Oil not very slick

Oil companies go out of their way to make themselves seem greedy and irresponsible. Well, maybe not seem greedy and irresponsible – more like prove it.

It’s not as if they are inherently easy to criticise – after all, they may make a lot of mess, but they do it in an industry that a) is inherently messy, and b) makes products (petrol plastics, and so on) we could do without only if we gave up most of the modern world. It’s appalling that Shell’s CO2 emissions exceed those of 150 countries, but it sounds decidedly ‘holier than thou’ to complain about it when there is little evidence that the issue has really been taken to heart by the population as a whole.

So you have to admire their determination to make the worst of a bad job. Here are a few facts reported in today’s Guardian (a leading UK liberal paper):

  • Shell made $25 billion in profits in 2006 – a 21% increase on 2005.
  • They claim “it would be ‘pointless’ to say how much of Shell’s $23 billion capital expenditure is going into renewable energy schemes” (p28-29). CEO Jeroen van der Veer “indicated that the investment in renewables was small, saying it would be ‘throwing money away’ to invest in alternative energy projects that were uncommercial and people could not afford to buy. ‘We have to put more into research and get a value proposition’”
  • Meanwhile, on p.29, a US Government environmental agency has reported that there are still more than 26,ooo gallons of oil from the 1989 Exxon Valdez disaster – the worst single pollution incident in history – in Prince William Sound, Alaska, and the spillage is shrinking by a neglegible 4% each year. Exxon Mobil’s profits last topped $39 billion – the largest of any company, anywhere, ever. According to Exxon Mobil, “there is nothing newsworthy or significant in the report that had not already been addressed… The existence… of oil on two tenths of 1% of the shore of the sound is not a surprise, is not disputed and was fully anticipated”. Yes, and the melting of the Greenland icecaps is fully ‘anticipated’ too, but that doesn’t mean you do nothing. I live next to a small town park, and two tenths of 1% of that would be a very big mess indeed. Perhaps the CEO of Exxon Mobil would be happy if someone covered two tenths of 1% of his home with oil. And that’s only one Exxon’s spills.
  • Meanwhile, the American Enterprise Institute (a conservative think tank) Kenneth P. Green and Stephen F. Hayward “have launched a major project to review and critique the report of the United Nations’ Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change to be issued in 2007” (AEI Annual Report: 10). The AEI, which has received about $1.6 million from Exxon Mobile, was on the Guardian’s front page for be offering $10,000 to scientists to rubbish the IPPC report, which estimates that it is 90% likely that major climate change is being caused by human actions. Not least the results of oil extraction, refining, distribution and use.

We all need to take action on climate change and the amount of oil we use, and that will almost certainly demand serious sacrifice. But companies that make vast profits out of this process bear an equally vast responsibility. If they want to be left alone, they have to act out that responsibly and invest a great deal more of their almost unimaginably huge profits in research – not just to create “value propositions” but to alter the fundamental balance of human beings and the environment.

Perhaps oil executives everywhere need to be reminded of the words of the American millionaire who said that he did not mind that the American public took 50% of his money in tax, given that he got 100% of his money from them.

More of RJ Robinson at http://richardjrobinson.blogspot.com/

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