perry Curling-Hope

    Hi again X Cepting,

    I would like to provide a little perspective on

    “so it is just a matter of designing a battery with the right storage capacity” and “people in boats” :-)

    A kilogram of petroleum contains around 50mega-jouls of potential chemical energy, which is enough to lift one metric ton to a height of 5Km.

    The best deep cycle marine (lead acid) batteries today have an energy density of only 0.1Mj/Kg, which means that to store the energy contained in a single10Kg liquid propane cylinder, one would require 50 metric tons of batteries!
    Lead oxide/ sulfuric acid chemistry is limited by foundational thermodynamics to less than 0.7Mj/Kg, which means ‘advances in technology’ cannot reduce this to less than about 8 tons, even assuming such technology and economic viability.

    The reason the approx. 70million new motorcars produced annually still use lead acid batteries (despite the ridiculous ‘green’ inspired ‘RoHS’ legislation banning the use of lead) is because there is no viable alternative.

    Application of ‘better’ Lithium/ion technologies, with a foundational physical upper bound of about 3Mj/Kg, (which has yet to be demonstrated, real ones are still at about 0.5Mj/Kg, or 10 tones of Li/ion batteries in my previous example) is constrained by cost, but more importantly, by resource availability.

    There are only so many elements on the periodic table which could theoretically be applied to fabricate batteries, (hydrogen / scandium?) public policy cannot be reasonably formulated based on such speculative technologies.

  • Toni Benoni

    Shell are one of the worlds largest producers of solar panels… their government competition in the oil sector make… um… 0 panels. Odd?