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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?

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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.