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In Depth: Departing Consultant Contrasts Shell’s Safety Commitment with ‘Complete Greenwash’ on Climate

The senior safety consultant whose high-profile resignation from Shell spotlighted the company’s “extreme harms” to the environment is drawing a sharp contrast between the colossal fossil’s enduring interest in safer work processes and its failure to deliver on its highly-touted emissions reduction plan.

“They’re not joining the dots,” Caroline Dennett, director of Bristol, England-based CLOUT Ltd., told The Energy Mix earlier this week. “There’s a complete greenwash of their net-zero target. It’s not real at all. You can’t have a net-zero target and still look for new extraction licences—even the International Energy Agency says that can’t happen anymore.”

Earlier this week, Dennett severed her decade-long working relationship with Shell with an open letter to its executives and 1,400 employees, accompanied by a video posted on LinkedIn, the Guardian reports. She accused the beleaguered company, which lost a major court challenge last year in the Netherlands and more recently faced investor scrutiny over its low climate ambition and CEO Ben van Beurden’s £13.5-million pay packet, of showing “disregard for climate change risks”, “operating beyond the design limits of our planetary systems”, and “not putting environmental safety before production”.

She urged other fossil industry employees to “walk away while there’s still time.”

In response, the company reaffirmed its commitment to its 2050 target and said it had devoted billions of dollars and thousands of staff to the effort.

But Dennett contrasted Shell’s climate performance, or lack thereof, with the commitment she often saw from management and field staff when she first signed on to assess the company’s safety in the wake of BP’s Deepwater Horizon disaster in 2011. The work began with an employee survey on safety processes and culture and continued until two months ago and encompassed Shell facilities from Canada to Nigeria, where staff “played a big part in the survey design”.

Decision-makers at Shell bought into that work “100%”, Dennett told The Mix, even if the anonymous feedback wasn’t always what they expected. “The results were always… very uncomfortable for front-line leaders and managers, because perception is a strange thing,” she recalled. “You think you’re doing a great job as a safety leader, and then you find out the message only gets half-way down the pipe.”

But with the evidence in hand, she said Shell generally got serious about the “top three or four things that drive all safety culture,” even if budgets didn’t always match up with the work to be done. “I’d have to say that most of the time, there were actions taken on the back of this.”

That was a far cry from the lack of follow-through on Shell’s loud promises to bring its greenhouse gas emissions to net-zero by 2050.

“A safe transition is one thing,” Dennett said, given that the taps won’t be turned off on oil and gas production overnight. “But to pretend you’ve got a net-zero target and then continue the new licence applications is not [preparing for a transition].”

As for the billions Shell claims to be investing in renewable energy, “they’re just buying up this portfolio of small renewables companies,” she said. “They’ve got a green portfolio, but that’s not investment. Investment is research and development, building infrastructure, retraining your staff to operate that infrastructure, and buying up a couple of battery storage manufacturers.”

That disconnect was a big part of what motivated Dennett to cut ties with the company.

“Shell are powerful. They have financial capital. They have technological capital. And they have human capital,” she said. “They are uniquely placed to move into a rapid renewables future. They have everything they need to do that, including reskilling their personnel. Half of them wouldn’t even have to reskill—if you work offshore and you have the opportunity to build wind turbines, you need the same engineering and operational skills. So it’s deeply disillusioning that a company that was once so visionary and innovative cannot see beyond the next barrel of oil.”

That’s ultimately because “they haven’t worked out how they can monetize renewables,” she added. “There just isn’t the profit in renewables that there is in oil and gas,” and “they’re just so driven by capital gain that they don’t see beyond that.”

But those profits depend on the lavish financial support fossil companies receive from governments and pension funds in Britain, Canada, and elsewhere.

“Anybody would be profitable if they were sitting on massive subsidies and had money coming in from people’s savings and pension funds,” she said. :If you take that away, how viable is that business today? It wouldn’t be very viable, and that could push them into either shutting down or making the transition.”

Dennett said one of the best indicators of the low priority Shell attaches to climate and carbon came from the half-million words of open feedback her surveys generated over a 10-year assignment that spanned 65 production sites and about 20,000 employees and contractors.

“I heard some conversations in this feedback around localized pollution and spills, mostly in Nigeria,” she said. “But I barely heard climate change mentioned,” except for one manager who mentioned the net-zero target in passing when he introduced her as a workshop speaker.

Dennett wasn’t inclined to blame front-line staff for the disconnect.

“We know how culture works,” she said. “If the operational leaders aren’t talking about climate change, the people on the front line aren’t going to talk about it, either. And that just says to me that the conversation isn’t happening. It’s happening in the marketing department, but not on the front line. Someone asked me if I would really expect the manager of an oil rig to talk to their people about it, and I said yes, actually: If that were the message from the top, they’d be saying, ‘don’t worry, guys, because you’ve got job security here. When we retrain you to build and maintain infrastructure for renewables, you’ve got a job for life.’”

In her former work for Shell, she added, “the safety messages came through. If they were really treating this as an emergency, they would be adding it to their mix. Why would it not be [a commitment to] no harm to people, no leaks, and working towards a safer world? It’s not difficult, is it?”

Dennett confirmed a report by Climate Home News that the timing of her resignation was driven in part by an Extinction Rebellion protest at Shell headquarters in April, where protesters entered the foyer, glued themselves to the nearest surface, and called for insiders to blow the whistle on the company’s climate performance. Dennett lives in a coastal community facing sea level rise, flooding, and wildfires, had already been active in climate advocacy, and “I was already saying I can’t do this any longer,” she told The Mix. “I’d been telling people that I was living a double life.”

So her hope was to tell a story that compared and contrasted Shell’s safety activities with its failure to confront its massive climate footprint.

“In their safety ambition, the language in the industry is all about risk mitigation and assessment, not pushing equipment beyond its design limit,” she said. “If we used that language and reflected it back at them, I think it would resonate with people at Shell and in the industry.”