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Cindy Baxter: The spectre of Shell

The spectre of Shell
Blogpost by Cindy Baxter - August 17, 2011 at 15:03

'The flames of Shell are flames of Hell,
We bask below their light,
Nought for us to serve the blight,
Of cursed neglect and cursed Shell.”

- Ogoni protest song, circa 1970.

As global oil reserves run low, the oil giants are looking further and further afield in search of new oil. From the Arctic to the extreme deep waters of New Zealand, the oil drillers are preparing to take greater and greater risks in the search for the last drops of oil - but they've got a fight on their hands.

Here in New Zealand we’ve suddenly got Anadarko, Petrobras and now Shell virtually falling over each other to get at the promised oil reserves previously thought to be too difficult – and too risky to access.

But we’ve seen their interest cooled by a groundswell of public resistance. From protests by East Cape iwi te Whanau a Apanui against Petrobras’s deep sea drilling in the Raukumara Basin, to the near 80,000 people who’ve signed our petition against new deep sea oil drilling the message has been clear.

This is shaping up to be a hell of a fight and Shell’s appearance on the scene will only serve to fan the flames.

In the same week it’s admitted to a serious oil spill in the North Sea, Shell has announced a 50% stake in two drilling leases in New Zealand’s sub Antarctic Great South Basin.

In 1994 Greenpeace launched a report in London, “Shell Shocked,” - an expose of Shell Oil’s oil pollution of a part of the Niger Delta called Ogoniland.

The Ogoni people had suffered for decades at the hands of Shell, with oil pipelines running through villages, oil spills into the local environment and 24 hour gas flares poisoning the air. Ogoni campaigner Ken Saro Wiwa, had long been campaigning for justice for poisoning of his people, land and water.

With “Shell Shocked” we finally broke Ken’s story onto the international stage. But for Ken, it was too late. He was arrested on a trumped-up charge by General Sani Abacha’s corrupt regime and, on 10 November 1995, after a kangaroo court trial, he and eight others were hung at the Port Harcourt jail in the Delta.

Ken literally gave up his life for his campaign against Shell, distributing documentation of Shell’s involvement with the Nigerian military, which carried out massacres in Ogoni villages.

We made sure that his death was not in vain. Thanks to Ken, we were able to show the world Shell’s complicity with the Abacha regime’s military, its failure to clean up spills and other evidence of its alliance with a corrupt regime.

Shell promised to change.

As with many corporations, Shell saw its pollution only as a PR problem and poured millions into rebuilding its image. Shell won its campaign to go back to Ogoniland. And the spills by the oil industry continued - at an average of three spills a day.

The Ogoni couldn’t get any justice in Nigeria. Wikileaks reported in 2009 that Shell boasted it had employees in every department of the Nigerian Government. The Ogoni had to take it internationally.

In 2009 Shell managed to shirk a class action in the US, settling a suit with the Ogoni for NZD $18.6 million.

On August 3 this year, after another class action in London, Shell was finally forced to admit to two massive spills in 2008 that affected more than 69,000 people in Ogoniland. Shell had made no attempt to clean it up, instead offering the local people a total of NZD$6,800, some rice, beans, tomatoes and groundnut oil in compensation. Thanks to the class action, the company now faces a bill of millions.

Last week, the UN released a long-awaited report showing 50 years of systematic oil spills into the Delta, placing Shell in the middle of the problem. It will take 30 years to clean up the mess, the UN says.

Meanwhile, in the North Sea, Shell is now battling to clear up two leaks from its Gannet Alpha Well off Scotland. NGO’s and MPs are crying foul, pointing out that Shell took days to admit the spills to the public.

From the North Sea to the Great South Basin

Now we find out that Shell has bought the rights to explore for oil deep in new Zealand’s Great South Basin, an area that contain some of the most dangerous waters on the planet.

Already, nearly 80,000 New Zealanders have signed a petition calling for an end to deepwater oil drilling in our waters.

If Shell can’t stop spilling oil in Nigeria (and it requires a class action to get them to admit liability) and can’t prevent spills in the North Sea, how can we trust this company to keep it clean in the Great South Basin? Even Exxon thought it was too risky.

BP’s Deepwater Horizon rig was at 1500m deep – yet parts of the Great South Basin are 1700m deep – and with none of the massive oil spill cleanup infrastructure of the Gulf of Mexico.

Will the people of Dunedin have to be like the Ogoni and take class actions to get Shell to clean up? While our Government will argue that it’s not corrupt like the Nigerian regimes (and Shell is unlikely to offer bags of beans as compensation), we don’t have the right controls in place to oversee a cleanup.

The New Zealand Government has already poured $40 million into getting its offshore exploration regime set up. Yet we stand to gain only 5% of the income from any oil that might be extracted. What will be the cost to New Zealand’s good name if Shell spills oil into our pristine waters?

But there is an even bigger question here. As Steve Abel says in a press release today:

“This is not the sort of industry we want in our waters. The Government has to give up on its obsession with expanding the fossil fuels industry, and instead invest in clean technologies that will address the climate crisis, and provide the sort of stable economic future that will give us real prosperity’”.

Take Action: Sign the petition against new deep sea oil drilling here


Cindy Baxter has worked with Greenpeace and other NGOs for over 20 years and has followed Shell for much of that time

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