Out Damned Spot: Workers Waking Up to Oil’s Climate Stigma

May 31, 2022

“Please walk away.” Shell contractor releases her resignation video, excoriating the company for lack of commitment to decarbonization.

Financial Times:(paywall)

Last Monday, Caroline Dennett, a safety consultant at Shell, published an excoriating resignation email, saying she could “no longer work for a company that ignores all the alarms and dismisses the risks of climate change and ecological collapse”. New exploration projects belied the company’s commitment to Net Zero, she said, and she urged fellow workers in the industry to follow her before it was too late.

The next day, addressing graduates of Seton Hall University in New Jersey, UN secretary-general António Guterres pleaded with them not to work “for climate wreckers”.

The coincidence of the calls wasn’t planned but it feels like a sea change, with workers anxious that staying in the sector now poses too great a risk to their careers and their consciences.

Why is retention such an issue? People are leaving because they say they can’t see their careers developing, they fear reputational damage or can’t square the work with their values. Veterans and newcomers alike are increasingly attracted to new businesses developing renewable technologies like carbon capture which don’t carry the stigma of oil and gas majors.

Wilful blindness to this problem perpetuates fear and silence. At Shell, where Dennett surveyed 20,000 people and gathered half a million words of open feedback, she found a “startling” lack of conversation about net zero. “Such talk might occur in the boardroom, in the PR department, in the marketing and branding departments,” she said, “but in the operations where it matters, I’ve not heard it. Leaders in management communicate their commitment to safety through actions, not just words. If you’re not doing it, then it’s not happening.” 

“They know that continued oil and gas extraction causes extreme harms, to our climate, to our environment and to people. And whatever they say, Shell is simply not winding down on fossil fuels.”

Dennett told the Guardian she “could not marry these conflicts with my conscience”, adding: “I could not carry that any longer, and I’m ready to deal with the consequences.”

Shell was a “major client” of Dennett’s business, which specialises in evaluating safety procedures in high-risk industries including oil and gas production. She began working with Shell in the aftermath of BP’s Deepwater Horizon oil spill in 2010, which rocked the industry.

“I can no longer work for a company that ignores all the alarms and dismisses the risks of climate change and ecological collapse,” she said. “Because, contrary to Shell’s public expressions around net zero, they are not winding down on oil and gas, but planning to explore and extract much more.”

Dennett – a criminal justice graduate who has spent her career in research and consultancy – was inspired to stop working with Shell after watching news footage of Extinction Rebellion climate protesters urging the company’s employees to leave. The movement’s TruthTeller whistleblowing project encourages oil and gas employees to walk away from the industry.

The consultant, who runs internal safety surveys and is based in Weymouth, Dorset, acknowledged she was “privileged” to be able to walk away and “many people working in fossil fuel companies just aren’t so lucky”.

She urged Shell’s executives to “look in the mirror and ask themselves if they really believe their vision for more oil and gas extraction secures a safe future for humanity”.

In late 2020, several Shell executives in its clean energy sector left amid reports they were frustrated at the pace of Shell’s shift towards greener fuels.

Her announcement comes on the eve of Shell’s AGM in London on Tuesday. Its plans to reduce emissions will be discussed at the meeting where the Dutch activist group Follow This will push for the company’s policies to be more consistent with the Paris climate accord. Shell’s board has told investors to reject the group’s resolution that asks it to set more stringent climate goals.

The Shell investor Royal London has said it intends to abstain on a vote on the firm’s climate transition proposals.

The Shell chief executive, Ben van Beurden, could experience an investor rebellion against his £13.5m pay packet at the AGM after the investment adviser Pirc urged a vote against it.

A Shell spokesperson said: “Be in no doubt, we are determined to deliver on our global strategy to be a net zero company by 2050 and thousands of our people are working hard to achieve this. We have set targets for the short, medium and long term, and have every intention of hitting them.

“We’re already investing billions of dollars in low-carbon energy, although the world will still need oil and gas for decades to come in sectors that can’t be easily decarbonised.”

Shell also faces the prospect of a potential windfall tax to fund cuts to household bills after the energy industry reported bumper profits fuelled by the increase in market prices, prompting opposition parties to call on the government to bring in a one-off levy.

On Monday, the biggest oil and gas producer in the North Sea spoke out against a one-off levy, arguing it would lead to the industry approving fewer projects.

Harbour Energy’s chief executive, Linda Cook, told the Financial Times: “A higher tax burden will make it more challenging for new oil and gas projects to meet investment hurdle rates, meaning fewer projects will be sanctioned.

“This is at a time when industry is being encouraged to increase domestic UK oil and gas production and support an orderly energy transition.”


One Response to “Out Damned Spot: Workers Waking Up to Oil’s Climate Stigma”

  1. J4Zonian Says:

    Some things I still don’t get about this that no one is talking about:

    It took 40 years! for this to happen. People are stupid, and quite a few are insane, but most are not that stupid, and the insane ones are mostly in charge and have known all along so will never quit. What possible excuse could anyone of even below-average intelligence and emotional stability have for still working for a fossil fuel corporation? (Or ICEV or agro-chemical?)

    Who the hell is still talking about net zero? What sane person is still lost in the fantasy of oil and gas corporations pumping millions of tonnes of CO2 into the atmosphere til after 2050 with the infinitesimal cosmetic change of doing it while using EVs and heat pumps? Is anyone buying that crap?

    Actual zero by 2030 or we’re risking everything.

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