Annual Ritual: You Spill Oil, No We Don’t

By Hélène Michaud

The media are full of reports about oil theft in Nigeria, environmental activists are busy launching cool new campaigns to embarrass Shell – it can only mean one thing: it’s almost time for the oil multinational’s annual shareholder meeting.

Dutch environmental organisations and Royal Dutch Shell are used to vying for the public’s attention, but this competition goes into overdrive every year in early May in the run-up to Shell’s annual shareholders meeting which begins today (Tuesday) in The Hague.

Force majeure
The current offensive began with news reports of new cases of oil theft in Nigeria. On 4 May, Shell declared force majeure (meaning they could no longer fulfil production obligations) because of what they called ‘incessant’ oil theft from a major pipeline in the Niger Delta. The Anglo-Dutch oil giant, recently criticised by the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP), Amnesty International for not repairing and cleaning up major oil leaks, reported that they were “working hard to repair the line and resume production as quickly as possible.”

The necessary shutdown for repairs, the company claimed, would cost 60,000 barrels per day of production. This information was then picked up by international, Nigerian and Dutch media. (Shell also garnered considerable media attention in the Netherlands with news about the recent Shell Eco-Marathon in which students worldwide are invited to build energy-efficient vehicles.)

Living with the worst
At the same time, Dutch environmental organisation Friends of the Earth Netherlands launched a new anti-Shell campaign “Worse than Bad” with the catch-line: “Living with Shell is bad and it is getting worse every day. Tell the world.”

The climax of this pre-shareholder meeting campaign came just a week ago with the launch of the sarcastic iPhone app “Live with it”. Presented by an actor impersonating a top Shell executive, it invites viewers to use the app to report oil spills in exchange for rewards points. It is a parody of an official Shell app for iPads, “Inside Energy”.

“Live with it” has attracted over 20,000 views, mostly in the US, Netherlands, UK and Germany. A spokesman for the organisation says the stunt generated a lot of discussion. A Shell spokesman told RNW that the company has no official reaction to the video or its impact.

Sabotage to blame
As in recent annual meetings, Shell is likely to tell its shareholders in The Hague and (by video link) London that the majority of oil spills in Nigeria are due to theft and what it calls “sabotage by third parties”. Top executives are likely to repeat the claim made in an official statement from 14 May: that sabotage and theft were responsible for 73 percent of the total volume of oil spilled from Shell’s operations between 2007 and 2011.

These figures have been consistently questioned by Friends of the Earth Netherlands and they are likely to do so again at this year’s annual shareholder ritual. Outside the meeting’s venue in The Hague, FOE staff were also be on hand to welcome shareholders with ‘fancy’ drinks they say contain pollutants found in the drinking water in the Niger Delta.

Ritual dance continues
Shell’s annual meetings tend to follow a now familiar routine. Company officials report on the past year’s activities and performance; activists use the question period to call for more effective efforts to clean up oil pollution and stop gas-flaring in the Niger Delta.

Shell executives respond as politely as they can and after that it’s back to business as usual – until the next scheduled standoff that will be taking place in a courtroom. Friends of the Earth Netherlands has taken legal action against Shell for causing oil spills it says polluted the land of four Nigerian farmers. The trial is set to resume in The Hague on 11 October.

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