Why was the President of Shell Oil in Grand Rapids?

On Thursday, Shell Oil president John Hofmeister spoke in Grand Rapids. His talk–held as part of a public relations tour by Shell–portrayed the company in a favorable manner while emphasizing the idea “alternative fuels” and ignoring Shell’s history of environmental and human rights abuses.

photo of john hofmeister

John Hofmeister, President of Shell Oil, spoke as part of the “Global Executives Briefing Series” hosted by the World Affairs Council of Western Michigan. His talk–held at the University Club in downtown Grand Rapids–was titled “How the US Can Ensure Energy Supply for the Future.” Hofmeister stated up front that he was on a 50 city tour and that Grand Rapids was number 45. The tour is designed to “engage key audiences and talking to the American public about Energy Security.” According to Source Watch, the tour is part of a larger public relations campaign to “counter public anger at high oil prices and “windfall profit” tax proposals.” Hofmeister referred to this public anger as an “intolerant debate after Katrina.”

Hofmeister began his talk by stating that the US is faced with 4 major insecurities–homeland insecurity, financial insecurity, environmental insecurity, and energy insecurity. In each case the government has responded fairly well except in the are of energy insecurity. Hofmeister said there are more energy resources to be had than we can use, but he didn’t substantiate that point. Hofmeister also said “public policy prohibits us from getting 85% of US based energy.” He then gave the example of how the Energy Bill of 2005 permitted some positive changes in the system, but “the 2007 Energy bill takes away the 2005 remedies.” Hofmeister also stated that “there is no energy strategy dealing with energy policy. So, what could the energy security strategy look like?”

He went on to say, “when it comes to conventional oil and gas, the US model is still the envy of the world – we need to develop conventional gas and oil resources, but we are prohibited from accessing it. Unconventional oil and gas sit in a different state of development,” but that Shell is exploring this type of energy. He discussed coal as a viable source of energy, but to make it more efficient “why not gasify coal so you can manage the molecular structure into clean energy.” He also stated that there is an increase in the demand of natural gas but that the US is inadequately equipped with what he referred to as re-gasification terminals.

Hofmeister then discussed bio-fuels, which he claimed Shell has been developing for 40 years. Shell is putting its effort into other bio-fuels technology, such as the use of corn stalk or cane pulp instead of the current forms of bio-fuel production. Shell also has wind farms in 7 states and has a partnership with GM on hydrogen fuel cells. However, for the US to have energy security, Hofmeister said that Shell believes there are three other things that need to happen. First, there needs to be a commitment to a culture of conservation, which he emphasized as new technology development not our present consumption habits. Second, he said, the government needs to take the lead on greenhouse gas emissions so that companies can trade energy credits. Lastly, Hofmeister said, the public needs to be educated about energy and energy policy. He said that Katrina provided a great opportunity for this to happen but instead people just complained about gas prices and “didn’t understand it and accept the fact that production was down by 25% but demand stayed the same.”

In many ways, Hofmeister was presenting Shell Oil in an extremely positive light, with the emphasis on future technology development and “alternative fuels.” However, the public record on Shell is significantly different and raises serious questions about the motives of this global energy company that contrast significantly from the talk that Hofmeister gave. For instance, Hofmeister mentioned on several occasions that government seemed to be a barrier to great access to energy resources, yet Shell Oil has spent over $27 million dollars in lobbying efforts since 1998 according to the Center for Public Intergity. He is also a member of the Department of Energy’s Hydrogen and Fuel Cell Technical Advisory Committee thus providing Shell with additional opportunities to influence public policy.

The largest omission from Hofmeister’s talk however, was that Shell does most of its business overseas and it is outside of the US that Shell has a record of environmental devastation and in some cases has played a role in human rights abuses. Oil extraction alone has caused tremendous ecological devastation and the process itself creates highly toxic waste. In the Niger Delta, villagers have been suffering the consequences of Shell Oil’s decision to inject waste from energy extraction into the ground. Hundreds of residents became sick from the toxins in the ground and water and dozens have died. Oil spills and toxic waste are common with oil extraction, but 40% of Shell’s global spills have occurred in the Niger Delta according to Al Gedicks, author of Resource Rebels.

Many communities have organized in response to the health risks and environmental devastation committed by Shell Oil. The most famous case began in the 1990 with the Ogoni people in Nigeria. After years of suffering from contamination the Ogoni people organized MOSOP, the Movement for the Survival of the Ogoni People under the leadership of a charismatic organizer named Ken Saro-Wiwa. MOSOP organized demonstrations and mass protests and in 1993 Shell was forced to close its production facilities on Ogoni land. However, the Nigerian military was now occupying the territory and began attacking the Ogoni movement. Within two years 2,000 civilians were dead and 37 villages were destroyed. In May of 1994 Saro-Wiwa and eight other Ogoni leaders were arrested. It was later discovered that Shell was bribing witnesses to testify against the Ogoni organizers. In 1995 Saro-Wiwa and the other eight prisoners were tried in a military court and executed. The execution sparked an international campaign to boycott Shell. In the US there was a Senate bill that would have prohibited Nigeria Oil from being imported into the US, but the bill was easily defeated and couldn’t even get enough sponsors.

Shell Oil has consistently denied any wrong doing in the Ogoni case, but during ongoing legal battles over the 1994 executions a memo was leaked that originated from a Nigeria military officer in charge of the Ogoni operations. The memo states “hell operations are still impossible unless ruthless military operations are undertaken for smooth economic activities to commence.” The officer then recommends “wasting operations during MOSOP and other gatherings, making constant military presence justifiable and wasting targets cutting across communities and leadership cadres, especially vocal individuals in various groups.” When the documentary Delta Force was released Shell admitted to paying “field allowances” to the Nigeria military and providing logistical support in the form of access to Shell helicopters and boats. According to Resource Rebels, “The company also admitted to importing weapons into Nigeria to arm the police.”

The Ogoni case is just one example of how Shell and other oil companies are anything but proponents of a culture of conservation. For information on oil company practices globally and community resistance to their practices an excellent resource is Oil Watch which can be read in both English and Spanish.

Author: mediamouse

Grand Rapids independent media // mediamouse.org