Memo to Shell: You’re fired

Climate Voices

Memo to Shell: You’re fired

Share on

“I can no longer work for a company that ignores all the alarms and dismisses the risks of climate change and ecological collapse.”

In a LinkedIn post, an open letter to 1,400 Shell employees, Caroline Dennett ended her 11-year working relationship as a safety consultant, publicly and vocally, earlier this year. She claimed the company practiced “double talk” on climate issues. “Shell’s stated safety ambition is to ‘do no harm’ – ‘Goal Zero,’ they call it – and it sounds honorable, but they are completely failing on it.” In a recent exclusive conversation in the TBLI Talks series with Robert Rubinstein, chairman and founder of the TBLI Group, Dennett expanded on her experience in trying to improve safety culture in the oil and gas industry and her frustration with Shell’s lack of action in addressing climate change. The below comments are excerpted from the conversation and lightly edited for clarity – John Howell. See also why Shell is one of the world’s worst offenders of climate predatory delay)

On the 23rd of May, I publicly fired my client, Shell – that’s how I saw it. 

I started working with Shell in 2011, in the aftermath of the Deep Water Horizon Gulf of Mexico disaster. That was BP, but it could have been anyone of the oil and gas players. At that time, Shell was very focused on safety. They really wanted to understand, “how can we prevent such a massive incident from happening to us?” They realized there was a relationship between performance and human behavior. They wanted to understand what was going on at the front line: What cultural things were happening in the workplace that might lead to people making mistakes or taking shortcuts? They wanted a way to assess attitudes, values and behaviors at the front lines.

I thought, “they’re really trying to improve safety,” preventing leaks, explosions and fires, and protecting people. So, I stuck in. 

I knew nothing about the oil and gas industry. At the time, I was running a small research agency as a survey expert in understanding the drives of human behavior. So, Shell asked my company to work with them to create a safety culture survey. They really wanted to know what was happening at the dirty end of their operations. These were employee surveys, not management: people on the rigs, in the plants, on the pipelines. I thought it would just be a pilot survey, but they loved the hard analytics. So, they asked us to carry on indefinitely and globally. 

From day one, I was never really comfortable working with the fossil fuel industry. At the time, it was not so much about climate change and CO2 emissions; it was more about pollution in the Gulf of Mexico and the Niger Delta and the tar sands – dirty places to work. I thought, “they’re really trying to improve safety,” preventing leaks, explosions and fires, and protecting people. So, I stuck in. 

It was a very lovely relationship. The people I have worked with at Shell have been fantastic. But over time, my awareness of climate change and environmental degradation became increasingly acute. This made me continuously evaluate why I was working with the fossil fuel industry. I was starting to see what they were saying about moving to greener energy forms wasn’t actually happening in their business operations – there was very little talk about that. So, I questioned my relationship with them, but I still felt I was doing good: Protecting people from harm by improving safety culture – they took that seriously. 

There were a couple of tipping points. One of them was becoming uber-aware of the increasing climate emergency, what I was seeing in the science, and then being asked to work on new extraction projects. That meant new construction, new drills, new pipelines. Safe transition is one thing, but generating more and more — I realized they were seeking new licenses — so, last year, I realized this would be the last work I could do for Shell. I was so horrified about what they were doing that I thought, “I’m going to [quit] with as much impact as I can.” What I was seeing on the inside was that there was no talk of transition, of real net zero – it’s just business as usual. That’s why on the 23rd of May, I did that very publicly

Shell’s safety ambitions internally are pretty sound, admirable even: To protect people from harm and not harm the environment. That sounds great. But I would say that operations in that industry are inherently unsafe. You can’t want to protect your workers and the environment they work in and then disregard all the risks that your industry is creating for our planet and our livable future. 

You can’t want to protect your workers and the environment they work in and then disregard all the risks that your industry is creating for our planet and our livable future. 

My theory is that they haven’t worked out how to monetize [renewables]. Because once you put in the infrastructure, the raw materials – wind and solar – are free, so how do you make money? They’re used to working with expensive sources – it’s really expensive to get oil and gas out of the ground and refine it. The infrastructure generates investment, then generates profit. After their initial build of infrastructure for renewables, what do they do to make money? I think that’s their big problem. 

Actually, Shell is brilliantly positioned for transition. They’ve got good finances, so they can afford to invest in it themselves. They’ve got skilled people who have worked for years in high-risk environments. And they’ve got loads of investors. They had a great vision in the past for what the future would look like. It’s such a shame that they’re not the pioneers they once were. They’re behaving like dinosaurs now instead of visionaries. 

To that point, I am now working on a very exciting new green tech venture, a game changer in power generation, and I look forward to talking more about that soon.

The “TBLI Talks” series is presented by the TBLI Foundation, serving the global ESG and impact investing communities through conferences, educational services, investor research and tools. Its mission is to increase understanding and awareness of the benefits of a value(s) based financial system and thus help mobilize money flows into ESG and Impact investing to ensure a brighter future. 

Written by

Caroline Dennett

Caroline Dennett is Director of CLOUT LTD and has over 20 years of experience as a researcher and insight consultant. She has gained unique insights into the factors that can make and break positive safety cultures and the role leadership plays in these dynamics and in driving change.