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A Shell truth-teller speaks out
Following her viral resignation, Caroline Dennett talks about Shell’s climate lies and how others in the industry can come forward.
Emily Sanders is the Center for Climate Integrity’s editorial lead. Catch up with her on Twitter here.
It’s hard to talk about anything other than the horrific massacre in Uvalde this week, and the shameful inaction of elected officials when it comes to protecting the most vulnerable among us. In the end, it all comes down to one thing: whether it’s climate change or gun laws, we live at the whim of politicians and executives willing to sacrifice anything for their own personal power and wealth.
So here’s a bit of good and still-important news: this week, the movement for climate accountability celebrated two major court rulings that bring long overdue trials for the oil corporations fueling the climate crisis closer to fruition.
On Monday, the First Circuit upheld a ruling that will allow Rhode Island’s climate damages lawsuit against 21 fossil fuel companies to proceed in state court — the fourth consecutive appeals court to reject Big Oil’s efforts to escape accountability this year. Then, on Tuesday, the Massachusetts Supreme Court rejected a last-ditch effort by ExxonMobil to avoid facing Attorney General Maura Healey’s consumer fraud lawsuit, which is now poised to make history as the first in the country to put Exxon on trial for lying about climate change. Both rulings were unanimous.
The bad week for Big Oil was also a bad week for the public relations team at Shell, in particular. Climate activists grabbed headlines by interrupting Shell’s annual shareholder meeting with protests. And Caroline Dennett, a former safety consultant with Shell, went viral with a very public resignation, blasting the polluter over social media for claiming to be part of the solution to climate change while significantly expanding its business in oil and gas.
In an email to Shell executives and more than 1,400 employees, which she shared over LinkedIn, Dennett wrote that in contrast with Shell’s public commitments, the company is knowingly putting the world in grave danger by “not winding down oil and gas, but planning to explore and extract much more.” In an accompanying video and post, Dennett accused the company of “double talk on climate,” and said she could “no longer work for a company that ignores all the alarms and dismisses the risks of climate change and ecological collapse.”
In the wake of BP’s Deepwater Horizon disaster, Shell sought out Dennett’s small business to help conduct surveys to assess the company’s safety culture and operational risks, she said. For 11 years, Shell was her biggest client. Now Dennett is the latest in a growing number of industry insiders to blow the whistle on Big Oil’s deception, and she’s encouraging others to join her if they’re able. Our interview, edited for length and clarity, is below.
EK: How did you reach your own conclusion that Shell was not serious about climate solutions?
CD: Several factors. Shell has upped the rhetoric around being a green company, and that's not what I was seeing. They have bought up some existing renewable companies. That's their renewables portfolio — buying small firms who have already existed for 10 to 25 years, not expanding renewables. On the other side, they are expanding their oil and gas production, they are seeking new licenses, they are doing exploratory drilling, they are building new rigs and pipelines.
Late last year we were working on a very big project in Nigeria doing all of Shell's assets there to measure their process safety. When you're building a construction site for pipeline or extraction, you don't have the same process safety. So they asked us to develop a phase of the survey that would be especially for new construction. You don't do that for one survey.
So that really made me think, wow, you are not winding down here. And then you start looking. If you do dig around on their website, it is all there. And you hear on the news in the U.K. they are lobbying the British government to open up new oil and gas fields.
It is such a shame because Shell has a lot of power. They have political power and influence. They have financial power. They have human resource power and they have massive technological capabilities, and therefore they could be leading the world in this. They could switch tomorrow to putting all their efforts into renewables and they're not, and that is the crying shame. They are wedded to fossil fuels. When they say net zero for 2050, they think they've got until 2050 or 2049 to stop.
I hear no conversations at the front of the line on climate change, or very few, which says to me [Shell is] not talking about it in the operational environment. They’re talking about it probably in the PR department and in the marketing team and in the brand communications team, but they're not talking about it at the front line, and therefore it's not reality. It's not reality unless it's happening on the ground.
All those factors really converged with my increasing awareness of climate change and ecological collapse. I am quite involved in climate advocacy in my own community. So you become ever more aware. Then in April we had the IPCC report, and we got the U.N. saying it's shameful what the fossil fuel industry is doing. And that was the moment where I thought, okay, this is it. I've got to do this.
What would you say to other people working in the fossil fuel industry who are disaffected by what their companies are doing but might question their ability to make a difference? Do you have advice for those who want to speak out publicly?
Find someone to talk to about it outside. There are organizations. Start talking to your colleagues about it. You may be surprised to find that actually other people have doubts. I think depending on the kind of job that they have and where they do that work, again, there are some countries where Shell and the like operate where people genuinely don't have a choice. But I think if it's in places in Europe and North America where people perhaps do have a choice, they can take those skills somewhere else, start looking and think about just making a move.
There are people who do work in the industry that really don't have a choice. People go out to work, they do a hard job. They've got families to feed. It isn't that simple as going to work in a nice squeaky clean office in metropolitan London, and being able to just walk away and get another job. People are stuck, and that’s why we need governments to stop subsidizing. We need the entire financial industry to stop investing in fossil fuels. They're not going to stop on their own. I think the whole industry needs to shift, it's not just individuals. But it does feel like the pressure is mounting. All it would take is for one big economic power of government to end the subsidy, and that would tip it over.
On an individual basis, I would just say to people, reach out. The Truth Teller program here that's been run by Extinction Rebellion is how I came to actually do this. I saw a Shell action video clip in April, and someone was holding up the poster that said “insiders wanted, truthteller.life, come and talk to us.” And that's what I did. And here we are. There are people there who will support. Having been helped myself, I can talk about what my experience has been like.
In testimony before Congress last month, Shell Oil President Gretchen Watkins said the company “is unwavering in its commitment to the energy transition.” How would you respond to that?
Then start now. If you were committed, then doesn't that mean that you'd get on with it? What are they committed to? I think they're committed to doing something years down the line, and this is not the time to back two horses. You have to decide which horse you are backing. It's really that simple. They cannot look to expand new extraction at the same time they say that they're transitioning. That's not a transition by anyone's imagination. It’s nonsense on a whole other scale.
Would you characterize her statement as a lie?
I would totally categorically say that. Because that's not what's happening. That's what they want us to think is happening.
I'm not saying shut down Shell. What I'm saying is take all that power that you have and do something positive with it. They could do it now. And they choose not to, because those at the top are still massively benefiting from what they perceive as a cash cow for providing profits for them. And that's what they're driven by. They're driven by the buck and they don't care about what the consequences are.
Can you talk a bit more about Shell’s decisions from the perspective of a safety expert?
The industry has talked for a number of years about this term called chronic unease. We want people to constantly feel a sense of unease — you need to be constantly looking out for signs that something might go wrong. And when you see a sign, you stop, you talk about it, you mitigate the risk, or you just don't do it. You assume something could go wrong until you're absolutely sure that you've mitigated all of the risks. They don't apply that to climate change.
If there's a chance that we are going to suffer catastrophic impacts of climate change and biodiversity loss, by their own industry standards, they should be saying, let's stop. Let's assess those risks seriously. And we only proceed when we know it's safe to do so.
They are operating beyond the design limits of our planetary systems, and they know that. They’re the people who've created the science around this, and they're ignoring it. So I think that it's intentional then. It must be intentional if you know it, and you ignore it.
By the safety analogy, if you did something that was unsafe deliberately and put people in harm's way, you'd be prosecuted, simple as that. Someone got hurt, you'd be prosecuted and you'd lose your license to operate, and it’d cost you a lot of money. And I think the same thing should be applied [to Shell].
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