According to folklore, if you put your ear against a shell, you can hear the sea. But in the dirty politics of oil extraction, if you put your ear to Shell it is not the soothing crash of the ocean that is audible.

A new report from London-based NGO Platform released this week claims that Shell has been involved in fuelling murderous conflict in Nigeria by knowingly funding militants (a summary of the allegations can be found here). The report claims that Shell’s payments to armed militias were virtually routine and directly contributed to the perpetuation of violence, including one shocking incident that led to the destruction of a town and the deaths of 60 people. So far Shell has been largely dismissive of the Platform allegations.

Shell has long been implicated in the vast environmental disaster associated with oil extraction in the Niger Delta. The scale of the Niger Delta oil catastrophe is staggering — dwarfing the Gulf of Mexico disaster of 2010. In a major new scientific assessment published by the United Nations Environment Program last month, it was suggested that environmental restoration of the damaged area would require the world’s most wide-ranging and long term oil clean-up exercise. Shell has been forced to admit liability for vast oil spills in the region and continues to face new charges of culpability for environmental damage.

Then there are the associated serious human rights abuses.  Most infamously, Shell was alleged to have been implicated in the 1995 killing of writer and campaigner Ken Saro-Wiwa and eight of his colleagues. In June 2009 Shell agreed to settle a case brought against it in relation to the killings, paying $US15.5 million to a newly established community trust fund.  In Shell-speak the payment was a “humanitarian gesture” to “assist the process of reconciliation and peace”. According to Malcolm Brinded, executive director, exploration and production at Shell, it was “time to move on”. But since the settlement, fresh evidence has emerged of the extent of Shell’s complicity with the Nigerian military and of the cynical “crisis management” PR efforts made by the company following Saro-Wiwa’s killing.

Meanwhile, in the un-seasonally sunny United Kingdom, Shell has also been active.  In the aftermath of the English riots, Shell contributed £500 000 to a High Street Fund established to help out small businesses affected by the disturbances (more on this here). And in Aberdeen last week, Shell was prominent as “exhibition sponsor” of the World Conference on Marine Biodiversity.  (In the sort of public relations own goal that seems characteristic of the company lately, apparently obliviously the exhibition boasted a Shell logo next to the statement “Working in Sensitive Areas”).  We can get some idea what the sponsorship deal cost Shell here.

So what’s behind these various payments by Shell? If the gush from corporate boosters is to be believed, it is all from the goodness of the company’s heart. For example, according to an obliging quote provided by the chairman of the High Street Fund for Shell’s media release, in the case of the London riots money, the fossil fuel giant was simply being generous when it had “dug deep to support hard-pressed small companies”.

This sort of schmaltz about the motives of business corporations is, of course, no more than so much play-acting make-believe. Transnational corporations don’t have hearts — they are amoral entities mandated to maximise returns for shareholders. To talk of Shell making a “humanitarian gesture” or acting with “generosity” is absurd, because a corporation is a non-human abstraction that can only spend corporate money when consistent with business strategy to do so.  Shell’s ostensible altruism extends no further than suits the company’s commercial interests.

The singular concern of Shell is the pursuit of fossil fuels as a vehicle for maximising profit. It’s the oil, stupid, and everything else is simply ancillary to that objective. So what’s that you hear if you put your ear next to Shell?  Hint: it is thick, gooey and stinks. After that you can take your pick.

Peter Fray

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