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Shell in the Arctic?

August 8, 2012

Happy August! This month the Obama Administration will make its final decision on granting permits for Shell’s drilling in the Arctic.

Subhankar Banerjee’s photograph of a polar bear in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge (ANWR) was used by Senator Barbara Boxer in 2003 to argue against drilling in the refuge. Shell’s first exploratory wells drilled this summer will be just north of the ANWR coast.

To commemorate this very important decision let’s take a quick look at the impact of Shell’s work elsewhere:


Niger Delta

Niger Delta, photo by George Osodi for AP

Shell in the Niger Delta is probably best known for being complicit in the human rights abuses and military violence leading to the sham trial and hanging of writer/activist Ken Saro-Wiwa and eight other leaders of the Ogoni people in 1995. Just three years ago the company paid $15.5 million to settle charges of human rights violations connected with their actions in the delta. While Shell may have ducked some political and legal fallout with the payout, the environmental impact continues unabated. Environmental watchdog groups accuse Shell of grossly underestimating spills and avoiding cleanup responsibilities. And a UN report last year condemned both Shell and the Nigerian government for 50 years of devastation in the delta. To this day massive spills and widespread gas flaring continue to cause catastrophic health effects.

Shell pays out $15.5m over Saro-Wiwa killing, Guardian, 2009
Shell reports record oil spillages in Nigeria, Guardian, 2010
UN slams Shell & Nigerian government for 50 years of environmental abuse in the Delta, Reuters, 2011
Amnesty International accuses Shell of gross inaccuracy in reporting oil spills in Nigeria, 2012
A report on continuing severe health and environmental impacts in Nigeria, Reuters, 2012


Sakhalin Island

Sakhalin Island, still from PBS Frontline documentary “Russia: Island on the Edge”

Sakhalin Island sits off the eastern coast of Russia and northern island of Japan. Almost always described as remote and harsh, it is probably best known — outside Japan and Russia — to energy industry experts and avid readers of Chekhov and Murakami. In the late 1990s Shell, Exxon, and other transnational corporations descended on Sakhalin, encouraged by newfound Russian openness to foreign investment and the lure of massive oil and natural gas reserves. Shell’s work on Sakhalin has been characterized by environmental damage, schedule delays, cost overruns, and ongoing tensions with the Kremlin. In 2006 the Russian government forced Shell to sell a controlling stake in the project, a move some call a response to environmental negligence and others a hostile takeover. Drilling activities, dumping, spills, and damage from pipeline construction threaten the Western gray whale with extinction and harms the salmon runs critical to the indigenous livelihood and non-energy economy in this area.

PBS Frontline video documentary on Sakhalin, 2007
WWF on Shell’s Sakhalin II project
Russia threatens to abort Sakhalin project, Radio Free Europe, 2006
Bloomberg Businessweek report on Sakhalin energy projects,  2006


To top it off, Shell is an ardent greenwasher. Possibly a champion among champions here, it once called its Canada tar sands project “sustainable.” This is why the recent mock “Arctic Ready” ad campaign was such a runaway success. It was so easy to believe!

Shell does have a few good things going for it. It did not (as far as I can tell) help fuel German war planes in WWII like Standard Oil (predecessor of present-day ExxonMobil and Chevron); and, even more helpfully, it did not just recently cause a massive deep sea oil spill in full view of Americans like BP.


Some key readings (and viewing) on Shell’s Arctic ambitions:

Mindy Lubber, President of CERES, on Shell’s readiness, Forbes, 2012
New and frozen frontier awaits offshore oil drilling, New York Times, 2012
Photographer and activist Subhankar Banerjee discusses Shell and Arctic, on Democracy Now!, 2012
Shell asks for more lenient regulations even before drilling, LA Times, 2012

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