Big Oil’s polluted profits

Profits may be soaring but corporate responsibility is not



The mainstream media reported it rather matter-of-factly, no questions asked: Due to the soaring oil price, the world’s leading energy firms in 2010 recorded sky-rocketing profits. Exxon-Mobil, Chevron and Shell, for example, reported annual profits of $30.5 billion, $19 billion and $18.6billion respectively.

BP would normally also rank among the big rollers, but ended the year with a $4.9 billion loss, as a result of the Gulf of Mexico oil spill. The worst manmade environmental disaster in history could cost the firm a whopping $40 billion. Strangely, even though the event occurred less than a year ago, it seems largely forgotten today.

As BP magically made the oil disappear by sinking it to the ocean floor with the help of thousands of tons of chemical “dispersants,” so the accident vanished from the public eye. See no evil, hear no evil. It just illustrates how the environment remains a non-issue for big corporations and for the media reporting their results.

While the oil firms spend a small fortune on glossy commercials portraying themselves as pioneers in making the world a “greener” place, quite the opposite is true. In fact, only a fraction of their revenue goes toward developing alternative energy sources, while the Center for American Progress Action Fund (CAPAF) last year showed how Big Oil and other special interest groups spent some $500 million dollars lobbying to defeat new United States legislation to promote the use of clean energy.

Meanwhile, nearly all major oil firms have so far invested some$50 billion in exploiting Canada’s tar sands, a mixture of sand, clay and petroleum. Known as the “New Kuwait,” the 3,000 square kilo meter area only a decade ago consisted entirely of a mountainous landscape of lakes and forests, yet today it lies barren, scarred by deep mines and toxic waste ponds.

“This is the dirtiest source of oil anywhere in the world and there are barely any regulations,” researcher Simon Dyer told The Guardian newspaper. Not taking into account the felling of forests and the polluting of water streams, Dyer estimates that the energy needed to extract one barrel of oil from the sands releases three times more greenhouse gasses than producing a barrel of conventional oil. The low-grade oil also needs heavy refining. Never the less, the industry is looking at expansion. Today, some 1.3 million barrels a day are mined, which is set to increase to 5 million barrels a day by2030.

Canada’s tar sands are hardly the only example of Big Oil destroying the environment and trying to get away with it. On February 14, after an 18-year legal marathon, an Ecuadorean court ordered Chevron to pay $9billion in damages for the behavior of its daughter company Texaco, which allegedly dumped 180 billion gallons of untreated wastewater into the jungle during three decades of drilling. Chevron has called the verdict “extortion,” sought and was granted an injunction in US courts and has filed a racketeering law suit against the plaintiffs’ Ecuadorean lawyers.

Another example of malfeasance is Shell’s ongoing presence in Nigeria, which accounts for an estimated 25 percent of the company’s annual revenue. Following decades of drilling, the Niger delta is an environmental disaster zone, while the native Ogoni people living there are penniless. In1994, the Head of Environmental Studies for Shell Nigeria, Bopp van Dessel, resigned because he felt his “professional and personal integrity was at stake.” Two years later he stated on British TV: “It is clear to me that Shell was devastating the area.”

Just how Shell gets away with such behaviour was illustrated in a US embassy cable issued by WikiLeaks, in which Shell’s former Vice-President for sub-Saharan Africa Ann Pickard, boasted “that Shell has seconded people to all relevant ministries [in Nigeria] and consequently had access to everything that was being done in those ministries.”

This list is hardly complete and does not aim to be. The point is that we no longer live at the start of the industrial revolution, when the sky seemed the limit. Today we know that the coin called “progress” has a flipside; it is about time that the media stop mindlessly parroting the end-of-year results and start asking how, where and at what human and environmental cost these profits were made.

PETER SPEETJENS is a Beirut-based journalist



Peter Speetjens

Peter Speetjens is a Dutch journalist & analyst based in Brazil.