Royal Dutch Shell's "Science Slams" and How Climate Change Denial Turned in to Greenwashing

Michael Teague  |

It is by no means controversial to say that there is a long history of popular animus towards major oil companies in the US. Indeed, in 1911, well before the Exxon Valdez tanker ran aground and spilled hundreds of thousands of barrels of crude into the delicate ecosystem of Alaska’s Prince William Sound (thereby guaranteeing, aside from a protracted environmental disaster that continues to this day, years of near-total synonymity between the name of the company and the name of the event), immense popular pressure resulted in the US Supreme Court ordering the breakup of Standard Oil under the Sherman Antitrust Act.

One might be tempted to ask what good the breakup did, considering that one century later most of the “mini-Standards” have gradually, and persistently, managed to re-coagulate into ever larger and more consolidated chunks of their former superstructure. While it is highly unlikely that there is much of an appetite among the so-called “super-majors” at present to reform the old Standard Oil, the past 100 years have not seen the public relations scene for big oil getting any better, despite the millions of dollars the industry has spent trying to improve its image.

ExxonMobil (XOM) is for obvious reasons perceived as the industry’s standard-bearer. The company has long been one of the world’s largest publicly-traded entities, a position it came to occupy as a result of the arrival of former CEO Lee Raymond, who imposed a nearly pious sort of discipline on the company’s operations and finances.

Accordingly, ExxonMobil also set the bar for how far big oil companies might be able to go in terms of pushing the credulity of the general public. The issue of climate change provides the best illustration of this, as Raymond was renowned for his complete and total rejection of the possibility of climate change, much less that human activity, particularly through the production and use of fossil fuels, accounted for a substantial amount the carbon being released into the earth’s atmosphere.

Raymond, himself a man of science, appears to have been totally sincere in his belief, and under his leadership the company hired its own stable of white-coats to produce reports that refuted or at least cast doubts on the thesis of global warming. It also funded independent efforts to do so.

It took the arrival of the more pragmatic CEO Rex Tillerson to act on the need to get with the times. In the meantime, Exxon’s more skittish colleagues had opted for a more friendly technique of skirting the core issues posed by the overwhelming evidence of climate science. Greenwashing, as it is known by environmental activists, can be seen in a variety of forms, for instance when the company formerly known as British Petroleum (BP) changed its name simply to “BP”, and adopted a soft, friendly green/yellow logo design, ostensibly in an effort to distance itself from its image as a big scary oil company.

Big oil in general has taken to advertising its own embrace of environmental issues, and have spent a great deal of money to this end. One of the most recent examples can be seen raking the form of Royal Dutch Shell’s ($RDS.A) so-called “Science Slams.” Its most recent science slam, which took place in Berlin last week, had the stated goal of encouraging young scientists to bring forth and share their ideas on renewable energy. But the response from some of the participants was not only not what the company had expected, but also seems to have backfired to some extent.

The Berlin Science Slam turned out to be quite a spectacle/debacle. At some point during the proceedings, a German environmentalist by the name of Jean Peters, along with an accomplice, took the stage to demonstrate their invention: an odd-looking box contraption. Peters made a great show of the otherwise simple act of plugging in the device; once this was accomplished, the box’s lid flew open, and it began spewing an oil-esque substance all over the room full of what were presumably young German scientists.

The inside of the lid read “Slam Shell,” so the point must have been obvious to everyone almost immediately. Peters reinforced the whole performance by unplugging the machine, and telling the audience: “We can pull the plug out here, but not in the Arctic!”

Earlier this year, former Secretary of the Interior Ken Salazar stated quite succinctly that “Shell screwed up in 2012”. He was referring to a number of serious mishaps for which the company was responsible in 2012 that took place in the Arctic Ocean, in the wake of a report that claimed the company was not adequately prepared for such a risky undertaking.

The activist group behind the Science Slam prank is known as the Peng Collective. Their stated goal, as can be seen in their official statement on the matter, was to highlight the company’s greenwashing via the Science Slam. In other words, their contention is that it is at best hypocritical, and at worst premeditated and devious, for the company to spend 180,000 euros on an event that showcases how much it cares about the environment, and how much it cares about the voices of young people, while simultaneously undertaking dangerous deep-water drilling in highly sensitive areas of the Arctic, especially as the company had a record of offshore accidents in 2012 that it has not yet cleaned up after.

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